Coming to Grips with Impotence

Can we really expect the president to be able to fix the Middle East?


The Arab world is in the midst of an extraordinary political and social revolution — authoritarian leaders have been toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and all three countries find themselves on the bumpy to road to democracy. In Syria, a bloody civil war goes on unabated; in Iraq, the transition from U.S. occupation to political stability continues at an uncertain clip. In short, the region is experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime transition toward representative government and away from autocracy and political suppression.

And yet, in the United States, all anybody seems to want to talk about is "us." Pundit gabfests and editorial pages are full of arguments about how the United States — or more directly the Obama administration — screwed up, lost the Arab Spring, or in some manner contributed to the present state of instability. The Romney campaign has, not surprisingly, settled on the narrative that American weakness and mixed messages from the White House are the cause of the current violence. But little of this is supported by evidence and almost all the talk is based on extraordinarily disconnected navel-gazing.  

In reality, events in the Middle East today have little to do with current U.S. policy. When it comes to the seismic shifts that are roiling the region today, Washington is as much a casual onlooker as it is an active participant. The unceasing efforts to pin blame on U.S. politicians elides the fact that the violence and instability in the region right now is largely beyond America’s ability to control it. Realizing that reality — one that has been true for generations — would go a long way toward creating a more rational and reasonable approach to American foreign policy.

It’s certainly true that U.S. embassies have become a focal point of violent protest over the past week. That is due in large measure to a shockingly tasteless video about Mohammed produced by jackass filmmakers (and I use that latter term advisedly) in California and the fact that a small percentage of Muslims are a bit touchy about blasphemy.

But to assert that this violence is exclusively a result of this movie (as the White House has done) or to place blame on current administration policy — or as Richard Williamson ludicrously suggested, that the presence of Mitt Romney in the White House would have prevented it — is to ignore the fact that U.S. involvement in the Middle East predates the current crisis.  

Conservatives who are blaming Obama for an alleged lack of will or mixed messages appear to believe that Arab grievances against the United States began when Obama took office and have no antecedents in decades of U.S. policy in the region. As Liz Cheney wrote in the Wall Street Journal, America’s adversaries no "longer fear us."

"Ask the mobs in Cairo who attacked our embassy, or the Libyan mobs who killed our diplomats at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Ask the Iranians, who make unhindered daily progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon," writes Cheney, without a hint of irony about her own tenure as a Middle East diplomat in the Bush administration.

To accept the conservative critique of Obama is to embrace the dubious notion that the Iraq War, U.S. support for non-democratic leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and elsewhere, the support for the Shah and overthrow of Mosaddegh in Iran, and practically uncritical support for Israel for the past two decades has nothing to do with why some individuals of the Arab world might view the United States with a healthy dose of suspicion. That might also explain why Washington doesn’t quite have the leverage that the president’s critics believe it should.

However, beyond these long-standing frustrations (and it’s worth noting that, while the United States is not exactly brimming with popularity in the Arab world, it doesn’t mean that all Arabs hate us — only an exceedingly small percentage do enough to actively protest), what is happening today in the Arab world reflects a tension far larger than one’s views about America’s role in the region. There are emerging fault lines between Salafists and more secular reformers in Egypt, between various factions in both Libya and Tunisia, between democrats and those with more authoritarian belief systems. For generations, politics in the Arab world have been suppressed and channeled into anger against outsiders while these societies ossified and regressed. In the last year, the region underwent an extraordinary and much-needed reformation — with Arab citizens being allowed for the first time in modern history to express a political opinion about and cast a ballot for the leaders who rule their land.

This is the sort of democratic awakening that leads occasionally to instability and even less than salutary results for the United States, but it’s one that is necessary and long overdue. That it may lead to situations in which long-standing anger toward the United States is used as a political tool is hardly surprising or unusual. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that the onset of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979 was driven in large measure by internal Iranian politics.

To be sure, America is not a complete bystander in these disputes. It clearly has a few levers at its disposal — and certainly in the case of Libya it played a critical role in toppling Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi from power. In Egypt, U.S. foreign assistance gives America greater influence then it would have otherwise. But short of military intervention or covert operations, America is hardly able to play a lead role — in large measure, because U.S. policymakers, utilizing the traditional tools of diplomacy and foreign assistance, have little ability to directly shape political outcomes. That Americans continue to believe — and that our political leaders continue to foster the fiction — that we can mold events happening in countries roiled by political change in ways that benefit our interests is the highest form of political narcissism.

Indeed, this weekend on ABC’s This Week we were provided with a fascinating insight into how this is issue is discussed at elite levels. Jake Tapper scolded U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, asking "Why does the U.S. seem so impotent, and why is the U.S. even less popular today in some of these Muslim and Arab countries than it was four years ago?"

Rice shot back, "Jake we’re not impotent," to which Tapper asserted: "It just seems that the U.S. government is powerless as this maelstrom erupts."

The reality is that the United States is, for the most part, impotent to control events thousands of miles outside its borders in sovereign nations that have their own belief systems and discrete sources of information. And not just in the Middle East, mind you. To suggest otherwise is as wrong-headed as the assertion that if President Obama only said nice words about the Green Movement in Iran or more aggressively spoke up in support of U.S. power, then … magically, democratic, pro-U.S. events would occur.

The reality is that even in places where the United States has intervened militarily, like Iraq and Afghanistan our ability to affect outcomes is, at best, limited. But the abiding conceit in both Rice and Tapper’s statement is that idea that we’re anything but powerless.

Of course, the exceptional notions of U.S. power and influence that shape so much of our political discussions on foreign policy don’t lead to these sorts of conclusions. We are as the expression goes, the world’s "indispensable nation" — and it’s a notion that is voiced regularly by those who seek to be president. And it’s certainly true that Washington plays an outsized role on the global stage — one able to influence global events far more than Sweden or Swaziland. But there are limits to that power and influence and we’re seeing them right now in the Middle East.

But unless we are prepared to meddle more directly and flagrantly in the region the United  States is not going to be able to, as the New York Times complained last week, decisively "help the transition to democracy from autocracy" or "draw a hard enough line against Islamic extremists." Instead, America’s best approach is to try and shape events around the margins — and support those groups that share large U.S. interests and values. And it’s the sort of work the United States should be doing: supporting civil society groups, providing assistance and diplomatic support to countries moving in a more open and democratic direction, but with the humility to understand that there is only so much the United States can accomplish and that too much meddling and intervention can result in blowback.

That’s a message you’re not going to hear on the campaign trail. Republicans will keep on insisting that Obama should be do more and Obama officials will insist that their policies for the region are working in shaping positive outcomes.

But don’t believe a word of it. We’re more impotent then we think and the sooner we realize it, the better our foreign policy will be.

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