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?”