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Egypt’s unrest reveals Obama’s Middle East strategy is all wrong

Egypt’s unrest reveals Obama’s Middle East strategy is all wrong

Some recent  pieces (especially some by Elliott Abrams) reinforce an important point: The harsh reality of events in the Middle East have all decisively proven that the assumptions that underpinned President Obama’s Middle East policy initiatives were wrong. I have great sympathy for the administration as it tries to respond to events that are swirling out of control in the region. The foreign policy team seems to be quite uncertain how to proceed and with good reason: our ability to predict what will happen is probably even less than our ability to shape what will happen.

However, when the administration is finally able to catch its breath, it would be well-served to do a strategic inventory. The results will be tough to swallow, especially for a team that has made so much political hay out of mocking what they considered to be faulty assumptions embraced by their predecessors. But an honest accounting will show that the last two years have rather dramatically rebutted the four core premises of Obama’s approach to the region:

  • The key to any progress anywhere was near-term progress on Israel-Palestine.
  • Near-term progress on Israel-Palestine was possible because the chief impediment was Israeli intransigence which was itself due to a failure of the Bush Administration to lean on Israel.
  • Since Obama was willing to administer much tougher love to Israel and since Israel’s concerns could be shown to be exaggerated, the Israeli "impediment" could be quickly lifted and progress quickly achieved.
  • Bush’s preoccupation with democracy was naïve and thoroughly discredited by Iraq and so nothing was likely to happen on that front in the region, perhaps for a generation but for sure until Obama had made progress on the Israel-Palestine issue.

All four assumptions may have been sincerely held but they were wrong. Because the policy was based on these faulty assumptions, two years were lost. Along the way, President Obama’s extraordinary soft-power assets were ineffectively deployed, once-in-a-generation opportunities like the Iranian elections were squandered, and now we are where we are in Egypt. 

Faulty assumptions lead to flawed strategies (cf. Bush administration assumptions about the resilience of the Iraqi state post-Saddam and the strategic plan for Phase IV in Iraq). The mark of a good strategist includes a healthy skepticism about one’s own assumptions but even more an ability to admit error and revise accordingly. How well the Obama team handles this latter task will go a long way to determining the success of its Middle East policies in the next two years. 

Update:  A knowledgeable observer raised a worthy response to my post, saying "… you need to address the fact that new govts in Egypt, Jordan, Syria (maybe not Iran) would likely be both anti-Israel and anti-U.S.?  I imagine the Obama Admin felt that working on the peace process would ameliorate both and make democratic transitions more favorable to U.S. interests in the short term. To be fair, I think you need to engage this argument."

He makes a fair point and I hope my original post did not imply that one would have had to be a knave or a fool to make the assumptions the Obama team made in late 2008. After all, the belief that an Israel-Palestine deal was within reach is so tantalizing it captured even the battle-hardened teams of Bush-Rice in late 2007 and Clinton-Albright in 2000. And as my friendly critic points out, it is reasonable to believe that finding a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine would knock out one of (though not all of) the pillars of anti-Israeli and anti-American sentiment in the region, thus helping on the margins other goals like democratic reform.

However, my response would be that the alternative to the Obama approach need not be ignoring Palestinian corncerns or embracing unlimited Israeli settlement expansion, let alone abandoning the goal of the two-state solution. Rather, the alternative would have been intensifying work on what was working — namely building up the governing capacity (especially the internal security capacity) of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank — and accepting gradualism in the areas that were not working – namely big bang diplomatic summitry.  We would be in no worse-off position today. I doubt that President Obama earned much good will in the region of the "well, at least he tried to bully the Israelis into making concessions even if it did not work out" variety. Even Obama insiders have long admitted privately that they mishandled the tactics of the 2009 confrontation with Israel over settlements and, I suspect, many would now agree in hindsight that the president’s political capital and soft power assets could have been better deployed to prepare them for the current crises in the region.