A Middle East Policy in Shambles

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

Almost every promise, almost every reset proclamation from Barack Obama about the struggles against, and those within, the radical Muslim world has either been withdrawn or proven bankrupt.

On the day the president announced his reelection bid, his administration renounced its loud promises to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in a New York civilian court. While blaming Congress for the flipflop, Team Obama conceded that it had no public support for such a sensational courtroom drama — and knew that the trial of the mastermind of 9/11, a few blocks from the site of his mass murdering, might have endangered the president’s reelection.

Consider the rest of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, all of which Senator Obama demagogued and promised to overturn, or at least curtail, if he was elected president. Yet Obama has now embraced military tribunals, kept Guantanamo open (and will probably put new prisoners in it), left the Patriot Act largely untouched, vastly expanded the Predator targeted-assassination program, continued renditions, declared preventive detention and the suspension of habeas corpus legal and necessary in the case of terrorists, surged in Afghanistan, and kept to the Bush-Petraeus-Maliki agreements on scheduled troop withdrawals from Iraq. President Obama assumes two facts: Such policies are critical in keeping us safe; and they can be embraced without worry over demagogic attacks by the likes of Senator Obama.

Candidate Obama’s campaign opposition to all of the above, except the war in Afghanistan, weakened American credibility at a critical juncture in the war in Iraq, and helped propel him to victory over Hillary Clinton as a more passionate and leftward critic of George Bush. That he has now simply copied Bush’s anti-terrorism agenda, gussied it up with some ridiculous euphemisms, and banned descriptive terms like “war on terror” and “radical Islam” exposes him as hypocritical, naïve, and weak. Hypocritical: If these measures were bad in 2008, why are they good in 2011? Naïve: Did Obama really believe that campaign rhetoric was synonymous with the responsibility of governance? Weak: Why boast about ending Bush’s protocols only to give up on repealing them at the first sign of political pushback?

For most of 2009–2011 the two countries receiving most of Obama’s rhetorical distaste were democratic Israel and democratic Iraq — the region’s only constitutional states. The former is often portrayed as a rogue aggressor at the heart of all unrest among hundreds of millions of Muslims in the Middle East, the latter, a mistake not worth the cost of its founding in American blood and treasure. Yet despite all the Obama administration’s outreach to the region’s autocracies, only Israel and Iraq have largely avoided mass demonstrations calling for transparent and representative government. Arabs are killing each other from Syria to Libya, from Bahrain to Tunisia, without much worry over the ethnic makeup of the Jerusalem suburbs.

Almost immediately upon taking office, Barack Obama made two controversial moves in reaching out to Iran and Syria. He gave serial deadlines to Iran to cease its effort to acquire nuclear weapons (stop it by the UN summit in New York, stop it by the G-20 summit, stop it by the preliminary meetings of envoys). All were ignored. Obama turned his back on a million protesters in the streets of Tehran, with bizarre promises not to “meddle,” coupled with vague apologies about American behavior more than a half-century ago. A golden opportunity to help topple a vicious anti-American theocracy was turned into a buffoonish effort to appear multiculturally sensitive.

Over the last thirty years, every administration has sought to woo the Assad family dictatorship — and all have failed, some, like the Clinton diplomatic team, in humiliating fashion. Syria has one goal: to reclaim from Israel the strategically important Golan Heights without giving up its various agendas of destroying an independent Lebanon, aiding anti-Israeli terrorists, and stockpiling a vast arsenal in preparation for the next Middle East war. For only a brief moment in the last three decades was it willing to engage the United States: in the spring of 2003, when the brilliant three-week victory over Saddam Hussein left Bashar Assad worried that he might share a similar fate. The chances of normalizing relations with Syria are near zero — given that it is a terrorist state, with assassination and the sponsorship of Hezbollah embraced as national policy. Obama’s unusually persistent outreach to Damascus has proven, like Clinton’s, to be a humiliating failure — emphasized most recently when, in the midst of violent demonstrations against Assad’s authoritarian rule, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that Assad had been considered a “reformer.” We are in the surreal position of reaching out to the Syrian autocracy with new initiatives at the very time Syrians are trying to overthrow it.

