Barack Obama's Mideast strategy has failed


Barack Obama's Mideast strategy has failed

Jan 17th, 2014 2 min read
Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations

Ted Bromund studies Anglo-American relations, U.S. relations with Europe and the EU, and the U.S.’s leadership role in the world.

The damning report of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Benghazi confirms that the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. compound was planned and carried out by al-Qaida.

The report was not needed to confirm this: Doubt existed only because the Obama administration wanted to deny the obvious. And that, too, is no surprise because the administration's Mideast policy has been based on the kind of illusions that led to the attack in Libya. The committee's work is valuable partly because the administration took great pains to cover up the truth. But as Winston Churchill once noted, the drawback of experience is that the same thing never happens twice. The report is most useful because it exposes wider errors of policy.

The key to foreign policy in the Middle East, for all its complexity, is simple: Support your friends and make your enemies hurt. The Middle East is zero sum. If Iran wins, the Saudis believe they have lost. The Palestinians think they can advance only by making Israel retreat.

In much of the world, relations are not always zero sum. The Middle East way is not inherently good. But it's how the region works, because most of its regimes are authoritarian and hostile to each other. They are both strong and fragile.

They also respect strength, because they know that weakness -- as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi would admit, were he still alive -- leads to death. The only nation in the region that has made concessions for peace is Israel, its only democracy.

The rules of the region may change. But today, they are what they are, and the United States cannot change them. Unfortunately, that is what the administration has sought, unavailingly, to do. Instead of playing from strength, it has tried to win through weakness.

When the administration got into office, it had three aims. First, extend the hand of friendship to the most anti-American regime in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Second, work with so-called reformers like Bashar Assad of Syria, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Gadhafi. And third, pressure Israel to defang Islamist radicalism by making friends with the Arab street.

Over the last five years, most of this vision has collapsed. The reformers -- who in reality were autocrats -- went first, because it turned out that the Islamists hated them.

That should have been no surprise: Osama bin Laden proclaimed his hatred repeatedly. But this meant the administration had to choose between the autocrats and the rebels. By overthrowing Gadhafi, ditching Mubarak, and calling on Assad to go, it chose the rebels.

This see-no-evil phase of the administration's policy led to its desire to deny Benghazi was a terrorist attack. If the United States was backing the Islamists, it could not admit that they were anti-American. But as evidence of their hatred mounted, the administration shifted again.

Today, you don't hear much about the president's call for Assad to quit. In fact, the United States is tacitly backing him against the rebels, while the soft-power administration argues that we should sell Apache helicopters to Iraq so it can go kill terrorists. The only bits of the administration's initial policy that survive are its desires to pressure Israel and cozy up to Iran. Both of these make as much sense as calling Assad a reformer. It is folly to believe the Middle East would calm down if Israel did a deal with the Palestinians. As for Iran, President Hassan Rouhani's recent boast that the United States has "surrendered" was cutting, but the nuclear deal is indeed a capitulation.

The Benghazi report is like an archaeological dig: It shows us how the past laid the foundations for today. The danger the United States faces is not another Benghazi. It is a policy that is still guided by the illusion that being liked is more important in the Middle East than being respected.

 - Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.

Originally appeared in Long Island Newsday