Fouad Ajami

Obama Redux – Groundhog Day


President Obama, it would be sheer arrogance to offer some thoughts to you about an overall strategy for the Greater Middle East.  You had skillfully demonstrated in your first term that a policy of appeasement and isolationism is palatable to the narrow majority who voted for you for a second term.  The “progressives” who lead your brigades are isolationists, theirs is the second coming of George McGovern’s “Come Home America.”  Liberalism has been untethered from the internationalism that had been the bedrock of bipartisan foreign policy from Truman to George W. Bush.  You had let delirious crowds abroad (more so in Paris and Berlin, it should be emphasized, than in Islamic lands) read into you what they wished, the isolationism at the core of your worldview was covered up by an exotic name and by a pretension to cosmopolitanism.

Our country was worn-out by the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by the burdens of a seemingly endless, twilight war against Islamic radicalism, and you capitalize on that disenchantment.  You liquidated the war in Iraq and our strategic gains there without a second thought.  Iran was its own example of your knack for soaring oratory and embarrassing accommodations with tyrants.  The summer of 2009 had put on display your unease with political freedom.  A rebellion had broken out against the theocracy; by the appearance of things, it was a decent movement which wanted a better country.  The least our country could have done was to speak, through you, on behalf of reform and political freedom.  You opted for silence, more remarkably still, you implied that there was a negligible difference between the regime and the opposition: they are all Persians after all.  In Iran and beyond, the forces of reform and change took notice, you were a man of the status quo.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Abbas Milani

Getting Iran Right This Time Around


Dear President Obama: Congratulations on winning a second term. Iran, as you have often said, will present a major challenge to your foreign policy in the coming months.

Two follies have long haunted US policy on Iran. Some critics of the Islamic regime have offered “no negotiation with the regime” as policy. The other side is the view that just negotiating with the regime is the panacea for the nuclear issue, and also for an end to all the regime’s shenanigans. And if past attempts at negotiation have not worked, it is only because American policy makers have not tried hard enough.

The second folly has been the view that “solving” the nuclear impasse should be the sole goal of US policy. This view misjudges the nature of the regime by assuming that it will actually abide by any promises it makes. This is a regime that has broken virtually every promise it made to its own people, one whose theology is founded on the notion of Tagiyeh—where an expedient lie to “infidels” is the duty of the Shiite faithful. Focusing only on the nuclear issue has played into the hands of the regime, allowing it to rally nationalist sentiments, and shifting the focus of US policy away from the no less important issues of human rights and democracy in Iran.

For almost two decades, Ayatollah Khamenei has said that America’s “soft power” and its “culture war”–the power of its ideas, its defense of the right of religious freedoms for all Iranians, whether of Bahai faith, or Muslims wishing to convert to other religions, equality for women, and the power of its information technology to breaking what you called a new Iron Curtain of ideas–is the most serious threat to his regime. And for almost as long, the US has surprisingly not fully played in the field the regime is in fact most vulnerable.

Carrying the anti-American and anti-Israeli banner had been the sole tool of the Shiite, non-Arab clerics of Iran to claim the mantle of leadership of the proverbial Arab or Muslim Street. Another obstacle to serious negotiations with the US has been the IRGC’s realization that tensions with America have been instrumental in its success in becoming an economic and political juggernaut, dominating directly or indirectly an estimated sixty to seventy percent of the economy.

But in spite of the regime’s designs and desires, the regime is left with little alternative but to negotiate with the US. For America, the policy foundation of any negotiations should be that only a more democratic, transparent and law-abiding power in Iran can solve the nuclear issue. I know you have long believed that the US can’t, and should not, export democracy to Iran; but it is no less true that America can help create a more favorable context for transition to democracy. Another corollary to this policy is that military action on Iran to retard the regime’s nuclear program will be the best gift to the troubled Islamic regime. Its recent bellicosity in claiming to “hunt down” at least three US drones is sure proof that at least some in the regime are pining for such an attack.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Tammy Frisby


Mr. President:

Looking ahead to your second term, evaluations of your prospects for success in domestic policymaking usually fall between fair (but maybe including the achievement of landmark tax reform or comprehensive immigration reform) and non-existent.

