An expert's point of view on a current event.

Speak Up, Mr. President

A memo to Barack Obama on how to talk about the Middle East policy no one thinks he actually has.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Memorandum to the President

Memorandum to the President

Subject: Your Middle East Policy, Ignore the Critics.

Listening to your critics, Mr. President, you’d think that America had no Middle East policy. You’d think that U.S. interests in the region were in ruins, and that your administration had abdicated its moral and strategic responsibilities by following inchoate, directionless, and risk-averse decisions that have dragged U.S. credibility to an all-time low

While what’s happening in the region is not primarily America’s fault, you certainly do bear some responsibility for the unhappy state of the Middle East. You intervene in Libya, but not in Syria; support an Arab Spring in Egypt, but not in Bahrain; draw red lines on the use of chemical weapons, but defer to Congress when it comes to the use of military force. Inconsistent policies in Egypt have managed to offend just about every political group in the country. And you accuse opponents of a very tentative deal with Iran of warmongering when they dare to pressure a Tehran they understandably don’t trust by using the very sanctions that brought the mullahs to the table in the first place.

Your rhetoric has often exceeded your capacity and intentions, and there are inconsistencies and contradictions in your approach to the Middle East that have never been adequately explained. Indeed, implementation of your decisions has been poor, but articulation of what it is you think is important, and what is not, has been even worse.

In reality, though, your critics are wrong. Maybe not entirely so, but they’re definitely overstating. You are doing the best you can at this point. You do have a Middle East policy, I believe, or at least a series of priorities and plans that you are working to execute. And they are focused around one central element: that there are no easy solutions — possibly not hard ones, either — to the problems in the region. . 

I’m not a fan of speeches as substitutes for clearly articulated and implemented policy. But you or Secretary of State John Kerry ought to consider giving a speech that lays out expressly what you’ve achieved in the Middle East, what your priorities are, and why America isn’t actually failing in a region of the world so vital to its interests.

You certainly don’t need any ego boosts. But as you write the speech I suggest, here are the reasons that the course you’re following is, on balance, the right one.

You Realize that You Can’t Fix the Middle East. You are dealing with an angry, broken, and dysfunctional region in the midst of profound change, most of which is headed in the wrong direction. Power in the Arab world is dissolving and decentralizing. There’s no serious commitment to real reform. Grievances between Shia and Sunni, driven more by who’s in and out of power than by religious tensions, are intensifying. And Islamists of varying persuasion — some funded by U.S. allies, others by al Qaeda derivatives — are taking advantage of the situation.

As for the so-called Arab Spring, the Roman historian Tacitus was right: The first day after the death of a bad emperor is always the best day. Right now, with the possible exception of Tunisia, that’s the story of the would-be revolutions we saw in 2011.

What impact can the United States possibly make in this mess? With 140,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, trillions of dollars spent, and a decade of effort expended, the politics of those two countries have not been fundamentally altered — certainly not in a way that would justify the price America has paid. Why, then, would anyone believe that you could end the war in Syria or stare down an Egyptian military that believes it’s in a fight for its life, as well as for the identity of its country? Your critics refuse to accept the reality that America’s values, interests, and policies — cutting of aid to Egypt, arming the Syrian opposition, striking President Bashar al-Assad — cannot be harmonized in some sort of neat package that will fix things in the region.

You’ve Stayed Out of Syria. That your critics — a strange combination of liberal interventionists and neoconservatives — accuse you of being responsible for the civil war in Syria, specifically for missing the so-called great opportunity that supposedly existed in 2011 to aid an budding group of rebels opposed to Assad, is either willfully manufactured politics, a misreading of the situation on the ground, or a gross misunderstanding of where the American public is and what America’s priorities should be. 

There was never an opportunity; at best, there was a calculated risk — and even then, you have to wonder what it would have taken from the United States to get the rebels to actually make an impact against the regime. And you had other priorities to deal with: You didn’t want to involve the United States in a proxy war with Iran over Syria because you perceived rightly that a nuclear deal was the more important objective.

Syria is a disaster, both morally and strategically. The idea that you could have fashioned — or could still fashion — a policy that would have improved things in the country with a significant economic investment and military intervention is an illusion. You could not have helped the rebels topple Assad, or convinced him to leave power, or prevented the rise of radical jihadists.

