Grand Strategy in the Age of Mass Destruction

Obama's Middle East Policy

By J.R. Nyquist


Yesterday, at the State Dept., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced the president before a gathering of officials. “Mr. President,” Hillary began, “it is fitting that you have chosen to come here to the State Department to speak about the dramatic changes we have witnessed this year.” She was referring, of course, to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as the ongoing struggles in other Arab countries. The president stood up and thanked Clinton for her work. Obama then explained how he sees the Middle East.

For six months we have witnessed extraordinary change,” noted the President. “The people have risen up to demand their basic human rights. Two leaders have stepped aside. More may follow.” In other words, America’s wars in the Muslim world are bearing fruit. Not only is the democratic faith taking hold, but the tyrants who support terrorism are losing ground. According to the president, we have dealt a “huge blow” to al Qaeda with the killing of its leader. “He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims,” said the president. This is a path that does not offer the people of the Middle East a better life. Obama went on to describe the tragic suicide death of a Tunisian whose car was taken from him by the police. “Hundreds of protestors took to the streets…. In the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home, until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power. The story of this revolution and the ones that followed should not have come as a surprise. The nations of the Middle East won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not…. In too many countries power is concentrated in the hands of a few.”

The president spoke to the “lack of personal self determination” for individuals in the Middle East. He spoke, as well, of the corruption of Arab governments. “Too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere,” he explained. “The West was blamed as the source of all ills a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression…. [S]trategies of repression and diversion will not work anymore.” The technology of the Internet, mass media and rapid communications have put dictatorship at a disadvantage. People want freedom, said the president. “The people of the region have achieved more change in six months than the terrorists have accomplished in decades. Of course, change on this magnitude does not come easy.”

President Obama then asked what role America should play as this story unfolds. He then listed several U.S. objectives in the region: (1) Countering terrorism; (2) stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; (3) securing the free flow of commerce; (4) safeguarding the security of the region; (5) standing up for Israel’s security; (6) working for Arab-Israeli peace. (Given the president’s subsequent remarks, standing up for Israel’s security seems to indicate an American guarantee for Israel’s security in the event of making concessions in favor of peace.)

“We will not tolerate aggression across borders,” said Obama. And furthermore, we have to dispel the suspicion that our country supports corrupt dictators. We must draw closer to the Arab world. We must not allow ourselves to be divided from the Arab World. The president said: “And that’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. I believed then, and I believe now, that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations but in the self determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable. Societies held together by fear and oppression … are built along fault lines that will eventually tear asunder. So we face a historic opportunity….”

The president sees revolutions sweeping the Middle East. It does not occur to him that the Arab masses have been indoctrinated to hate America and Jews. How do the revolutionaries of the Arab world feel about us? This would be important to establish. Yet, the president assumes a benign attitude on the part of the revolutionaries. He says they are sticking up for “individual rights” and “individual dignity.” Perhaps he has information the rest of us do not have. Perhaps his positive interpretation is based upon nothing more than wishful thinking. The best clue as to the logic behind the president’s reasoning is found in the following remark: “After decades of accepting the world as it is … we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.”

The president uses the word “pursue,” as if freedom can be chased down. We might ask what does this “pursuit” of liberty entails? “Our support must extend to nations where transitions are yet to take place,” said Obama, referring to Libya. “We cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people. We have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force, no matter how well intentioned it may be. But in Libya we saw the prospect of imminent massacre. We had a mandate for action and heard the Libyan people’s call for help. Had we not acted … thousands would have been killed.”

Caught up in the events of the Middle East, President Obama has moved fairly close to the position of George W. Bush; for it was President Bush who proposed bringing democracy to the Middle East. It was President Bush who said that American security, and American freedom, was inexorably tied to the struggle for freedom in the Middle East. Here the moralizing language of Abraham Lincoln, so readily adopted by U.S. Presidents in wartime, is used in discussing the Muslim world. We use our weapons, spill our blood and spend our treasure so that Muslims can be free. Could it be that President Obama, as a Democrat, follows Bush’s policy of bringing freedom to the Muslim world? Obama talked of when Libya becomes a democracy. Then he laid into the Syrian regime, accusing it of following “the path of murder.”

President Obama’s speech suggested that dictatorships are evil, and the crimes they commit warrant intervention when thousands of lives are at stake. One cannot help seeing the influence of presidents Reagan and Bush upon Obama’s Middle East policy. It was not, previously, the rhetoric of Obama’s political party. Some observers will wonder whether the president is remaking his image for next year’s re-election campaign. And yet, there is a remarkable feeling of continuity given in the speech; that is to say, continuity between the Bush administration and the Obama administration. With regard to this former friends and supporters of the president (on the Left) have turned against him, damning him as an agent of imperialism. This is very interesting, and begs us to think carefully about what we are observing.

The president appears passionate about freedom in the Middle East. “In Iraq,” noted Obama, “we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their security…. Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress.”

Is it possible? Am I imagining all this? Has there been a victory in Iraq? Have the long years of struggle in the Middle East resulted in a great harvest for freedom? This would be truly amazing, if true; and we should hope for the best. If humanity could turn the corner now, and move toward the light of freedom, all may be well. But one might ask how often things “turn out well.” It is inspiring to hear our presidents speak of peace and freedom. Yet we should ask whether this way of talking is realistic where Muslim countries are concerned.

The thing that caught everyone by surprise, of course, was the president’s suggestion that Israel should withdrawal to its 1967 borders. I do not think he intended to insult Israel’s government. He was not trying to push Israel into a bad deal. All the same, an unrealistic proposal of this type negates the president’s good intentions by frightening our Israeli friends. The president’s view of the Arab world is much too rosy. Individual dignity is not guaranteed by mere street protests, or civil war. Even in Iraq, the work was accomplished at an enormous cost and may be undone in a very short time.

Of course, what choice does the president have? He cannot talk in a pessimistic way; that is to say, a realistic way. Such talk would alienate the Muslim world. Too much has now been invested. Too much is at stake. Undoubtedly, the U.S. could pull out and detach itself from the troubles of the region – leaving a job half-finished and the Middle East worse than it was when we began to interfere. One might say that we are more stuck than ever, and President Obama’s speech demonstrates this point.