Obama's Middle East Cluelessness
May 13, 2011
Friday's announcement of George Mitchell's resignation as the U.S. mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict appears to be yet another sign of the disarray and failure in President Obama's handling of the Middle East. Recently, two articles provided a troubling inside look at the ineptitude that makes Mitchell's departure unsurprising. A New Yorker piece on the Arab Spring by Ryan Lizza describes Obama's navigation between realists and idealists, and tags him (per the article's title) as "The Consequentialist." Perhaps "The Cluelessist" is more like it.
Lizza's article this month and "Obama Seeks Reset in the Arab World" by Mark Landler in the New York Times this week relay the narrative of the president's spinmeisters: the Middle East poses devilishly complicated challenges, and Obama is struggling with them as well as can be expected. Lizza lets an Obama adviser get away with making the concept of "leading from behind" sound like a tool of noble statesmanship rather than a cowardly cop-out. Yet, as Obama prepares to give a foreign policy speech as early as next week, the reporting in these two articles -- and now Mitchell's resignation -- add up to an unflattering portrait of a White House wandering the Middle East without a map.
One of the signs is the White House's effort to erase Obama's misjudgments from the record. In Egypt, the truth is that the White House failed to see the writing on the wall and foolishly stood by the brutal and corrupt Mubarak regime to the end. As Lizza writes, "Obama decided not to call for Mubarak to step down... Obama's instinct was to have it both ways." While Obama supposedly sympathized with the protesters, he clearly didn't want to alienate other pro-American dictators or risk destabilization in a major Arab country that had made peace with Israel.
Indeed, as Lizza reports, Obama's personal envoy Frank Wisner flew to Cairo, met with Mubarak, and then declared that "President Mubarak's continued leadership is critical." The White House disowned Wisner's statement, but Lizza quotes a close Wisner friend quoting Wisner saying, "They threw me under a bus." The fact is that even when Obama started nudging Mubarak into a role as honorary president, the White House's notion was for him to hand over power to Mubarak's intelligence supremo, Omar Suleiman, a move that might keep the Egyptian regime nicely intact.
Obama's warm and fuzzy embrace of the protesters in his O-Egyptians-how-you-have-inspired-us speech is at odds with the shockingly unsympathetic comment that a senior U.S. official made to Lizza in the midst of the crisis: "I don't think that because a group of young people get on the street that we are obliged to be for them." When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came to Cairo a month later, that "group of young people" -- known as the January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition -- refused to meet with her because of Obama's ambivalence toward their brave uprising. The snub prompted another dismissive comment, this time on the record and from Clinton herself: "The people who start revolutions may or may nor be the people who actually end up governing countries," she told Lizza.
Details in the Times article portray a White House that is floundering in the face of Middle East change. Landler quotes some senior administration officials arguing that bin Laden's death means Obama can now be "more forward leaning on political change" -- presumably in favor of democracy. Such a comment actually betrays an incredibly ignorant assumption that somehow the choice has always only been between secular dictators like Mubarak or Muslim extremists championing bin Laden.
In other muddled thinking of this sort, Landler's article suggests that Obama has been considering using the Arab Spring to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Great, but evidently on second thought it seemed that the recent Fatah-Hamas Palestinian unity agreement made things more complicated by hardening the Palestinian stance toward Israel. So Obama probably won't offer a specific new plan for reviving the peace talks, after all -- despite the fact that only the power of American mediation is capable of achieving an end to a dispute that dangerously continues to radicalize and polarize the Middle East. It will be interesting to learn whether the timing of Mitchell's resignation as Obama's peace envoy is related to White House disarray over how to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now. (And, whether Mitchell will become the latest Obama envoy to be thrown under a bus.)
Landler depicts a president casting about in search of some "unified theory" that explains the Arab upheavals. Obama has instructed staffers to research 50-60 countries to find precedents for political transitions. He "sounded out" Thomas L. Friedman and Fareed Zakaria on their trips to the Middle East. He even spends evenings in the family residence reading Middle East websites. All this is apparently revealed to make the president appear intensely engaged in handling the policy challenges. Actually, it makes Obama look even more clueless when it comes to the Middle East. Landler cites several officials saying that the policy confusion is because of a "tug of war within the president himself."
Pouring over historical analogies, picking the brains of pundits, surfing the web for answers -- fine. But you can almost hear Obama's desperate cry for help. His predicament is now worse with the departure of Mitchell, the distinguished mediator who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland but who toiled for two years as Obama's envoy with no tangible results in the Middle East.
In case Obama glances at The Huffington Post the next time he's trolling the Internet after normal working hours, here's some free advice. You know what? Change is messy, but the Middle East isn't as complicated as you have been led to think. Policies such as supporting Arab dictatorships and unconditionally backing Israel against the Palestinians have destroyed America's standing here -- and contributed mightily to the mess. In your upcoming speech and future actions, support the quest of 350 million Arabs for democracy, dignity, justice, opportunity and peace. Stop hesitating to support the freedom movements. Stop hesitating to negotiate Israeli-Palestinian peace. When you come back to Cairo next time, you'll fill Tahrir Square.
You might also want to find -- and listen to -- advisers who can guide you with moral clarity along these lines, rather than paralyze you with ignorant assumptions, poor judgments, false complexities and political miscalculations. This region of the world is moving on. It is imperative that America move on with it. Otherwise, you are at risk of becoming the president who "lost" the Middle East.
(This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.)
Scott MacLeod is managing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and is a professor in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.