The only thing that’s really clear about U.S. Middle East policy these days is its stunning lack of clarity. Neocons and liberal interventionists alike protest the confusion loudly, and a great many others with less ideological baggage silently scratch their heads.
Anomalies, contradictions, confusion and more than a little hypocrisy abound. The United States intervenes militarily in Libya to support the opposition, but not in Syria. It supports serious political reform and democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, but not in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where oil, bases and friendly kings prevail. It will engage the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents who have killed American soldiers, but it steers clear of any dialogue with Hamas. And it rationalizes away a military coup and brutal crackdown in Egypt to maintain ties to the generals, undermining its own democratic values by continuing military aid.
Still, even while it seems confused and directionless, President Obama’s Middle East policies have logic and coherence. Indeed, they follow strict directives that the president has imposed. I call them his Five Commandments, and they tell you all you need to know about why the president does what he does from Cairo to Damascus.
Commandment No. 1: Care more about the middle class than the Middle East.
Obama may not be able to fix either one. But there’s no doubt he’d rather be remembered as a president who tried to repair America’s broken house than one who chased around the world on a quixotic quest to fix somebody else’s. Immigration reform, the budget, making Obamacare work, continuing to focus on infrastructure, education – these are things that are important to the American people and to the legacy of a president who is of one of only 17 elected to a second term. Time’s running out. Why squander it on problems he cannot fix, like Syria?
Commandment No. 2: Pay attention to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama’s critics argue he’s already paid too much attention to the wars, drawn the wrong lessons from both and, as a result, overcorrected and abdicated U.S. leadership. But you really can’t pay too much attention to the two longest wars in U.S. history — wars that cost more than 6,000 American lives, thousands of serious casualties, trillions of dollars and a great deal of U.S. credibility.
Obama’s current approach toward Syria and even Egypt has in fact drawn the right lessons from these wars: He’s intuitively grasped the limit of U.S. influence in changing the nature of Middle Eastern societies caught up in internal conflict. If we couldn’t reshape what happens in Kabul and Baghdad with hundreds of thousands of troops and trillions of dollars, how are we going to have an impact on what Egypt’s generals do or don’t do with a trifling $1 billion or so?
He’s also understood the need to be careful about the use of American military power in these situations — that power is a means to effect a political end. And when that relationship is dubious, out of whack or just not achievable, risk aversion is more appropriate than risk readiness. In Syria, the danger isn’t the false Afghanistan/Iraq analogy of boots on the ground; it’s the more apt lesson about using U.S. military power in a situation where the political objectives are unclear and the costs truly unknown. This caution has also informed the president’s view of how to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the importance of trying diplomacy before war. Some believe this is the lack of leadership, but it may well be the sense of proportion and judgment that defines it.
Commandment No. 3: Kill America’s enemies.
Where the president hasn’t been shy and retiring or risk averse is on the national security side, particularly when it comes to counterterrorism. And despite the rhetorical shifts hinting a change in priorities — an emphasis on diplomacy over war, a reduction in drone attacks — this commandment will continue to dictate the broad outlines of the administration’s approach.
Whatever doubts the president has on the wisdom and utility of drone strikes that have killed thousands, however thin the legal and moral arguments may be, this wartime president takes seriously his No. 1 mission: Keep America safe. That means preventing another 9/11-style attack. If the previous administration believed in preventive and preemptive war using invasion and regime change, this president has narrowed the prevention to counter-terrorism. The attacks on 9/11 were the second bloodiest day in the history of the continental United States, surpassed only by a single day in the battle of Antietam in September 1862. And Obama plans to keep it that way. The president’s war on terror — whatever his own rhetorical nuances — won’t be over until the day he leaves the White House. And as the risk he took in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden demonstrates, he’s prepared to do much to prosecute it.
Commandment No. 4: Stay with the devil you know.
Obama may want to think of himself as a transformative leader, but he’s really very transactional and status quo when it comes to foreign policy — doubling down in Afghanistan, keeping Gitmo open, avoiding diplomacy with the mullahs, rationalizing away his own redlines on Syria’s chemical weapons, and now trying to walk the fine line between changing and sustaining traditional U.S. policy on Egypt.
Obama wants to be on the right side of history and uphold U.S. values, but he’s increasingly confused on what that actually means. It is the cruelest of ironies that America’s relations with the status quo Arab kings are the best ties Washington has in the region. But maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise. We are a status quo power during a time of great upheaval. And instead of breaking with the past we’re looking for a way to ride it safely into the future.
I think we’re probably heading for a suspension of assistance to Egypt, but the president will try to avoid it, just as he’s slow-walked military assistance to Syria and opposed an Israeli unilateral strike on Iran. From Obama’s perspective, changing the status quo — cutting ties with the generals and risking U.S. military overflight privileges, losing cooperation on counterterrorism, and unilaterally removing the United States from the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David process — outweigh the risks of maintaining it. When it comes to what’s left of the Arab Spring, the president seems pretty comfortable with the familiar and at ease with the notion that this region will need to be sorted out by those who live there. The United States should simply hunker down and ride out the storm, if possible.
Commandment No. 5: Protect our core interests.
For Obama, the Middle East is divided into five core interests and two discretionary ones. What really counts is getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; keeping the country safe from attack; weaning America off Arab hydro-carbons; carrying out the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security; and trying to prevent Iran from acquiring nukes. From his vantage point, he’s checked the box in at least four so far; and he’s working on the fifth – the success of which is far from assured.
The two interests of choice, if you will, are pursuing Arab-Israeli peace and making the Middle East safe for democracy. Those are desirable but really not critical, whatever Secretary of State John Kerry may think about the importance of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and the president has shown very little inclination to risk much on either of them.
You may think the Middle East is a mess and Obama’s approach a complete muddle. But I bet you, given his domestic priorities and where he thinks the American public is on these issues, he doesn’t. Whatever the president is worrying about these days, I’d be surprised if he’s tossing and turning at night over Egypt and Syria. Governing is about choosing, and for now the president has made his choices clear.
Aaron David Miller, FP columnist, is vice president for new initiatives and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His forthcoming book is titled “Can America Have Another Great President?”