Reuters reported Thursday that the challenges in the Middle East over the past week represent a “perfect storm” of problems for President Obama.
An eruption of violent unrest across the Middle East is confronting President Barack Obama with the most serious challenge yet to his efforts to keep the Arab Spring from morphing into a new wave of anti-Americanism – and he has few good options to prevent it.
Less than two months before the U.S. presidential election, a spate of attacks on embassies in Libya, Egypt and Yemen poses a huge dilemma for a U.S. leader who took office promising a “new beginning” with the Muslim world but has struggled to manage the transformation that has swept away many of the region’s long-ruling dictators.
Perhaps a “new beginning” wasn’t what was needed in the region after all. Perhaps instead an unequivocal message of America’s willingness to protect itself is what’s needed. We’ll talk, sure, but we’ll also stand up for ourselves. Warning: naked cartoon Obama below the fold.
Hillary Clinton’s disbelief at events in Libya demonstrate the depth of philosophical challenge this crisis presents for the Obama Middle East policy. She said:
Today many Americans are asking, indeed I asked myself, “How could this happen? How could this happen in a country we helped liberate? In a city we helped save from destruction?”
Yes, when you do so much for a country, how could some of its citizens ever turn on you? Perhaps the issue this administration faces is its honorable, if incorrect, view that dialog can solve any problem. Not everyone likes us, and some may never be convinced to like us. And taking a conciliatory tone, or failing to project strength at the wrong moment, can put American lives in danger. Once again I am reminded of President Reagan’s statement “it isn’t that liberals are ignorant, it’s just that what they know is wrong.”
For example, it does not seem to be a stretch to expect possible attacks on US facilities located in troubled Middle East countries on the 11th anniversary of 9/11. Like President Obama and Secretary Clinton, all reasonable Americans hope there will never be attacks on the people of the United States, but dreaming that world exists today appears to have resulted in a failure to prepare that was somewhere between negligent and reckless. Breitbart reported that in an interview yesterday Colonel David Hunt laid much of the blame for failure to prepare at the feet of the administration, and Secretary Clinton in particular:
According to Hunt, the debacle at the American mission in Benghazi is directly the result of Obama’s new policies. “The policy of the Obama administration led to this,” he said.
“It was the policy of the Obama administration to have a low profile in Libya. That’s why the rules of engagement were approved by the Secretary of State to have no Marines at Benghazi, and to have an American contractor hire Libyan nationals to provide security there. The rules were they couldn’t have ammunition.”
“Obama may not have known the details of the State Department Rules of Engagement for Libya, but his Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor would have. The Secretary of State absolutely would have.”
Apparently bullets aren’t hard to come by in Africa, either.
Unfortunately, not all people in the world are good or share a hope for world peace. Whether as a result of culture, religious belief or just a different world view, some people honestly hold hostile feelings toward the United States and no amount of talking will change their minds. The administration, which has to face threats to our security every day, of course knows this. But Mitt Romney is correct in pointing out that a culture of accommodate first seems to pervade this administration and its policies. Communicating our “willingness to talk,” or apologizing for the exercise of free speech in America, without an accompanying message that we will protect ourselves with force when threatened, has resulted, and one can only believe will continue to result, in an invitation to continue to test our resolve, and a lack of preparedness for those times these hostile feelings erupt.
Despite what the President would like to believe, criticisms of his foreign policy are not just borne of politics. While the US media was focused on Mitt Romney’s criticisms of Obama, the rest of the world (including foreign media) was pointing out the failure of Obama’s policies. The Washington Times reported yesterday that Die Welt, the German newspaper, leveled the following critique:
US President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy is in ruins. Like no president before him, he tried to win over the Arab world. After some initial hesitation, he came out clearly on the side of the democratic revolutions. … In this context, he must accept the fact that he has snubbed old close allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian military. And now parts of the freed societies are turning against the country which helped bring them into being. Anti-Americanism in the Arab world has even increased to levels greater than in the Bush era. It’s a bitter outcome for Obama.