Your critics blast you primarily for not following their advice. But it’s a good thing you’re not.   At least on Syria, your critics have failed to come up with a carefully thought-through policy as to exactly how U.S. military power would end the conflict and ensure that the United States doesn’t get stuck with the check. Simply put, there are no opportunities in Syria — only traps, minefields, and potential disasters. 

What you are doing — trying to contain matters by supporting Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq and pushing humanitarian assistance with an option to ply a political track with the Russians in Geneva (if you can) — isn’t perfect, but it’s the best you can and should do. While your policy might be amoral, it isn’t immoral. The United States has its own needs and requirements that take precedence and that simply do not square with a major commitment to or in Syria.

You Are Protecting U.S. Interests. Your critics seem to overlook the fact that, when it comes to protecting U.S. core interests through actions toward and in the Middle East, you are actually doing pretty well. And when I say core interests, I mean the kinds of things that affect the security and economic well being of the American people and those enterprises where we risk American lives and resources.

There are several pieces of evidence that you are doing the right thing by these interests. First, your policies and those of your predecessor in the area of counterterrorism have kept America safe since 9/11. There have been costs: your policy on drones and the NSA dragnet, to name just two. But you have delivered on the central tenet of any foreign policy: protecting the homeland.

Second, you are withdrawing from the two longest wars in U.S. history where the standard for victory was never "can we win" but "when can we leave."  And whatever responsibility you bear for the current situation in Iraq, your predecessor who launched this discretionary war bears so much more. Indeed, the sad reality of these wars is that, from the beginning, it was always clear that what happened after America left would be much more determinative than anything we could accomplish while we were there.

Third, you are the beneficiary and are helping to promote a revolution in North American energy that will help wean the United States off of its dependence on hydrocarbons from the Arab world. Oil will continue to trade in a single market, and energy security of Middle East oil will always be a challenge, so we will never be truly immune from disruptions and shocks. And there are environmental costs to new techniques, such as fracking, off-shore drilling, and Key StoneXL. But encouraging and nurturing greater use of shale-oil gas, renewables, and other resources is critically important. It will give the United States additional leverage and security even while we will remain dependent on hydrocarbons for years to come.

Fourth, you have embarked on a critically important objective of trying to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. There are risks to this policy — both on the political and strategic sides. But they probably pale in comparison to the risks and uncertainties of war. As a practical matter, Iran is already a nuclear-threshold state, and it has objectives in the region that are at odds with ours and those of our allies, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. You’ve taken the right, calculated risk in trying diplomacy. It may pay off; it may not. So don’t trivialize your critics’ concerns or the legitimate worries of those in Congress who don’t trust the mullahs. And don’t get so invested in your own interim agreement that you can’t abide criticism from key allies who have legitimate worries about your policies.

Your Secretary of State is Your Best Talking Point. Finally, in John Kerry, the Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy, you have chosen to employ a real asset. I worked for half a dozen of his predecessors; this guy is really good and really busy. And unlike you (and me), he may actually believe in what he’s doing in the Middle East. His rhetoric is at times a bit over the top. But he’s in the middle of the mix on just about everything: the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Iran, Syria. These are all long shots. But they demonstrate that the United States is hardly absent from the Middle East or abdicating on our responsibilities. You need to push the hell out of what he’s doing — keeping in mind, with humility, that it’s all a work in progress.

Mr. President, the fact is that you are holding U.S. policy together in a region that is coming apart. If you want to be loved (see: your Cairo speech in 2009) find another part of the world. For a wide range of reasons, you may never even be admired in the region. But that’s not your fault.

The best advice right now?  Keep at it. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said that Abraham Lincoln died a sad man because he couldn’t have everything. And Lincoln was undeniably our greatest president. In the Middle East, you can’t have everything either. But keep focusing on what you can achieve, and don’t chase after what you can’t. There are no real solutions here, only best-possible outcomes. You can help to shape those in a way that will minimize the damage to U.S. interests — and maybe, just maybe, do a thing or two in the process to help the Middle East, too.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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