American impotence in the Middle East: Obama adrift

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Yerevan by PanARMENIAN Photo / Flickr Creative Commons
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Yerevan by PanARMENIAN Photo / Flickr Creative Commons

WASHINGTON, August 30, 2013 — Britain’s parliament voted yesterday not to join a military strike against Syria. This was both a strong rebuke to Prime Minister David Cameron, and a lethal blow President Obama’s hopes to bring the British into an anti-Syria coalition.

Fifty-four Democrats sent Obama a letter urging him to “seek an affirmative action of Congress” before committing U.S. forces to an attack.

Administration officials say that Obama alone will decide whether to launch a strike; the White House considers British and U.N. support unnecessary. “President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. The same sentiment was delivered by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf: “We make our own decisions and our own timeline.”

Another destroyer carrying cruise missiles has been moved into the Mediterranean, and administration officials claim both the evidence and the legal justification to launch a strike.

They lack only credibility and support.

Through one bungle after another, the Obama Administration has maneuvered itself into a box. An attack on Syria will bring America under widespread condemnation and risk a broader war. A limited cruise missile attack of the sort Obama has suggested will make America look impotent at the same time it risks war. And if Obama does nothing at all, he will look impotent for backing down on his threat over “red line” of chemical weapon use and throw away his remaining shreds of credibility in the Middle East.

Obama has accomplished something that was all but unimaginable five years ago: He’s even less popular in the Middle East than President George W. Bush was at the end of his presidency. According to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, support for the United States is lower now in Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan than it was in 2008. Approval for Obama’s policies was only 15 percent in Muslim countries last spring; what that rate would be now in Egypt and Syria is anyone’s guess, but a safe guess would be “lower.”

Obama’s failed efforts in the Middle East serve to remind us that there’s no situation so bad that dedicated ineptitude can’t make it worse. The Obama team has done just that. American foreign policy goals in the region are now completely unclear.

Obama’s dithering in Egypt has antagonized every faction in the country. It has been interpreted as support of deposed President Mohamed Morsi and has pushed Egypt directly into Russia’s embrace. No one knows whether our goal in Egypt is stability or democracy. We appear to back Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is backed also by Hamas, which in turn is supported by Iran. Egypt’s new leaders have concluded that they can safely ignore us.

Syria is worse. It seemed that our goal there was regime change, but does that remain our goal even if it puts jihadists in charge? The Syrian rebels are supported by al-Qaeda and Hamas, and opposed by Iran. Russia and Iran both support Assad. Where exactly in all this do our interests lie? Are we really on the side of al-Qaeda?

Do we intend to back the monarchy in Bahrain, no matter how repressive it grows, in order to keep the base that houses our Fifth Fleet? Bahrain will eventually explode, but American support of the monarchy gives it free reign to repress the freedom movement and clamp down the pressure-cooker lid even more tightly.

The Obama Administration has dissembled its way across the Middle East, leaving enemies and allies alike uncertain of our intentions. Russia, China and Iran have been much more transparent. Saudi Arabia immediately gave Egypt’s General Sisi $12 billion in aid after the army deposed Morsi, the first democratically elected leader in Egypt’s 5,000-year history. Obama, in contrast, withdrew from joint military exercises but seemed uncertain whether to cut other aid.

Russia has clearly backed Syria’s Assad, while Obama has dithered over a military response to nerve gas attacks against civilians. If there is a response, it now seems designed to punish Assad without actually hurting him.

After months of tacitly supporting the rebels, the administration seems desperate to avoid hitting important military targets when it punishes Assad. And to the horror of American military leadership, the administration has planned its attack in public, all but sending Assad a map of likely targets. Expect Assad to be ungrateful.

American foreign policy in the Middle East is incoherent. There is no strategic vision on display, only one ad hoc reaction after another. Secretary of State John Kerry wanders aimlessly through it all like a patrician Forrest Gump.

Five years ago the Norwegian parliament awarded Obama the Nobel Peace Prize in the hope that the change he represented would bring peace. It never occurred to them that change could be for the worse. Rarely has peace seemed so unattainable in the Middle East, nor the web of alliances and hatreds so tangled. It takes a special kind of genius to make so many wrong steps to make an impossibly bad situation even worse.

President Obama is a very special kind of genius.

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