How Obama’s grand strategy for MidEast failed
By Walter Russell Mead, Wall Street Journal
August 24, 2013
In the beginning, the Hebrew Bible tells us, the universe was all “tohu wabohu,” chaos and tumult. This month the Middle East seems to be reverting to that primeval state: Iraq continues to unravel, the Syrian War grinds on with violence spreading to Lebanon and allegations of chemical attacks this week, and Egypt stands on the brink of civil war with the generals crushing the Muslim Brotherhood and street mobs torching churches. Turkey’s prime minister, once widely hailed as President Obama’s best friend in the region, blames Egypt’s violence on the Jews; pretty much everyone else blames it on the U.S.
The Obama administration had a grand strategy in the Middle East. It was well intentioned, carefully crafted and consistently pursued.
Unfortunately, it failed.
The plan was simple but elegant: The U.S. would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey’s AK Party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic. This would kill three birds with one stone. First, by aligning itself with these parties, the Obama administration would narrow the gap between the ‘moderate middle’ of the Muslim world and the U.S. Second, by showing Muslims that peaceful, moderate parties could achieve beneficial results, it would isolate the terrorists and radicals, further marginalizing them in the Islamic world. Finally, these groups with American support could bring democracy to more Middle Eastern countries, leading to improved economic and social conditions, gradually eradicating the ills and grievances that drove some people to fanatical and terroristic groups.
President Obama (whom I voted for in 2008) and his team hoped that the success of the new grand strategy would demonstrate once and for all that liberal Democrats were capable stewards of American foreign policy. The bad memories of the Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter presidencies would at last be laid to rest; with the public still unhappy with George W. Bush’s foreign policy troubles, Democrats would enjoy a long-term advantage as the party most trusted by voters to steer the country through stormy times.
It is much too early to anticipate history’s verdict on the Obama administration’s foreign policy; the president has 41 months left in his term, and that is more than enough for the picture in the Middle East to change drastically once again. Nevertheless, to get a better outcome, the president will have to change his approach.
With the advantages of hindsight, it appears that the White House made five big miscalculations about the Middle East.
It misread the political maturity and capability of the Islamist groups it supported;
it misread the political situation in Egypt;
it misread the impact of its strategy on relations with America’s two most important regional allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia);
it failed to grasp the new dynamics of terrorist movements in the region;
and it underestimated the costs of inaction in Syria.
America’s Middle East policy in the past few years depended on the belief that relatively moderate Islamist political movements in the region had the political maturity and administrative capability to run governments wisely and well. That proved to be half-true in the case of Turkey’s AK Party: Until fairly recently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whatever mistakes he might make, seemed to be governing Turkey in a reasonably effective and reasonably democratic way. But over time, the bloom is off that rose. Mr. Erdogan’s government has arrested journalists, supported dubious prosecutions against political enemies, threatened hostile media outlets and cracked down crudely on protesters. Prominent members of the party leadership look increasingly unhinged, blaming Jews, telekinesis and other mysterious forces for the growing troubles it faces.
Things have reached such a pass that the man President Obama once listed as one of his five best friends among world leaders and praised as “an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend on a wide range of issues” is now being condemned by the U.S. government for “offensive” anti-Semitic charges that Israel was behind the overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi.
Compared with Mr. Morsi, however, Mr. Erdogan is a Bismarck of effective governance and smart policy. Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were quite simply not ready for prime time; they failed to understand the limits of their mandate, fumbled incompetently with a crumbling economy and governed so ineptly and erratically that tens of millions of Egyptians cheered on the bloody coup that threw them out.
Tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists and incompetent bumblers make a poor foundation for American grand strategy. We would have done business with the leaders of Turkey and Egypt under almost any circumstances, but to align ourselves with these movements hasn’t turned out to be wise.
