Thursday, October 24, 2013

Obamafail in the Middle East

There’s more to the Obama presidency than Obamacare. While the president’s signature program twists in the wind and while the Republicans are actively damaging themselves, the world continues to turn.

Today, three seasoned foreign policy experts, David Ignatius, Fouad Ajami and Leslie Gelb want us to examine to the Obama administration’s calamitous Middle Eastern foreign policy.

Such issues are lacking in visible drama, so they never really make the evening news. Yet, it is best to pay heed before they become worse.

Last week Saudi Arabia declined a place on the United Nations Security Council and declared that it was sending a message to the United States. The Saudis have long been displeased by the Obama foreign policy in the region. Now they are putting their displeasure on the world diplomatic stage.

David Ignatius described how the relationship soured when America turned against Hosni Mubarak during the so-called Arab Spring. Saudi displeasure was noted at the time, but the administration did not feel a need to do very much about it. Further administration actions confirmed Saudi suspicions:

Writing in the Washington Post Ignatius said:

The bad feeling that developed after Mubarak’s ouster deepened month by month: The U.S. supported Morsi’s election as president; opposed a crackdown by the monarchy in Bahrain against Shiites protesters; cut aid to the Egyptian military after it toppled Morsi and crushed the Brotherhood; promised covert aid to the Syrian rebels it never delivered; threatened to bomb Syria and then allied with Russia, instead; and finally embarked on a diplomatic opening to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s deadly rival in the Gulf.

Ignatius explained that the concern is not just coming from Riyadh:

What should worry the Obama administration is that Saudi concern about U.S. policy in the Middle East is shared by the four other traditional U.S. allies in the region: Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. They argue (mostly privately) that Obama has shredded U.S. influence by dumping President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, backing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, opposing the coup that toppled Morsi, vacillating in its Syria policy, and now embarking on negotiations with Iran — all without consulting close Arab allies.

It’s a portrait of a dangerous incompetence.

Fouad Ajami also sounded a cautionary note in the Wall Street Journal. He noted that Saudi Arabia and other states in the region are frightened by Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Iran. For them, and for Ajami, the problem dates to before the Arab Spring. It began with the administration’s failure to support the 2009 Democracy protests in Iran.

In Ajami’s words:

The promised "opening" to Iran, the pass given to Bashar Assad's tyranny in Syria, the abdication of the American gains in Iraq and a reflexive unease with Israel—these were hallmarks of the new president's approach to foreign policy.

Now we are simply witnessing the alarming consequences of such a misguided, naïve outlook.

When antiregime protests roiled Iran in Mr. Obama's first summer as president, he stood locked in the vacuum of his own ideas. He remained aloof as the Green Movement defied prohibitive odds to challenge the theocracy. The protesters had no friend in Mr. Obama. He was dismissive, vainly hoping that the cruel rulers would accept the olive branch he had extended to them.

No one asked the fledgling American president to dispatch U.S. forces into the streets of Tehran, but the indifference he displayed to the cause of Iranian freedom was a strategic and moral failure.

For remaining silent and allowing the mullahs to crush the protesters, Obama received exactly nothing. Ajami described an administration whose own misguided ideas are blinding it to the realities on the ground:

The gullibility of Mr. Obama's pursuit of an opening with Iran has unsettled America's allies in the region. In Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates there is a powerful feeling of abandonment. In Israel, there is the bitter realization that America's strongest ally in region is now made to look like the final holdout against a blissful era of compromise that will calm a turbulent region. A sound U.S. diplomatic course with Iran would never have run so far ahead of Israel's interests and of the region's moderate anti-Iranian Arab coalition.
Leslie Gelb also sounded a note of alarm in The Daily Beast. While he left open the possibility that Prince Bandar was sending a wake-up call to the administration, he agreed that we are watching a major foreign policy failure:

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Intelligence Chief, told European diplomats that Saudi Arabia would make a “major shift” in policy away from the United States. This bombshell was leaked by an unnamed source. Still, it should have triggered eruptions in Washington. After all, the mighty oil rich Kingdom and investor in the American economy has been a mainstay of U.S. policy in the Mideast for over half a century. So, why the silence?

Where Ajami saw the administration following its own basic, though misguided and naïve principles, Gelb suggested that the nations in the region are looking away from America because they see Obama’s policy as incoherent.

In Gelb’s words:

Neither the Saudis nor other Arab states (nor, in fact, Israel) understand Obama’s Mideast policy—and that’s the heart of the problem. That’s what is truly spooking them. Obama and his minions have been all over the lot. Arab leaders were, frankly, shocked that Obama had far more contact with Mohamed Morsi, the recently-overthrown Muslim Brotherhood President of Egypt, than Obama had with any other Arab leaders. They were happy when Washington ousted Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, and then unnerved when Washington simply walked away from the resulting chaos and extremism. And they certainly have not been reassured by what Washington has been telling them about its talks with Iran. For Secretary of State Kerry and others to simply say that the U.S. won’t make any agreement with Iran that endangers America’s allies in the region sounds to them like blowing hot air. Arab leaders have no idea where Obama administration leaders think they are going in relations with Tehran.

Unfortunately, Gelb sees the failure as endemic to the Obama administration approach to foreign policy:

The absence of an Obama strategy in the Mideast, and indeed in other parts of the world, is truly nothing new. This U.S. President has not had a clear and compelling strategy on most international issues and regions, in the opinion of most foreign leaders. The White House can and does deny this, but it will continue to be so at its own peril and the peril of the United States. Obama has got to provide a compelling overview for what he is trying to do throughout this explosive region of the world. Prince Bandar’s leak—and the hundreds of conversations along similar lines—reflect two facts: Arab leaders are spooked by U.S. indecision and lack of clarity, and they are trying to spook America into getting its act together.

Ignatius, Ajami and Gelb are simultaneously drawing out attention to events that everyone is ignoring. We do well to pay heed.

1 comment:

Sam L. said...

Concur with Gelb. If (IF!) there really is a policy, it's either bad or badly implemented, or both. On the other hand, Benghazi Barry does want the US to be unexceptional, so this could be a part of that.