As for Afghanistan, the newly inaugurated President Obama avoided meeting with the senior American general there for months. He simultaneously sent in thousands of additional troops while setting specific withdrawal dates. Commander-in-Chief Obama is now on his third ground commander, after one removal and one resignation. Those assigned responsibility for the war since 2009 — former national security advisor Gen. James Jones, Amb. Richard Holbrooke, former CentCom commander Gen. David Petraeus, and Amb. Karl Eikenberry — have fought with each other at times over spheres of influence. Jones is now retired, and Holbrooke is deceased.

We have intervened in Libya on “humanitarian grounds,” but have not argued that more were likely to die in Libya than in the Ivory Coast or the Congo. We wish to help the “rebels,” but we do not know who or what they are. Apparently we came to their aid simply because they seemed both likable and Westernized on CNN and because for a moment they seemed likely to win and remove Qaddafi — and on the initiative of the Europeans, who have sizable oil interests in Libya. The president has both demanded that Qaddafi leave and asserted that regime change is not our aim; he has both promised to enforce a no-fly zone only and often gone beyond such patrolling by bombing ground targets and inserting American agents. He has sought the sanction of the UN and the Arab League, and then de facto ignored their resolutions by occasionally calling for regime change and bombing Qaddafi’s bunkers, while not asking Congress for similar authorization to intervene. We are told Qaddafi is doing terrible things (and he is), but we were also told up until a few weeks ago that he was in diplomatic rehab and was now more an ally than a mad-dog enemy.

Then, after two weeks of confused “kinetic military action,” the United States abruptly quit fighting and outsourced further direct military operations to European NATO members — apparently in the hope that either the Europeans or the rebels can oust Qaddafi. In any case, Libya may be the first war in American history in which the United States directly attacked another nation-state, in an act of war, then abruptly quit the preemptive assault with the enemy still very much in power. If Qaddafi survives, do we say we’re sorry, pay reparations, take in rebel refugees, patrol a protected enclave for years, bisect the country, or play golf and let the Europeans deal with the mess?

The Obama administration, in finger-in-the-wind fashion, urged pro-American authoritarians in Egypt and Tunisia to leave — but only belatedly and only when it appeared that the protesters would probably win. In the aftermath, the Obama administration still has little notion who the successors will be, or what their agenda is, or whether they will be better than what they replaced. Most likely, the United States now suffers the worst of both worlds: looking weak and opportunistic in withdrawing support from former American allies, while not receiving much credit from the protesters because of the absence of early principled support. If the Muslim Brotherhood assumes de facto power in Egypt, opens another front against Israel, and serves as the Sunni bookend to Shiite theocratic Iran, then we may witness the worst geopolitical calamity since the fall of pro-American Iran, or indeed the Communist takeover of China.

In fact, the entire American response to unrest in the Muslim world is ad hoc, reactionary, and often contradictory — apparently favoring government repression of rebels in the Gulf while intervening to stop such crackdowns in Libya but not elsewhere; pressuring pro-American tyrants in Tunisia and Egypt, while carefully not antagonizing anti-American tyrants in Iran and Syria; declaring support for human rights and transparency in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, while ignoring these values altogether in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. In eerie fashion, the less the Obama administration seems to know about the complexities of the serial unrest, the more it jumps in with blunderbuss sermonizing. We treat restraint from our allies with contempt, and excess from our enemies with an odd sort of deference. One sees the Carter world of 1979 and awaits only the oil crisis — and then shrugs that $5-a-gallon gas may be on the way to finish the parallel.

While Obama, the anti-war Nobel Peace laureate, was inaugurating a new war in the Middle East — simultaneously with not one but two other conflicts — back on the home front, the US is running a $1.6 trillion budget deficit. Politically, Obama has retrospectively exposed the anti-war movement between 2003 and 2009 as partisan rather than principled. The Left is now as quiet about Barack Obama’s preemptive war without congressional approval — against an Arab Muslim oil-exporting nation run by a madman who was at the time being courted by intellectuals, academics, and sympathetic American politicians — as it was not long ago incensed about George Bush’s preemptive war with congressional approval — against an Arab Muslim oil-exporting nation run by a madman who was at the time ostracized by the world and condemned by several UN resolutions.

No one knows what the Middle East will look like in two years. We know only that Barack Obama seems to be scrambling to adopt many of the policies of his predecessor against whom he used to define his own entire reset diplomacy. And yet when he is not copying his predecessor, the ensuing chaos earns him a far worse charge than hypocrisy.

©2011 Victor Davis Hanson

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