Some have noted the similarities with President Carter.
In an article entitled “The Carter Syndrome,” Walter Russell Mead, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, divides our nation’s past leaders into different foreign policy camps, saying Obama, like Carter, aligns most closely with Jefferson:
Like Carter in the 1970s, Obama comes from the old-fashioned Jeffersonian wing of the Democratic Party, and the strategic goal of his foreign policy is to reduce America’s costs and risks overseas by limiting U.S. commitments wherever possible. He’s a believer in the notion that the United States can best spread democracy and support peace by becoming an example of democracy at home and moderation abroad. …
Preferring disarmament agreements to military buildups and hoping to substitute regional balance-of-power arrangements for massive unilateral U.S. force commitments all over the globe, the president wishes ultimately for an orderly world in which burdens are shared and the military power of the United States is a less prominent feature on the international scene.
He goes on to point out that this is the same failed philosophy of FDR, who attempted to avoid conflict with Nazi Germany and imperial Japan until it was forced upon him, and Jimmy Carter.
Carter faced many of the same problems, and the image of weakness and indecision that helped doom his 1980 run for re-election is a perennial problem for Jeffersonian presidents. Obama will have to leap over these hurdles now, too.
It is not only Americans who will challenge the new American foreign policy. Will Russia and Iran respond to Obama’s conciliatory approach with reciprocal concessions — or, emboldened by what they interpret as American weakness and faltering willpower, will they keep pushing forward? Will the president’s outreach to the moderate majority of Muslims around the world open an era of better understanding, or will the violent minority launch new attacks that undercut the president’s standing at home? Will the president’s inability to deliver all the Israeli concessions Arabs would like erode his credibility and contribute to even deeper levels of cynicism and alienation across the Middle East? Can the president execute an orderly reduction in the U.S. military stake in Iraq and Afghanistan without having hostile forces fill the power vacuum? Will Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez be so impressed with American restraint under Obama that he moderates his own course and ceases to make anti Yanquismo a pillar of his domestic and international policy? Will other countries heed the president’s call to assume more international responsibility as the United States reduces its commitments — or will they fail to fulfill their obligations as stakeholders in the international system?
A Jeffersonian policy of restraint and withdrawal requires cooperation from many other countries, but the prospect of a lower American profile may make others less, rather than more, willing to help the United States.
Reuters points out the irony in this reality when compared with Obama’s soaring goals for his presidency. And in foreign policy, there’s no scapegoat in George W. Bush. Instead Obama must realize it’s his own world view that is at fault:
All of this may simply point to a larger challenge that will endure well beyond November’s U.S. vote – an apparently growing gulf between the United States and increasingly assertive Islamist forces within the Middle East.
The irony is clear.
With his vaunted 2009 speech in Cairo, Obama had hoped to “reset” relations with the region and ease some of the ill feeling stoked by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and “war on terror” rhetoric of Obama’s Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
The Obama administration was caught flat-footed by a wave of pro-democracy revolts last year that toppled autocratic leaders – some, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally. But Washington gradually gave cautious backing to the goals of the Arab Spring movement.
Now, with much of the U.S. optimism that accompanied the Arab world’s uprisings seemingly gone for good, Washington faces an apparent rise in Islamic activism and declining influence over countries it once counted as allies.
There is one tangible result of Obama’s foreign policy, however, and it’s similar to the only tangible result of Obama’s domestic economic policies: if nothing else, at least Mr. Obama appears well-liked:
Within the region, Obama himself remains much more popular than many predecessors. But scenes of U.S. embassy property being trashed first in Cairo and then Yemen in anger at the film insulting the Prophet Mohammad were potent reminders that potentially violent anti-Americanism remains very much alive.
Perhaps popularity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Or perhaps, until dreams of “hope and change” are shared by everyone in the world, it’s best not to take down one’s defenses.