American “fixes” for the Middle East?

With the broader Middle East making mincemeat out of Obama’s hopey-changey policies and ill-advised “fixes,” one has to wonder whether American opinion or policy is the best medicine for Israel. “Bambi” of America doesn’t always correctly comprehend the “Godzillas” of the Middle East.

Published in Israel Hayom, August 20, 2013.

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For Israel, it’s frightening to think of America as a misguided amateur. A confused and unpredictable America is even more terrifying than a tired superpower. Israel needs and wants a strong and engaged America projecting clear power in the Middle East, especially at this time of great political instability.

Yet the Obama Administration has made a series of so-very-glaring mistakes in the handling of Egypt over the past two years, to the point where the forty-year-long strategic relationship between the US and Egypt is at risk.

First Obama demanded that America’s long-time ally Mubarak “go”; then he cozied up to the Moslem Brotherhood government; now he is upset with the non-Islamist generals who have re-assumed power, and criticizes their crackdown on the radical Brotherhood as if Tahrir was Tiananmen Square.

Remember that, from the very beginning, Israeli leaders and analysts warned that nothing good would come from the revolution against Hosni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt. Israel warned that the alternative to Mubarak and his generals was the Moslem Brotherhood, and that the Brotherhood was neither a moderating nor a democratizing force. Yet the entire American foreign policy establishment accused Israeli spokesmen of being racists and nay-sayers, and Israel was told to get with the rose-colored zeitgeist. Alas, the Israeli “party-poopers” were right.

Which leaves American policy in tatters. Elliott Abrams writes in Commentary that “the Obama administration is pursuing neither an idealistic foreign policy… nor a realpolitik policy designed to maximize American power and influence in an age of limits through careful assertions of power and the strengthening and utilization of alliances. What foreign policy is it pursuing, then?”

Simply put, Washington’s behavior makes no strategic sense. The administration seems to be operating on a mix of strategic weariness and naïve ideology supporting a half-baked doctrine of sporadic intervention for humanitarian reasons.

As a result, Shmuel Rosner writes that he, like most Israelis, has “moved from suspecting Obama, even disliking him, to feeling sorry for him, to thinking of him as a clueless President.”

Probably the best essay of the year on American Middle East policy was published this week by Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest. In his masterful Bambi Meets Godzilla In The Middle East, the witty and wise Mead explains that Obama and his team have been taken in by a very old American mistake about the rest of the world, which is “to confuse the end of history with the morning news.”

Mead (the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and co-founder of the New America Foundation) writes that there is a deeply rooted American tendency to think that democracy is sweeping the world, right now. “In Obama’s dream Middle East, democracy at least of a sort was just around the corner. Moderate Islamists would engage with the democratic process, and the experience would lead them to ever more moderate behavior. If America got itself on the ‘right side of history,’ and supported this hopeful development, both America’s values and its interests would be served. Our relationships with the peoples of the Middle East would improve as they saw Washington supporting the emergence of democracy in the region, and Al Qaeda and the other violent groups would lose influence as moderate Islamist parties guided their countries to prosperity and democracy.”

“This vision, sadly, has turned out to be a mirage, and Washington is discovering that fact only after the administration followed the deceptive illusion out into the deep desert. The vultures are circling now as American policy crawls forlornly over the dunes… Not even the mainstream media can avoid the harsh truth that President Obama’s Middle East policies have collapsed into an ugly and incoherent mess.”

“As a nation, we are not very good at figuring out when the end of history is going to dawn in particular countries,” Mead writes, “and because we are looking so hard for the triumph of democratic capitalism, we tend to assume that any sound we hear in the night must be its footsteps drawing nigh. Moreover, because we identify belief in our national principles as a moral quality, we are angry with those who seem to display an insufficient faith. When doubters questioned the Bush administration’s claims that the war in Iraq would begin a democratic transformation of the Middle East, they were called anti-Arab racists. When doubters questioned the Obama administration’s claims that moderate Islamists held the key to a democratic future for the region, they were called racists and Islamophobes.”

“Americans need to face an unpleasant fact: while American values may be the answer long term to the Middle East’s problems, they are largely irrelevant to much that is happening there now. We are not going to stop terrorism, at least not in the short or middle term, by building prosperous democratic societies in the Middle East. We can’t fix Pakistan, we can’t fix Egypt, we can’t fix Iraq, we can’t fix Saudi Arabia and we can’t fix Syria…. If we could turn Pakistan into Denmark, the terrorists there would probably settle down—but that isn’t going to happen on any policy-relevant timetable. We must deal with terrorism (and our other interests in the region) in a world in which the basic conditions that breed terrorists aren’t going away.”

The upshot for Israel, I think, of Prof. Mead’s 2,500 word essay is this: Can Israel rely upon American judgment on issues like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, for example, or the nuclear confrontation with Iran, when the US got Egypt (and Syria, Iraq, Libya and…) so wrong?

Why should we think that America has the genius to fix Israel-Palestine when it has so clumsily flubbed the “fixes” it tried to apply everywhere else in the region?

Obama has sent Secretary of State John Kerry, peace processer extraordinaire Martin Indyk, and General John Allen (former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, another place where American strategic wisdom is in less-than-abundant evidence) to guide Israel (or push Prime Minister Netanyahu) into an accord with the feckless Mahmoud Abbas under less than optimum conditions. And Washington seems to already know what “fix” it needs to apply to this conflict: Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, more or less.

But with the broader Middle East making mincemeat out of Obama’s hopey-changey policies and ill-advised “fixes,” one has to wonder whether American opinion or policy (policy?) is the best medicine for Israel.

As the pithy Walter Russell Mead writes, “Bambi” of America doesn’t always best comprehend the “Godzillas” of the Middle East.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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