The White House, along with much of the rest of the American foreign policy world, made another key error in the Middle East: It fundamentally misread the nature of the political upheaval in Egypt. Just as Thomas Jefferson mistook the French Revolution for a liberal democratic movement like the American Revolution, so Washington thought that what was happening in Egypt was a “transition to democracy.” That was never in the cards.
What happened in Egypt was that the military came to believe that an aging President Hosni Mubarak was attempting to engineer the succession of his son, turning Egypt from a military republic to a dynastic state. The generals fought back; when unrest surged, the military stood back and let Mr. Mubarak fall. The military, incomparably more powerful than either the twittering liberals or the bumbling Brotherhood, has now acted to restore the form of government Egypt has had since the 1950s. Now most of the liberals seem to understand that only the military can protect them from the Islamists, and the Islamists are learning that the military is still in charge. During these events, the Americans and Europeans kept themselves endlessly busy and entertained trying to promote a nonexistent democratic transition.
The next problem is that the Obama administration misread the impact that its chosen strategies would have on relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia—and underestimated just how miserable those two countries can make America’s life in the Middle East if they are sufficiently annoyed.
The break with Israel came early. In those unforgettable early days when President Obama was being hailed by the press as a new Lincoln and Roosevelt, the White House believed that it could force Israel to declare a total settlement freeze to restart negotiations with the Palestinians. The resulting flop was President Obama’s first big public failure in foreign policy. It would not be the last. (For the past couple of years, the administration has been working to repair relations with the Israelis; as one result, the peace talks that could have started in 2009 with better U.S. management are now under way.)
The breach with Saudis came later and this one also seems to have caught the White House by surprise. By aligning itself with Turkey and Mr. Morsi’s Egypt, the White House was undercutting Saudi policy in the region and siding with Qatar’s attempt to seize the diplomatic initiative from its larger neighbor.
Many Americans don’t understand just how much the Saudis dislike the Brotherhood and the Islamists in Turkey. Not all Islamists are in accord; the Saudis have long considered the Muslim Brotherhood a dangerous rival in the world of Sunni Islam. Prime Minister Erdogan’s obvious hunger to revive Turkey’s glorious Ottoman days when the center of Sunni Islam was in Istanbul is a direct threat to Saudi primacy. That Qatar and its Al Jazeera press poodle enthusiastically backed the Turks and the Egyptians with money, diplomacy and publicity only angered the Saudis more. With America backing this axis—while also failing to heed Saudi warnings about Iran and Syria—Riyadh wanted to undercut rather than support American diplomacy. An alliance with the Egyptian military against Mr. Morsi’s weakening government provided an irresistible opportunity to knock Qatar, the Brotherhood, the Turks and the Americans back on their heels.
The fourth problem is that the administration seems to have underestimated the vitality and adaptability of the loose group of terrorist movements and cells. The death of Osama bin Laden was a significant victory, but the effective suppression of the central al Qaeda organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan was anything but a knockout blow. Today a resurgent terrorist movement can point to significant achievements in the Libya-Mali theater, in northern Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. The closure of 20 American diplomatic facilities this month was a major moral victory for the terrorists, demonstrating that they retain the capacity to affect American behavior in a major way. Recruiting is easier, morale is higher, and funding is easier to get for our enemies than President Obama once hoped.
Finally, the administration, rightfully concerned about the costs of intervention in Syria, failed to grasp early enough just how much it would cost to stay out of this ugly situation. As the war has dragged on, the humanitarian toll has grown to obscene proportions (far worse than anything that would have happened in Libya without intervention), communal and sectarian hatreds have become poisonous almost ensuring more bloodletting and ethnic and religious cleansing, and instability has spread from Syria into Iraq, Lebanon and even Turkey. All of these problems grow worse the longer the war goes on—but it is becoming harder and costlier almost day by day to intervene.
