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.