Obama lifts the veil on the establishment and Mideast allies

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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As we approach the end of Barack Obama's presidency, there are deeply divergent views in the U.S. foreign policy establishment and among the country's Mideast allies regarding his policies in the region. Obama, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in this month's Atlantic took on the foreign policy establishment, especially the Clinton-era pro-Israel operatives and the Bush-era neocons who gave us the unwarranted war in Iraq.

Obama himself identified with the moderate realism of the George H. W. Bush era and Bush's National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft.

For a short time an honest, even-handed view of the Middle East was even advanced by the George W. Bush administration. In an address in June 2005 at the American University in Cairo, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Scowcroft protégé, declared, "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither." In effect that was Obama's challenge to Arab monarchs, their American advocates and preening policy pundits.

Obama, who prides himself from learning from experience, seems clearly to have learned from the foolhardy rush of the Bush 43 administration to war in Iraq: A responsible president must resist political and public pressure to act without careful deliberation.

"Any president who was thoughtful, I believe," Obama told Mr. Goldberg, "would recognize that after over a decade of war, with obligations that are still to this day requiring great amounts of resources and attention in Afghanistan, with the experience of Iraq, with the strains that it's placed on our military -- any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome."

The very American knee-jerk reaction to appear decisive by taking action, especially military action, is not just a fault of populist demagogues, but of the bi-partisan foreign-policy establishment. The president shows his well-known iciness toward the shallow crusader-ism of the nation's action-intellectuals, many retired diplomats and humanitarians.

"Obama generally believes," writes Goldberg, "that the Washington foreign-policy establishment, which he secretly disdains, makes a fetish of 'credibility' -- particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force. ... Within the White House, Obama would argue that 'dropping bombs on someone to prove that you're willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.' "

The president's critics believe that American dithering and inaction in Syria, and the nuclear deal with Iran have contributed to the maelstrom engulfing the Middle East. These policies, they allege, have accelerated the rise of ISIS, have allowed the Syrian regime to remain in power and empowered a resurgent Iran to compete with traditional U.S. allies, above all Saudi Arabia, for regional dominance.

The Goldberg interview offers closer, more nuanced look at the facts, along with an understanding of what motivates Obama's worldview. It also illuminates the president's judgment on what the U.S. can and cannot influence in world affairs; and it spells out his "long-game" view of presidential decision-making.

The really big news in the Atlantic interview is that the president has quite consciously, and now openly, departed from longstanding U.S. foreign policy consensus on the Middle East, namely that America would and should stand by its three traditional major allies in the Middle East -- Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel -- regardless of the actions these countries may take that are in their own perceived self interests but that in reality are also contradictory to American interests and values.

Obama has worked from two axioms that should require major re-thinking on the part of foreign policy specialists. First, he believes that the U.S. is not automatically obligated to stand by its Mideast allies if U.S. interests are at odds with theirs. He cites the case of the Saudi war in Yemen.

"The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians -- which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen -- requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace," the president declared to the Atlantic.

The old-way -- the establishment way -- of settling scores for our allies, the president says, "would be in the interest neither of the U.S. nor the Middle East."

Until the president broke the silence about the Saudis' drive for regional dominance and their worldwide support for religious extremism, their troublesome role in the Arab and Muslim world had been an "elephant in the room" in any discussion by politicians, diplomats and journalists. Now that it has been named, there is an opening for a new beginning in U.S. foreign and military policy in the area.

The president's second axiom is that it does not necessarily follow from having the power to intervene that the U.S. should intervene in any given international conflict or humanitarian emergency. Sometimes, tragically, we are unable to intervene even where there are strong humanitarian reasons to do so. (The old just-war principles of proportionality ad bellum and the probability of success provide similar restraints to military adventurism.)

Longtime friends who once characterized Obama as "a pragmatic idealist" will see no idealism in the president's views on the exercise of power. If any intervention will damage U.S. interests in the long term or if the cost in American blood and treasure is too high, he will not intervene.

The Atlantic interview shows Obama to be a sober realist, hardened by two wars and the Hydra of the current Syrian/Iraqi/ISIS wars. He is a cold-eyed realist who measures everything by U.S. interests with not a nod to humanitarian principles, the Responsibility to Protect or Wilsonian ideals of peace.

No doubt, the failure of the Arab Spring and the chaotic aftermath of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine in Libya have contributed to the president's pessimism over the effectiveness of U.S. intervention in the region.

In Egypt, what started off as a true chance for the Egyptian people to finally begin experiencing the fruits of a true democracy after the overthrow of Mubarak has since then degenerated into first an Islamist and then a military counter-revolution.

Government intolerance for dissent, its quashing of free media and its enactment of Draconian civil and media laws have effectively returned Egypt to the Mubarak days. Add to that the violence and chaos engulfing the Middle East, and it is not surprising to see that many Egyptians are willing to settle for a strongman now rather than risk seeing their country torn apart.

The U.S. has subsequently cooled relations with Egypt and spoken out strongly against lack of freedoms. But the Obama interview gives would-be Arab democrats no reason to expect support in efforts to regain their lost moment of freedom.

Saudi Arabia presents a different challenge altogether. The Saudis and other allied Gulf Arabs have funneled untold billions of dollars and large numbers of imams and teachers into Muslim countries across the world. The resulting fundamentalist version of Islam, in line with the strict Wahhabist Saudi branch of Sunni Islam now taught in these countries, has bred untold extremism.

Add to that the suppression of any dissent against the Saudi royal family, the unequal treatment of women, and the arming and financing of a number of extremist groups in Syria, and you start to get the picture why the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have entered a new age of an uneasy and suspicious alliance.

The U.S. has also recently clashed with the third major Mideast ally, Israel. The U.S. and Israel have diverged sharply over Iran, where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on an unprecedented blitz in the U.S. to sabotage the nuclear deal with Iran that thoroughly disrespected the office of the U.S. presidency and not just President Obama.

The U.S. and Israel have also had sharp differences over the relentless and continuing Israeli settlement activity that has effectively killed the prospect of a two-state solution to the conflict, adding to the helplessness and frustration of the Palestinian people entering their 40th year of a brutal Israeli military occupation.

Mr. Goldberg observes, "[T]he innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power."

The next U.S. president will have to establish his or her own path on the Middle East. Just like Obama, the next president will learn from the mistakes of who preceded. Nevertheless, the overarching doctrine that Obama articulated, that we should not use American force just because we can but rather when we should, will stand as a hindrance for any wise successor to repeat ill-considered actions like the 2003 invasion of Iraq again.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University; Rafat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

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