But beyond these problems, the failure to intervene early in Syria (when “leading from behind” might well have worked) has handed important victories to both the terrorists and the Russia-Iran axis, and has seriously eroded the Obama administration’s standing with important allies. Russia and Iran backed Bashar al-Assad; the president called for his overthrow—and failed to achieve it. To hardened realists in Middle Eastern capitals, this is conclusive proof that the American president is irredeemably weak. His failure to seize the opportunity for what the Russians and Iranians fear would have been an easy win in Syria cannot be explained by them in any other way.
This is dangerous. Just as Nikita Khrushchev concluded that President Kennedy was weak and incompetent after the Bay of Pigs failure and the botched Vienna summit, and then proceeded to test the American president from Cuba to Berlin, so President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei now believe they are dealing with a dithering and indecisive American leader, and are calibrating their policies accordingly. Khrushchev was wrong about Kennedy, and President Obama’s enemies are also underestimating him, but those underestimates can create dangerous crises before they are corrected.
If American policy in Syria has been a boon to the Russians and Iranians, it has been a godsend to the terrorists. The prolongation of the war has allowed terrorist and radical groups to establish themselves as leaders in the Sunni fight against the Shiite enemy. A reputation badly tarnished by both their atrocities and their defeat in Iraq has been polished and enhanced by what is seen as their courage and idealism in Syria. The financial links between wealthy sources in the Gulf and jihadi fighter groups, largely sundered in the last 10 years, have been rebuilt and strengthened. Thousands of radicals are being trained and indoctrinated, to return later to their home countries with new skills, new ideas and new contacts. This development in Syria looks much more dangerous than the development of the original mujahedeen in Afghanistan; Afghanistan is a remote and (most Middle Easterners believe) a barbarous place. Syria is in the heart of the region and the jihadi spillover threatens to be catastrophic.
One of the interesting elements of the current situation is that while American foreign policy has encountered one setback after another in the region, America’s three most important historical partners—Egypt’s military, Saudi Arabia and Israel—have all done pretty well and each has bested the U.S. when policies diverged.
Alliances play a large role in America’s foreign policy success; tending the Middle Eastern alliances now in disarray may be the Obama administration’s best hope now to regain its footing.
As the Obama administration struggles to regain its footing in this volatile region, it needs to absorb the lessons of the past 4½ years. First, allies matter. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian military have been America’s most important regional allies both because they share strategic interests and because they are effective actors in a way that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller states aren’t. If these three forces are working with you, then things often go reasonably well. If one or more of them is trying to undercut you, pain comes. The Obama administration undertook the hard work necessary to rebuild its relationship with Israel; it needs to devote more attention to the concerns of the Egyptian generals and the House of Saud. Such relationships don’t mean abandoning core American values; rather they recognize the limits on American power and seek to add allies where our own unaided efforts cannot succeed.
Second, the struggle against terror is going to be harder than we hoped. Our enemies have scattered and multiplied, and the violent jihadi current has renewed its appeal. In the Arab world, in parts of Africa, in Europe and in the U.S., a constellation of revitalized and inventive movements now seeks to wreak havoc. It is delusional to believe that we can eliminate this problem by eliminating poverty, underdevelopment, dictatorship or any other “root causes” of the problem; we cannot eliminate them in a policy-relevant time frame. An ugly fight lies ahead. Instead of minimizing the terror threat in hopes of calming the public, the president must prepare public opinion for a long-term struggle.
Third, the focus must now return to Iran. Concern with Iran’s growing power is the thread that unites Israel and Saudi Arabia. Developing and moving on an Iran strategy that both Saudis and Israelis can support will help President Obama rebuild America’s position in the shifting sands. That is likely to mean a much tougher policy on Syria. Drawing red lines in the sand and stepping back when they are crossed won’t rebuild confidence.
President Obama now faces a moment similar to the one President Carter faced when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The assumptions that shaped key elements of his foreign policy have not held up; times have changed radically and policy must shift. The president is a talented leader; the world will be watching what he does.
Mr. Mead is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and editor-at-large of the American Interest.