Declining American Influence in the Middle East

There is an interesting article on Slate– the online Washington Post publication best known for their sanctimonious opposition to a football team’s name and logo (the Redskins)- yes…Slate, by Brian Michael Jenkins. The article cites ten reasons why American influence in the Middle East has fallen. Of course, he leaves out one very important reason- the ineptitude of the tag team of Barack Obama and John Kerry, a comedy team managed by Hillary Clinton. As articles in the Wall Street Journal accurately point out, what passes as an Obama “foreign policy” makes sense if one understands Barack Obama and his liberal outlook. The fact is this is perhaps the first president who so blatantly believes the United States is “just another country.” He made a statement to that effect in the 2008 campaign that many readily forget, but it all makes more and more sense the deeper we sink into this eight years of his presidency.

Still, the article makes some salient points and one can see some merit in all ten reasons postulated by Jenkins. To summarize and comment:

Reason 1: Being expected to intervene diplomatically or militarily in too many situations at once inevitably risks failure. Of course, it would help to have some grand strategy to start with, which Obama, other than what appears to be deliberate sabotage of American prestige, obviously lacks. With Bush, his “grand strategy” was foisted upon him on September 11th, 2001- eight short months into his presidency. But as some have pointed out, he seemed to let his focus wander away from Al Qaeda and moving into Iraq. With the job unfinished in Afghanistan and the border regions with Pakistan, fighting on two fronts proved costly in terms of money and lives. And, the mission in Iraq seemed to change on the fly and was not well thought out, or so it seemed. We were good at deposing Saddam Hussein (and the Taliban in Afghanistan), but suspect in securing the peace. Either it was not thought out, or the military successes were so fast and complete that it caught people off guard. Still, before one moves militarily, one should have a plan for the aftermath.

Reason 2: People in the Middle East tend to exaggerate American influence over local events and remain convinced the Americans have a grand geo-strategic plan. Obviously, Obama has no plan…period. In the “olden days” of the Cold War, the plan was to thwart the spread of Communism. Today, it should be to thwart terrorist acts against our country. I cannot speak for the people of the Middle East and their views of American influence except to say that, generally, the United States usually gets the blame for when things go wrong. The fact is that in places like Syria and Iraq, the civil war and sectarian violence are events that were largely held in check by brutal dictators. We can also look at the example of the break up of Yugoslavia- a country whose boundaries were dictated after World War I with no consideration of the ethnic and religious differences. When Communism ended there, we witnessed the horrors of genocide and ethnic cleansing and such. In the Middle East, if these differences have not been settled after about 2,000 years, nothing the United States says or does is going to make much of a difference anyway.

Reason 3: Regimes in the region are facing internal threats that are resistant to external pressure. Complicating this fact is the presence of what Jenkins calls “non-state actors,” or terrorist organizations by any other name. It is all well and good to wish that Middle East states openly embrace democracy, but that is a Utopian pipe dream whether articulated by George W. Bush or Barack Obama. They really have no true conception of democracy in the Western sense. Instead, the better course is the middle ground where a “dictatorship” maintains control without becoming overbearing. There will always be the rabble-rousers crying for more “freedoms,” but at least in Mubarak’s Egypt, there was no poll tax on non-Muslims and there was no Sharia law or burning of a vibrant Christian community. When that delicate balance is broken, in the case of Obama with words (that “great” Cairo speech in 2009), then one risks what has become of the Middle East. Places like Libya, Syria, and even Egypt have become training and fighting grounds for terrorists because of the political vacuum created.

Reason 4: Fast breaking developments are hard to deal with, making it all the more difficult for the United States to influence events. This sounds like having a plan from the beginning. It behooves me to understand that given the intelligence budget in this country, the United States can be caught so off guard so many times under Obama. If you are going to verbally goad people towards “democracy- American style,” then one would hope that you have your “if…then” scenarios worked out ahead of time. For all the criticism of Bush in Iraq, Obama’s handling of events in the Middle East make Bush look like a grand master of planning.

Reason 5: Events have required the United States to transfer loyalties- always an awkward maneuver. Let’s take Egypt as an example. Given the events in Cairo that led to Mubarak’s eventual ouster, the United States could and should have played a greater role in the transfer of power. Once you lose the backing of the Egyptian military- as Mubarak did- and if you have a close relationship with that military (as the United States had), you still have influence. The best solution would have been to use our influence to ease him out of power, grant him asylum in the US on medical grounds, and allow something other than the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power. Jenkins mentions Libya, but the US never really had influence over Qaddafi and we certainly have no influence over al-Assad in Syria. If Ali Abdullah Saleh could be eased out of power after 33 years in Yemen, then the same could have been done with Mubarak.

