Daniel W. Drezner

A teachable moment for the United States on its role in the Middle East

In 2012, I’ve begun to notice that there have been certain instances where events move so rapidly that my blogging about them is futile — even in the time it takes for me to cogitate and craft a blog post, the situation on the ground changes.  This happened with the Chen Guangcheng case, and it ...

In 2012, I've begun to notice that there have been certain instances where events move so rapidly that my blogging about them is futile -- even in the time it takes for me to cogitate and craft a blog post, the situation on the ground changes.  This happened with the Chen Guangcheng case, and it happened this week with the rash of protests and violent stormings of U.S. facilities in the Greater Middle East.   Now it's certainly possible that I'm losing my fastball, but I think it might be that there are moments when taking a deep breath and stepping back are useful exercises before rendering judgment and analysis. 

[Uh, it's been a few days now, so you ready for some judgment and analysis?--ed.  Yep.  Let's blog this mother!] 

The more I think about it, the more bemused I've been by calls for Mitt Romney to give a major speech on foreign policy.  Right now, it's the president who needs to deliver a major address.  Americans are rightly confused by what the United States is doing in the Middle East, and President Obama had a pretty uneven week.  On the one hand, there appears to have been some adroit behind-the-scenes diplomacy on Egypt.  On the other hand, there are crisis moments when patience begins to look too much like passivity, and that's beginning to happen to this administration.  Sure, there have been times in the past when U.S. embassies and consulates around the world faced even greater threats -- but things still seem pretty uncertain, U.S. lives have been lost, and the only thing that can be said for Barack Obama's leadership this week is that he's not Mitt Romney.  Oh, and that the administration's argument that this has been caused by a single stupid Youtube clip is utter horses**t. 

In 2012, I’ve begun to notice that there have been certain instances where events move so rapidly that my blogging about them is futile — even in the time it takes for me to cogitate and craft a blog post, the situation on the ground changes.  This happened with the Chen Guangcheng case, and it happened this week with the rash of protests and violent stormings of U.S. facilities in the Greater Middle East.   Now it’s certainly possible that I’m losing my fastball, but I think it might be that there are moments when taking a deep breath and stepping back are useful exercises before rendering judgment and analysis. 

[Uh, it’s been a few days now, so you ready for some judgment and analysis?–ed.  Yep.  Let’s blog this mother!] 

The more I think about it, the more bemused I’ve been by calls for Mitt Romney to give a major speech on foreign policy.  Right now, it’s the president who needs to deliver a major address.  Americans are rightly confused by what the United States is doing in the Middle East, and President Obama had a pretty uneven week.  On the one hand, there appears to have been some adroit behind-the-scenes diplomacy on Egypt.  On the other hand, there are crisis moments when patience begins to look too much like passivity, and that’s beginning to happen to this administration.  Sure, there have been times in the past when U.S. embassies and consulates around the world faced even greater threats — but things still seem pretty uncertain, U.S. lives have been lost, and the only thing that can be said for Barack Obama’s leadership this week is that he’s not Mitt Romney.  Oh, and that the administration’s argument that this has been caused by a single stupid Youtube clip is utter horses**t. 

The American public is already predisposed towards getting the hell out of the Middle East.  Seeing images of consulates burning down, caskets coming home draped in American flags, and Middle East leaders reacting slowly and tepidly to the threat of street mobs will only reinforce this predisposition.  Most Americans, facing these images after two long and draining wars in the region, will likely want to reduce the U.S. profile in the Middle East even more. 

That would be a mistake, for numerous reasons — not the least of which is that the U.S. eventually does benefit if these countries manage to transition to genuine electoral democracies.  It’s telling that in Egypt and Libya it was the losers at the ballot box who created trouble in the streets.  A reduction of the U.S. presence in these countries does not necessarily send the best of signals — just as encouraging the use of deadly force in retaliation wouldn’t either. 

This strikes me as exactly the kind of "teachable moment" that President Obama used to love. So if I were a foreign policy advisor to president Obama, I’d advise him to deliver a natonally televised speech to the country in which he addressed the following:

1)  What measures were being taken to protect U.S. lives at our consulates and embassies across the world;

2)  What he thinks the origins of the current conflagrations have been (hint:  saying it’s a YouTube clip would be a radically incomplete and dishonest answer);   

3)  Why the United States needs to maintain an active diplomatic, security and commercial presence in the region;

4)  What the United States government needs to start doing differently in order to best advance our interests in the region. 

Now, obviously, this speech would have to be crafted with an eye towards the region as well — which is both the beauty and the challenge of it. 

Moreover, if I were one of Obama’s political advisors, I would sternly warn him against doing this, because the downside risks would be massive.  Americans don’t care much about foreign policy, and this speech could seem like a distraction from the domestic policy debates of the presidential campaign.  Such a speech would have to acknowledge his own administration’s foibles and fumbles in the region.  The address could easily act as a focal point to trigger another wave of violence and instability. 

That said, the U.S. really is stuck in the Middle East — better to be stuck with full information than with muddling through.  Or, at least, full information that we’re muddling through. 

One of the most frustrating things about Mitt Romney’s blunders this week is that they took the pressure off of the Obama administration.  When the challenger has set this low of a bar, it’s not hard for the administration to claim that they’re the adults in the room.  Well, it’s not enough just to be the adults — they’re the ones in charge, and they’re the ones that need to make the case for patience, for persistence, and for diplomatic engagement.  Get cracking. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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