With a continuing Republican majority in the House and a GOP minority in the Senate large enough to be effective obstructionists in that chamber, efforts to enact your domestic agenda could be frustrated are nearly every turn. You might be tempted to see foreign policy as the surer course to a second term legacy. And that would not be an unreasonable conclusion. Among the classics of scholarship on the U.S. presidency, Aaron Wildavsky’s “Two Presidencies” thesis (1966), presented the idea that, while the two branches of government are relatively balanced in domestic policymaking, in foreign affairs, the president is dominant over Congress.

The Two Presidencies view is not without its critics and, over the years, has been called insufficiently nuanced, incomplete, and wrong. There is also the question of whether – nearly fifty-years later – the American president now operates within an international order and domestic political environment so different as to raise doubts about whether the president has as much room to maneuver on foreign policy as Wildavsky saw. But much the same, of course, can be said of domestic politics and policymaking. So while presidents might find themselves more constrained in both foreign and domestic policymaking, that the relative balance still favors foreign affairs seems more plausible than not. Add to that the reality of working with a polarized Congress with Republicans who have their hands firmly on the levers of power in the lawmaking process, and it seems difficult to argue that you will not serve Two Presidencies in your second term.
Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Leon Wieseltier

The American Abdication


One of the most tiresome clichés about the Middle East is that it never changes. In the old days, this notion of stasis was called essentialism. It is certainly true that there are significant historical changes – the ones that we cluster together in the term “modernization” – that have not yet come to the Arab societies of the region; and it is also true that there are powerful forces arrayed against the prospect of these changes. But the last few years have exposed the idea of the undying fixity of Arab life – so convenient for native theocrats and foreign corporations – as a myth. There is no region in the world where the winds of change are blowing more ferociously. The Arab Spring is one of the most momentous convulsions of modern history. Yet it is important to note that the some of the changes now affecting the Middle East are not indigenous, or of its own making. I have in mind one such change in particular. It is the bewildering but undeniable withdrawal of the United States from any really consequential role in helping to determine the outcomes of the various Arab revolutions.

This shrinkage of America’s conception of its place in the Middle East, and more generally of its place in the world, is the work of Barack Obama, his unspoken doctrine; and so his reelection does not bode well for the region. Or rather, it bodes well for its reactionary forces, who will encounter no formidable American obstacle to the pursuit of their interests and their ambitions. The president of the United States has been bizarrely content to be a spectator – in the front row, but still a spectator – of these hugely repercussive events. His passivity about Syria is of course the most egregious example. In Syria we now lag, morally and strategically, behind France, as we once did in Libya. Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Reuel Marc Gerecht

Obama’s Greater Middle East


It’s difficult to recommend a new approach to the Greater Middle East when the overarching philosophy of Barack Obama’s first term lingers on. In 2008 the Illinois senator sincerely believed that the United States was disliked in Muslim lands primarily because of George W. Bush, American aggressiveness, and Israeli right-wingers. He was convinced that as president he could reset America’s image because he had, in his own words, the “credibility of someone who lived in a Muslim country for four years” as a child and thus had “a sense of that culture that…[would allow him] to more effectively bring about the kinds of cooperation that we need to go after terrorists and isolate them and bring the Muslim world together with the Western world to pursue the kinds of strategies that make everyone prosperous.”

Mr. Obama wanted the United States to do less (minus the drones) and thus be liked more. The president’s attempted engagement in 2009 of Ali Khameneh’i, the Iran’s supreme leader, and Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Alawite dictator, naturally followed. So, too, his coolness towards Israel and the quiet awkwardness during the enormous pro-democracy street demonstrations in Tehran in the summer of 2009 and the Tahrir pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo in 2011. This less-is-more leftwing cautiousness also gave us the president’s last-minute decision to follow French president Nicolas Sarkozy into Libya, but do next to nothing in country once Muammar Qadhafi fell. It lies behind the president’s continuing resistance to intervening in Syria, and his firm plans to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Habib Malik


Dear President Obama,

During your second term as US President the Middle East will continue to occupy center stage in the domain of American foreign policy. Three key issues are certain to present you with particularly difficult challenges: the protection of native religious minority communities in the face of rising Islamist extremism; Syria’s civil war with the potential of spillover; and Iran’s nuclear program.