Reason 6: Costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have eroded US confidence and the political will to act. For a Slate article, it is a small wonder that the ghost of George W. Bush wasn’t trotted out, so kudos to Jenkins. However, in the area of foreign policy, the Executive has great leeway in conducting that foreign policy politics be damned. That is not to say that Congress should sit back and applaud the president for everything he does, nor should the American people. But, the overwhelming opposition to military action in Syria, for example, was motivated by a realization that (1) it would achieve very little and (2) the alternatives were not really good guys, despite McCain’s schmoozing. The American public and those legislators opposed to military action in Syria should be applauded. When most congressional hawks and Code Pink are in agreement on something, that is genuine opposition.

Reason 7: It is difficult for the United States to exercise influence when there is little domestic consensus on what the country should do. Some will inevitably blame Bush, but this writer believes that the bulk of most rational, thinking Americans have simply thrown their hands up in defeat and disgust over the (in)actions of Obama. And on some level, after years and years and years of trying to resolve the problems of the Middle East- which boil down to centuries old disputes- with little or nothing to show for it in some semblance of lasting peace and goodwill, what is your average American to think? Jenkins says that there is this constant tension between backing democratic principles versus national security interests. Unfortunately, a realistic foreign policy sometimes requires that you climb in bed with some nefarious characters. One wonders what Iran would be like today had Jimmy Carter not abandoned the Shah way back when.

Reason 8: Often there are no good options for the United States. Nowhere is this more true than in Syria today. If the United States actually had a plan, they would have supported the opposition more than two years ago before that opposition was overrun with Iranian proxies and terrorists. Obama thinks that words and condemnations will effect change in the Middle East. But, his actions, again, make Bush look like a genius. Whether it was his dithering and aloofness in Syria, his embrace of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or his outright abandonment of the Iranian uprising in 2009 (not to mention that a post-Qaddafi Libya is looking worse by the day), Obama has done more harm to America’s prestige in the world than any other president. Instead of “hating,” but having a healthy respect of Bush, we now have people who not only hate us, but also disrespect us. There will always be the haters, but once hatred is married to disrespect, the world becomes a more dangerous place for the United States.

Reason 9: The international situation is not favorable to action by America or anyone else right now. Obama and Kerry claim there are countries “in the double digits” that support a military strike on Syria, although they cannot name any that would actually help with those strikes. But, to an administration built on words and not action, a signed letter by 24 countries is equivalent to “support.” Moral support counts from other countries counts for very little when it is only the American military in harm’s way. Does anyone really expect that Arabs would be in the streets chanting “USA! USA!” if we attacked Syria? Instead, Obama would be burnt in effigy alongside the US flag. Europe is divided on what to do in the Middle East while Russia and China are trying to exert their own influence in the area. At every turn, Obama has been outflanked and made to look like a fool.

Reason 10: Some would point to America’s continuing dependence on Arab oil as a vital national interest and as a constraint on US policy. The good news is that oil imports are decreasing and the US is less reliant on Arab oil. The bad news is that Obama has it in for fossil fuels despite their source. The US sits atop vast reserves of coal, oil and natural gas, yet his environmental policies are thwarting exploration and exploitation of these resources. To remove the alleged constraints on foreign policy wrought by Arab oil, you cannot achieve this by building electric cars, by everyone driving a hybrid, or installing solar panels on their roofs. It should not take 30 years to bring a nuclear plant online. Besides the US, the largest uranium reserves in the world are- excluding Russia- located in countries that are staunch, reliable US allies (like Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic) unless Obama has pissed them off also. Yes, oil is a serious consideration in our Middle East policy. It is why we maintain a naval presence in the Persian Gulf. One has to ask: So what?

There is a bizarre segment of the liberal community that rallied to Obama’s side on Syria that, under any other circumstance, would have them critical of the same policy or suggestion of a military strike if it came from a Republican. These are the ones critical of Republican opposition to a strike on Syria and their catcalls of “isolationism.” There may be a very minority segment that is truly isolationist, but in the case of Syria, that is not the primary motivation to opposing military action. To insinuate or state that the GOP is suddenly “isolationist” and then linking that phrase to the attitude and events that led up to World War I or World War II is yellow journalism and jingoism of the worst kind. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst are probably looking on in bemused agreement. These instances simply show how Obama has the media in his pocket.

Given the damage done by Obama to America’s prestige and moral legitimacy in the world- methinks by design with his transformation of this country in a liberal, European-style socialist way- 2017 could not come soon enough. It will take a leader of the stature of a Ronald Reagan to restore this country’s credibility on the world stage. As Obama has played the role of the “anti-Bush,” the next president must be the uber-anti-Obama.