Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery when the imitator does not know he is imitating?
I ask this because I assume that Ross Douthat did not get the idea for his latest column from this blog. Then again, you never know.
Whatever the case, his title, “The Method to Obama’s Middle East Mess” resonates well with my own post about “malign neglect.” In that post I recalled the famous line by Polonius about Hamlet:
If this be madness, yet there is method in it.
I grant that Douthat did not use the method/madness meme. He should have. Saying that there is method in the mess is awkward and clunky. It feels as though he was trying to avoid using the vastly superior Shakespearean phrase.
For my part I think that malign neglect has a nice ring to it. I would add with commenter Jim Sweeney that we need to understand that Obama wanted to be a transformative president. That means, a president who will make lasting and even drastic changes, the kinds of changes for which he will long be remembered.
Unfortunately, you can be long remembered for changing things for the worst. Being transformative does not mean that you are necessarily advancing the public good, or any good for that matter.
For his part, Douthat does not see a method here. He sees an administration that is simply lost. Events exceed its ability to manage them:
This administration has been persistently surprised by Middle East developments, and its self-justifications alternate between the exasperated (why don’t you try it if you’re so smart?) and the delusional (as soon as we get the Iran deal, game changer, baby!).
People who defend Obama’s policy do not call it malign neglect. They call it ”offshore balancing.”
Douthat summarizes it:
In an offshore balancing system, our clients are fewer, and our commitments are reduced. Regional powers bear the primary responsibility for dealing with crises on the ground, our military strategy is oriented toward policing the sea lanes and the skies, and direct intervention is contemplated only when the balance of power is dramatically upset.
One hates to sound pedantic—not that much—but, as concepts go “offshore balancing” is incoherent. It is not as clear and intelligible as the “pax Americana” policy it replaced. And it does not reach the level of coherence enjoyed by the policy of containment.
For people to have confidence in your policy they must understand it. For your staff to implement your policy they must know clearly what it does and does not prescribe.
In a situation where our allies believe that, at best the Obama policy is incoherent and at worst it is trying to shift power in the Middle East toward Iran, they are more likely to start taking action on their own. A ship without a rudder—an image for the current situation—will soon run into trouble.
Those who defend offshore balancing do not seem to be in very close touch with reality, either.
Douthat describes their thinking in terms that suggest that they have no idea of what is going on in that part of the world. It’s embarrassing:
Our withdrawal from Iraq and light-footprint approach to counterterrorism, our strange dance with Bashar al-Assad, our limited intervention against ISIS — they all aim at a more “offshore” approach to the Middle East’s problems. Likewise, the long-sought détente with Iran, which assumes that once the nuclear issue is resolved, Tehran can gradually join Riyadh, Cairo and Tel Aviv in a multipolar order.
So offshoring American power and hoping that Iran, Iran’s Sunni neighbors and Israel will find some kind of balance on their own will probably increase the risk of arms races, cross-border invasions and full-scale regional war. The conflicts we have now are ugly enough, but absent the restraint still imposed by American military dominance, it’s easy to imagine something worse.
Douthat suggests one reason it cannot work. Led by Barack Obama America does not even know who or what it is:
… it’s very hard for a hegemon to simply sidle offstage, shedding expectations and leaving allies in the lurch. And when you’re still effectively involved everywhere, trying to tip the balance of power this way and that with occasional airstrikes, it’s easy to end up in a contradictory, six-degrees-of-enmity scenario, with no clear goal in mind.
The result, by Douthat’s reasoning. The administration is hellbent on getting us out of the Middle East, regardless of the consequences. One suspects that in this as in many other areas Obama is running out the clock.
His motto should be:
Après moi, le deluge.
[Note for those who care about such things. The French phrase comes to us from Louis XV. The French king's most famous mistress was one Madame de Pompadour. Yesterday I participated in a discussion with three friends-- Mikkel Borch-Jacobson, Jacques van Rillaer and Jean-Pierre Ledru... led by Sophie Robert... about why we all took our leave from psychoanalysis. The discussion, which was filmed, took place in the antechamber that used to belong to Madame de Pompadour. It warms your heart, doesn't it?]