Reality Check

Rudderless in the Desert

Five reasons Obama can’t will his way into fixing the Middle East -- even if he wanted to.


Several weeks ago, my fellow FP contributor Micah Zenko wrote a terrific column on "the L-word" — a cri de coeur against those who saw U.S. leadership as the answer to just about everything that ails the world.

A good many journalists, talking heads, and former government officials — who ought to know better — have become attached to this notion like a barnacle to the side of a boat. And nowhere are they more active and annoying than in the Middle East — the region of the planet they deem most lacking in U.S. resolve.

If only America would demonstrate leadership, they argue, it really could help overcome the region’s problems. And there are a great many scenarios to which they apply this "if only" logic.

If only the United States would set up a no-fly zone in Syria and arm the rebels, we could end the Syrian crisis.

If only the United States would use military force against Iran or, alternatively, negotiate with the mullahs, we could solve the Iranian nuclear issue and contain Iran’s regional ambitions.

And if only the United States would pressure the Israelis and Palestinians to accept a peace plan drawn up in Washington, we could have a two state solution.

In short, America holds the key to a transformed Middle East, if only it would just lead.

Much of this harangue about leadership (or the lack of it) is of course directed at our esteemed president, who’s now seen as either a buck passer, a weakling, or a leader who’s so paralyzed by Afghanistan and Iraq that he won’t act. The "leading from behind" trope will forever be identified with Barack Obama’s presidency.

Fortunately, there are cooler heads such as Zenko, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass, and Stratfor’s Robert Kaplan, who understand that life isn’t that simple — particularly in the Middle East.

Nobody is arguing that America is or should be a potted plant. But thinking before acting, grasping the fundamentals of the neighborhood in which we plan to act, and setting priorities and having realistic goals are far more important than vacuous calls for U.S. leadership.

We don’t need another chorus of America, the Indispensable. Nor should we allow the leadership groupies to push us into "yes, we can" policies in a largely "no, you won’t" region. And here are five good reasons why.

1. Leaders need followers

And there aren’t many in the angry, broken, and dysfunctional Middle East. An old saw applies here: A leader without followers is just a guy out for a walk.

America doesn’t have a great many followers in the Middle East these days. Our street cred is way down — not because we haven’t led, but largely because the Arabs really don’t like where we want to take them. And no amount of Madison Avenue "hearts and minds" advertising is likely to change that.

On Israel, settlements, counterterrorism (drones especially), Hamas, democratic reform, and support for the authoritarian monarchs of the region, we’re out of step with popular and elite sentiment in the Middle East. It’s true, some locals may hate us because of who we are. But far more don’t like us because of what we do.

Forget followers, America is missing its traditional partners in the Middle East. We can’t even decide whether Egypt — previously America’s most important Arab partner — is an ally or an adversary. Even our friends — the Israelis and Saudis — wonder how reliable we’ll be on issues critical to them, like Iran and Bahrain.

In this region, you really can’t function effectively unless the locals are willing to cooperate in matters of war and peace. And even under the best of circumstances, small powers will seek to exploit bigger ones, and enlist us to advance their narrower agendas. Those agendas may include sectarian dominance (see: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), padding the family coffers (see: Afghan President Hamid Karzai), countering local rivals (see: Pakistan’s intelligence services), using U.S. funds to advance policies contrary to American interests, like settlements in the West Bank (see: every Israeli government).

Usually, America gets played in this exchange. It’s not the first time: The Middle East is littered with the remains of great powers who believed wrongly they could impose their will on these smaller powers. And as the latest great power, our track record in matters of war and peacemaking really isn’t very good.

American influence in the Middle East may well be at an all-time low. Whether it’s Syria, the peace process, or Iran, we don’t have the local horses required to get a deal to stick. And we can’t protect our interests without them. We’re also dealing with a variety of regional and non-regional actors that are actively pulling the other way: Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah are bucking up Assad. And through their support for the Syrian regime, they may well prove that there are indeed second acts in Middle Eastern politics.

2. Leaders need opportunity

We have a ridiculously cardboard — even cartoonish — view of leadership. The great leader acts, wills this or that his or her way, and everything else falls into place.

Wrong. It’s always been the crisis — whether it’s Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem or Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait — that sets the stage for smart and determined leaders to act.

