One of Obama’s strongest traits has always also been one of his main weaknesses: he’s a listener. Ever the academic, Obama seeks his governing style to be a paragon of subtle rationality and sober collaboration, informing his policy with the views of America’s ‘best and brightest’, and keeping far from the ideological rigidity and simple-mindedness that characterized his predecessor.
Clearly in many respects this approach is laudable. But today Obama’s ‘policy of consultation’ has come to reflect an American foreign policy establishment that is slowly but surely coming completely undone. Whether it concerns the war in Syria, the wider Arab Spring, or the struggle with Al Qaeda, the decade after 9/11 has left the Western establishment stuck between two equally untenable schools of policy on the Middle East, unclear what the problems really are, what can be achieved, or how to do so.
The past decade since September 2001 has essentially seen two schools of thought on the central question of this period, i.e. ‘what moves Islamic radicals, and how can we prevent their violence?’ The first, neo-conservative school advocated the Freedom Agenda: a progressive, interventionist ideology on which Islamic radicalism was the result of domestic political oppression, which it is incumbent on the West to reform. It lead to tremendous costs and dubious outcomes wherever implemented, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The second school, a neo-isolationist form of realism, arose as a response to the Freedom Agenda’s failure and is dominant today. On this ‘neo-realist’ vision, America’s real problem is to have antagonized the Islamic world by reckless and unnecessary forms of interference, and ultimately the only satisfactory answer to terrorism is to allay legitimate Islamic concerns. As such, Western policy ought to refrain from further-inflaming interventions, respect Muslim values and concerns, and support native Arab solutions for their political problems. It is this second school that represents the contemporary consensus of ‘those in the know’: brilliant Harvard professors, hard-nosed former CIA officials, and forward-thinking military personnel. Unfortunately, like the Freedom Agenda before it, today neo-realism has become little more than a brand of Western incompetence.
Consider the following historic progression. Obama started his term extolling the neo-realist Zeitgeist and casting himself as the ultimate anti-Bush, pursuing an emphatically multilateral diplomacy, as well as a concerted campaign to ‘re-friend’ the world of Islam. Unfortunately, however, events of the Arab Spring soon proved a nasty fork in the road for Obama’s PR campaign. If the US supports democracy (say in Iran), some Muslims may get mad at us for interfering (notably those that run Iran). But then, if we don’t support democracy, other Muslims will be angry instead! What to do? Moreover, Obama’s estimation of the prevalent sentiments on the Arab Street proved, to put the point euphemistically, somewhat naive. Obama’s hope had been that by supporting ‘just Arab aspirations’ the US would be seen as an ally of the Arab street, and the ‘argument for Islamism’ would decrease in appeal. But in fact it turned out that the ‘aspirations’ of many on the Arab Street’s turned out to precisely to be Islamist in nature, a tendency that (in startling contradiction to the Freedom Agenda) had thus far been kept in check by relatively secular and pro-Western authoritarians.
In this regard Syria has most painfully displayed Western confusion. Abhorring foreign interventions post-Iraq and having witnessed the pro-Islamist consequences of the Arab Spring, America’s ‘best and brightest’ are now deadlocked between hopes to win over Sunni public opinion and worries about the surge of Islamic fundamentalism. It is hard to overestimate how profound this confusion is: in a complete reversal from the early 2000’s, Western thinkers are now not even sure anymore which is preferable– Arab democratic aspirations, which turned out to promote rather than desolve Islamism, or dictatorships that previously had been thought to be the problem. As such, Syria represents the ne0-realist agenda in disarray. If ‘friending’ the Arab street is the aim, which is worse, failing to support their pursuits of freedom, or embroiling ourselves in their lands again? (In this regard there is a peculiarity in the position of Syria’s Sunni’s. Today, there are increased calls for American intervention. But recall that many among these Sunni militants were actually the same insurgents actively opposing Western intervention in Iraq).
For Western interests, the results of the neo-realist ideological deadlock have been detrimental. In Syria, Iran is preserving its interests, and Russia has re-emerged as a Middle East power. In addition, the West is not achieving its goals of lessening Islamist influence, as among the Sunni rebels Islamists gain prominence. In Iraq, meanwhile, the neo-realist focus on withdrawing forces has also caused havoc, as far from decreasing support for terror, formerly pro-American Sunni tribes are rejoining Al Qaeda. As such, it seems Western thought has come full circle since 2001. Initially it blamed Islamic terrorism on a lack of democracy and human rights, then on Western intervention and aggression, and now it simply seems rooted to the spot, not knowing precisely what produces Islamism in Arab societies, nor knowing whether to engage those societies, or to leave them alone.