A fair-minded evaluation of Obama’s Middle East policy

Michael Totten links to an article by Michael Young, editor of the Beirut Daily Star, which reacts to Obama’s Afghanistan policy speech.  It’s a concise but nuanced evaluation of the speech and the potential impacts of American foreign policy changes on the Middle East.  Read the whole thing if you’re at all interested in either the Middle East or America’s international relations.  Here are some key excerpts:

It’s not often that Barack Obama and Hassan Nasrallah agree, but both made important speeches this week, and both appeared to concur that American power was on the decline.

Of course Obama didn’t quite put it that way. Instead, he merely implied the growing sense of American difficulty, the fact that the United States was “passing through a time of great trial,” which he made more palatable by sandwiching it between words of encouragement and resolve. His speech to West Point cadets on Tuesday was an effort to explain to his countrymen why it was important to send an additional 30,000 or so troops to Afghanistan. But what remained, despite the soaring rhetoric toward the end of the president’s speech, was the terrible burden all this placed on an America much gloomier than it was decades ago.

Obama chose to highlight domestic American rifts, when he remarked that “years of debate over Iraq and terrorism have left our unity on national security issues in tatters, and created a highly polarized and partisan backdrop for this effort.” He drew attention to America’s economic travails by noting that “[i]n the wake of an economic crisis, too many of our neighbors and friends are out of work and struggle to pay the bills. Too many Americans are worried about the future facing our children. Meanwhile, competition within the global economy has grown more fierce. So we can’t simply afford to ignore the price of these wars.”

As for the American enterprise in Afghanistan, the centerpiece of Obama’s speech was that he would actually start withdrawing American soldiers by July 2011. No, the United States would not bankroll an Afghan nation-building project, because (and here the president sounded more like a shopkeeper than a purveyor of global domination) such a scheme “sets goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost.”…

Expect America’s foes in the Middle East to take more advantage of this situation. The Iranian regime, rather visibly, does not believe the Obama administration will attack Iran to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear capability. And Obama’s haste to get out of Iraq, or Afghanistan as soon as he can, like his bellyaches about the economic difficulties facing the republic, exhibit far too little American nerve to frighten Tehran.

In Lebanon, Iraq, and on the Palestinian front, to name only these, the US has also had little to show for itself. The “peace process”, which Obama had described as the centerpiece of his regional considerations, remains hopelessly stalled; the Obama administration is so keen to pull out of Iraq that it has looked the other way while Iran has continued to increase its influence in Baghdad, and while Syria has allowed more Al-Qaeda militants through its borders to murder Iraqi civilians….

Obama’s caution is defensible in some regards. War alone cannot be the benchmark of American power. Nothing would do more to harm the US than for it to sink itself into myriad conflicts it cannot win outright. In some ways, however, Obama failed to pick up on that lesson in the political realm, making ambitious promises concerning several complex Middle Eastern issues, without setting clear priorities, so that today, with little progress evident in any of them, the president stands discredited.

The mounting perception of American weakness will, arguably, be the most destabilizing factor in the Middle East in the coming years. It will alarm Washington’s allies and empower its foes, and Barack Obama’s stiff-upper-lip displays of candor, his persistent enunciation of American inadequacies, will only make things worse. Power may be a source of great evil, but not nearly as much as a power vacuum.

Three thoughts:

  • This logic makes sense.  Unless the administration’s diplomacy can persuade other countries or international organizations to replace American power and influence in the Middle East, you would expect that regional actors would fill the vacuum.  That’s not a very pleasant scenario to imagine, given the cast of characters leading many Middle Eastern governments (not to mention the non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah).
  • Even if the above is true, at what point does the U.S. get to stop paying for its previous attempts to influence the region, most recently the Bush administration’s grand strategy to “transform the Middle East”?  Do we simply need to continue or increase our level of involvement because of what might happen?
  • Finally, given the unpredictability of events, is it possible that our involvement is actually propping up a status quo that is unsustainable in the long term?  Would regional actors stepping into the power vacuum sort things out in a way that we haven’t envisioned?  I shudder, though, at the human cost that “sorting things out” might entail.

I wish I had good answers to these questions.

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