The Middle East has plenty of crises. But these are slow, complex bleeds — historic conflicts not ready for resolution, nation-building enterprises among ethnic and sectarian groups too busy trying to get a leg up on their rivals to worry about reaching truly national solutions.

Indeed, the Middle East today offers up only varying degrees of risk and traps, none of which are material for presidential glory and dramatic action.

3. Leaders need clarity

The leadership groupies want U.S. policies based on clarity, consistency, and finality in a region that rarely if ever offers it up. They’d have you believe that everything is so simple: Back the rebels and defeat Assad. What could be simpler?

And yet, the Middle East is a muddle. Syria isn’t quite the morality play that some would have it. Assad is the evil dictator, to be sure — but the opposition isn’t exactly a bunch of secular democrats.

Nor does America call the shots. There are Russians, Iranians, and Lebanese Shiites who play the game too. And two years in, the United States may well find itself in the extraordinary position — after repeated calls for Assad’s end — of accepting a negotiated transition. If that comes to pass, Assad would likely remain beyond the reach of an international war crimes tribunal. And who knows? He could even still be a resident in Syria.

The Middle East doesn’t come in black and white — it only comes in gray, and rarely produces clear-cut answers and outcomes.

I well remember an intelligence analyst in the 1980s trying to warn then Secretary of State George Shultz, former Special Envoy Donald Rumsfeld, and anyone else who’d listen about not turning Lebanon into a morality play which pitted the good, enlightened Christians against the bad Lebanese Muslims and the Palestinians. He couldn’t get anyone to listen — and Lebanon exacted a huge price from the United States, in the form of hundreds of dead Marines and two bombed embassies.

4. Leaders need focus

Focus is hard to come by these days, because there are so many problems and most are moving south at an alarming rate. Some see this as a green light and clar
ion call for U.S. action — the wiser heads see red, or at least a flashing yellow.

Comprehensive solutions are hard to divine because the interests of the locals and ours diverge in many ways, and because it’s by no means certain that a major U.S. investment will ameliorate matters.

Enter Secretary of State John Kerry. In such an environment, at least for now, it’s management and transaction that’s required — not transformation. He’s the manager-in-chief — seemingly looking to put out fires everywhere, and identify opportunities so he can make the case to his boss that presidential leadership might actually make things better.

5. Leaders need to care

And I don’t think Barack Obama does all that much. I don’t mean that he’s insensitive to the violence and tragedy that defines much of the Middle East these days. But I think he’s made a calculation that America’s overall interests are best served by staying out of some of these matters (Syria) and being cautious on others (the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Iran).

Obama isn’t Richard Nixon, who loved foreign policy and had Henry Kissinger by his side while he played the great game. He’s not Jimmy Carter, who got emotionally wrapped up in the Middle East peace game. He’s not Ronald Reagan, who saw the world as a stage and loved to show off America — and had a transformational opportunity to do so with Gorbachev to boot. He’s not George H.W. Bush, who had a longstanding interest in foreign affairs and a transformative moment, as the Soviet Union collapsed. And he’s neither Bill Clinton, who genuinely cared about Israelis and Palestinians living in a more peaceful future; or George W. Bush, who set out to transform America’s foreign policy in the wake of 9/11.

Obama does not have an emotional investment in foreign policy, nor does he relish its strategic dimension. Coming to office against the background of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he was determined to fix America’s broken house and extricate the country from others’ problems. He remains tough on terrorism, but once he realized that the world wasn’t going to change, he abandoned any pretense to transform it.

Obama is already a historic president, but if he wants to be remembered as a great one, he’ll have to make his legacy on the domestic side. When it comes to foreign policy, particularly the Middle East, there is more risk than reward right now. And besides, that’s what John Kerry is for. If his able secretary of state can set up a legacy issue or two, then and only then will Obama decide whether and what to risk. Indeed, unless pushed by some crisis that America cannot avoid, he’ll be risk averse not risk ready.

Until then, the chattering class can talk all they want about U.S. leadership in the Middle East. There are no real opportunities here — only migraine headaches and root canals carrying a lot of pain without much prospect of gain. And frankly, the country doesn’t much care all that much about them. And Obama knows it.

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