The Middle East today is going through an unprecedented period of turmoil that to some looks like a spring, but to others appears ominously as a looming winter. Included in the second anxious category are many from the indigenous non-Muslim communities rooted in their ancestral lands across the region. They fear the unleashing of a relentless region-wide slippery slope towards Salafism, Jihadism, and other forms of radical Islamism—violent ideologies that will continue targeting them as has already happened repeatedly in places like Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Their apprehensions are not products of overactive imaginations or unfounded exaggerations. History in this part of the world has rarely been kind to vulnerable minorities, and this is a particularly delicate juncture for these exposed communities. The litmus-paper test for the success or failure of the Arab Spring to inaugurate an era of true democracy in the region is the treatment of religious minority communities, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Mounting abuses of these communities and attacks on their religious freedom will reflect badly on all those, including the United States, who have cheered on the popular uprisings against various repressive Arab regimes. In your third televised debate before the elections you referred to pressures you were putting on the government in Egypt to respect and protect religious minorities. New Arab governments should be made to feel they are under close scrutiny by your Administration and the international community on the question of minority rights, freedoms, and security. There needs to be an insistence that clear, forceful, and binding language safeguarding minority rights be incorporated in all the new constitutions of these emerging Arab states.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Asli Aydintasbas

Letter From Istanbul


As I write these lines overlooking the Bosphorus on a warm autumn day, a blast on a civilian bus shook the streets of Tel Aviv only a few minutes ago. That explosion came after six straight days of an Israeli air campaign in Gaza, not only flaming Palestinian anger, but also lining up a new post-Arab Spring coalition against Israel. Hamas is no longer an isolated entity; it has the new Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and the Arab League as guardians.

That’s not all. The death toll in the bloody civil war against the Asad regime in Syria has been pretty steady lately; averaging between 100 and 200 lives every day.

Oh and don’t let me forget to mention that Iraq is on the brink of a civil war, with the government of Nuri el-Maliki massing up troops on the oil-rich town of Kirkuk this week, seemingly against the Iraqi Kurdish forces there.

While all this was happening, President Barack Obama was on a mediagenic tour in Asia, his vision summed up by his deputy national security adviser as “continuing to fill in our pivot to Asia will be a critical part of the president’s second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy.”

All of this falls neatly in line with the White House declared strategy of “leading from behind” – or leaving “light footprints” as former CIA chief General David Patraeus told Congress –which has so far translated into a deliberate American lack of interest in the Middle East.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly
Robert Satloff

Congratulations on your election victory, Mr. President. Now you have four more years to achieve the lofty goals you have set for yourself. While these are principally domestic, you have also outlined a list of herculean objectives in foreign policy – from climate change to “global zero” to a “new beginning” with the Muslim world (a term from Cairo, circa 2009) to ending the festering sore of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Substantial progress on any one of these would (finally) merit a Nobel Prize; progress on all would reserve a spot for you on Mount Rushmore. But before your advisors convince you that you should invest your second-term mandate on a hunt for a foreign policy legacy, consider a narrow agenda that, in the Middle East at least, focuses on these goals:

  • Determining, once and for all, whether the strategy of diplomacy-plus-sanctions will produce a negotiated agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge or whether alternative means of coercion, including the use of military force, is necessary to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability; Click to read more.
Print Friendly
Charles Hill

World Order in the Age of Obama


The mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler prophesied that “We shall not get through this time without difficulty, for all the factors are prepared” Kepler was predicting the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648, that would launch the modern international state system in which America and the nations of the world still operate.

What ominous factors caused Kepler to shiver? Disturbances, uphealvals and conflicts. Merchants moaned about untrustworthy bankers. Diplomats strutted even as they wavered. The masses sullenly made deals they needed to survive when the gathering storm broke. Varieties of religious fervor caused many to prepare to be slain rather than submit to rule by others.

The 1648 settlement at Westphalia, though setbacks were many and vicious, enabled procedures fostering what eventually would be called “the international community,” a term that curled many a lip in the midst of twentieth-century world wars. Those wars were attempts to overthrow the established world order. Those wars failed, but in recent decades have become seemingly interminable, and have required the stewards of world order to confront what George Shultz labels “asymmetrical” warfare in which professional standards have been turned into self-imposed liabilities by enemies who reject civilized international conduct.

Click to read more.

Print Friendly