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.
In the war on terror, you dammed George W. Bush as you adopted his policies. You had said that you would shut down Guantanamo, and you didn’t, and but a few noticed or cared. You had railed against rendition and military commissions and indefinite detention, and those were all retained during your presidency. And those drones that so agitated the good liberals – they were, to become a weapon of choice in the arsenal available to you. Consider the numbers: During five years of the Bush presidency, there were 45 drone attacks over Pakistan, compared to 273 attacks during your own first term. You all but consigned Pakistan to oblivion, a volatile country whose anti-Americanism you were sure you could cap. You hadn’t altered the international landscape, you hadn’t ameliorated that anti-Americanism. You gave up on winning “hearts and minds,” reincarnated as an unsentimental leader at war with terrorists. The war on terror was being waged off the books, a few civil libertarians protested, but the country cut you slack. The Republicans were on the horns of a dilemma: the “dove” who ran for the presidency in 2008 had become an uncompromising “hawk,” the man who as late as 2009, amid the celebrations of NATO’s sixtieth anniversary, questioned the entire notion of “American exceptionalism,” now staged a convention, in Charlotte, rich with patriotic symbolism and lore. Your political team was second to none, they had understood that foreign policy could be finessed.
You gave Hillary Clinton the Syria assignment. She carried out your wishes, ran out the clock on the Syrian opposition, promised them help that never materialized as she repeatedly warned of the jihadists about to run away with a desperate rebellion. The political gamble was won, Syria never intruded on your re-election campaign. Thousands perished in Syria, and the trouble spilled into Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey, but the American cavalry did not turn up, and neither you, nor Secretary of State Clinton, stirred as the regime’s fighter jets reduced much of Aleppo to rubble. In August 2011, you had called on Bashar al-Assad to abdicate, but the dictator hunkered down, and it would appear that the tyrant in Damascus had read things for what they are.
It has been claimed that in your second term you will be free to tackle all that had been deferred or ignored during your stewardship thus far – the Palestinian question, the unraveling of Syria, the rescue of our hopeless endeavor in Afghanistan, and that relentless Iranian bid for regional hegemony and for nuclear weapons. Hope springs eternal, David Axelrod will have returned to Chicago, and you will now be free of the obsession with securing a second term. But for one, I doubt it, why change a winning formula?
Fouad Ajami is the author of The Syrian Rebellion and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and co chair of the Herb and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, Hoover Institution.
This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Obama’s Second Term – Middle Eastern Memos is provided by Russell Berman, Itamar Rabinovich, Charles Hill, Robert Satloff, Asli Aydintasbas, Habib Malik, Reuel Gerecht, Leon Wieseltier, Tammy Frisby, and Abbas Milani.