In Middle East, President Obama misplays hand
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel repeatedly phoned Egyptian General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi urging a peaceful transition — Sisi refused. President Barack Obama has repeatedly called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave – he’s still there. We’ve said we want the Bahraini monarchy to reform – it hasn’t. Countless American officials have pushed Afghan President Hamid Karzai to get his act together – he hasn’t.
What’s going on? Is the problem one of inherent limits to American power in today’s world? Or the Obama administration misplaying the power it has?
Some Obama critics glibly contend that if the president and his team were not such “declinists” and had the courage to use American power, everything would fall into place. In three key respects, though, that line of argument is a form of denial.
One is in seeing the world as it was, not as it is. While American power is second to none, it isn’t what it used to be. Global economic dynamism has shifted eastward and southward, and — the current cyclical slowdowns in the BRICS countries notwithstanding — will continue to do so. The United States no longer has the diplomatic stage as much to itself, as it did during the Cold War. Even American military capabilities, while still vastly superior, are much less convertible to political influence in a world lacking an overarching and shared threat.
Second is the inherent difficulty of determining or even shaping the internal political order of conflict-ridden states. When one side has immediate interests if not survival at stake – which is how Egypt’s Sisi, Syria’s Assad, Bahrain’s Khalifahs, and Afghanistan’s Karzai all see it — and outsiders like us have important but more distant and indirect ones, their will to resist pressure is greater than our capacity to impose it. It’s one thing to coerce change in a government’s policy, it’s quite another to coerce change in the government itself.
Third is that the political dynamics in the Arab world are being driven by forces that run much deeper than what the United States does or doesn’t do. The first Arab dictator falling in Tunisia punctured the aura of invincibility surrounding political leaders with a demonstration effect that reverberated throughout the region. Socioeconomic inequality has been growing wider, not narrower. The region’s “youth bulge” is not being met with anything close to the economic, political, or personal opportunities being sought, while this generation doesn’t buy as much into the heroic narrative of anti-colonialism that canny autocrats used to palliate their parents and grandparents. And social media technology is functioning like the old Soviet dissidents’ samizdat on steroids, puncturing official narratives and allowing disparate groups to organize faster than the state can respond.
So, yes, there are inherent limits to American power that can’t be denied. But the Obama administration could be playing its Middle East hand much better than it has.
Obama’s team has been way too indecisive. Getting away with waiting to the bottom of the ninth to make the shift away from Hosni Mubarak may have taught the wrong lesson. At one key juncture after another in Egypt, steps have been too partial, most recently with the cancellation of the Bright Star military exercise, which was not accompanied by any further significant suspension of military aid despite the military’s thumbing its nose at U.S. efforts to mediate. In Syria, the administration has known more what it does not want to do than what it does. In Bahrain, the gap between pro-reform rhetoric and only token hits on arms sales has been gaping. In Afghanistan, it’s still starts and stops on peace talks with the Taliban and other post-withdrawal measures.
It’s not that a plan has to be set and kept as is, irrespective of how it plays out. But without a guiding strategy, policy ends up reactive more than pro-active. The targets of your actions don’t see them as credible. My forces just killed over 600 people, General Sisi could understandably conclude, and even then you don’t try to use one of the main levers you have? I’ve been expanding my civil war regionally, Syria’s Assad has no doubt calculated, yet the United States does little to stop me. We agree to an independent commission but then ignore its findings, the Bahraini monarchy muses, yet still you don’t do much.
Moreover, while the United States prevaricates, others don’t. Russia hasn’t in Syria. Nor have Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies in Bahrain, where they intervened militarily, or in Egypt, where they quickly rewarded Sisi’s coup with a $12 billion aid package – dwarfing America’s own.
At the root of these problems is a lack of clarity about core U.S. interests. In Syria, is it in America’s interest to get rid of Assad, or only if we can be sure jihadists won’t take over? In Egypt, is the goal pursuing stability with or without the Muslim Brotherhood? In Bahrain, how best to keep the Fifth Fleet naval base: by deferring to the monarchy’s repression or pushing for political reform? In Afghanistan, do we keep Karzai in power or pursue peace talks with the Taliban? While pure consistency is easier in theory than practice, tough choices do need to be made.
Getting these choices right won’t guarantee success. No sense deluding ourselves with overestimations of American power. But we also can’t afford to underestimate it, especially not in the Middle East.