The Folly of Obama’s “Realism”

I have at prior occasion used this space  to comment on what is, in my view, a defining characteristic of Obama’s approach to the presidency: his consistent focus on “reasonable policies” derived from a “consensus of academic experts” as a strategy for winning political battles. Obama, on this analysis, has (astutely, in many ways) diagnosed the American political situation as follows. Both on the Right and on the Left (but mostly on the Right) politics has become dominated by radical views that are tailored only to a small section of the population, and that are not shared by the “silent majority” of the public. As such, simply by hewing to middle-of-the-road policies Obama can succeed in standing out from the crowd of bickering politicians as a reasonable, intelligent thinker. This has the result that, even without Obama pulling off particularly startling policy successes, the perception of being reasonable and in line with common-sense should be sufficient for “Camp Hope” to crank out electoral and political victories. Witness, as evidence for my contention, Obama’s grind-it-out approach to the 2012 elections, and his neutral (some might say bland), attempt-at-ruling-by-consensus policy record thus far.

If there is one area in which Obama’s hallmark follow-the-experts approach has been on full display (and where political strategy probably coincides most neatly with Obama’s own independent views), it is his so-called “neo-realist” approach to the Middle East.

On this approach (which certainly is de rigeur among foreign policy experts, if it can’t already be described as a consensus) America’s Middle Eastern woes of the last decade-and-a-half have been largely self-inflicted.

The first thing, the thinking goes, is to accept that the Middle-East is a deeply, and (at least at present) irreparably problematic region, wracked by zealotry, bigotry and violence. Moreover, and relatedly, the US has few genuine Middle Eastern interests: the region is an economic wasteland, where the only discernible American interest has been to preserve the necessary stream of hydrocarbons. And even this interest is diminishing, as discoveries of shale reserves in the US will soon translate into a future of American energy-independence.

Second, however, the US has made it a foolish habit to unnecessarily aggravate sentiments in this low-interest hornet’s nest by consistently overcommitting to more pronounced positions than it has needed to: it has overcommitted to oppressive and backward Sunni regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia; it has overcommitted to the universally despised Israeli expansionist project in the West Bank; and it has overcommitted to naive, grandiose projects of democratizing and Westernizing Arab nations and populations.

All these cases of excessive US involvement, the “realist” concludes, have brought the US only anger and violence, and have served no independent purpose. As such, the US presently has only one main thing do in its Mid-East policy: to rid itself of its unnecessary entanglements and to stop the region from being a drain on its military, economic and political priorities.

I believe it is this “reasonable consensus of foreign policy experts” that we are currently seeing unfold in American policy vis-a-vis the Middle East. This overall policy takes several forms as applied to various areas in the Middle East.

With regard to the events of the Arab Spring in places like Egypt and Syria, the Obama administration has taken the view that it does not fundamentally matter to America what sort of regimes ultimately prevail. What matters more is that the US is not seen as implicated on either side, and that whatever develops on the ground, the unavoidable ire of either side does not turn against the US.

With regard to Middle East peace process, in turn, it is a primary US interest to stop being perceived as a patsy to the loathed Israelis. To this end, the US can try to press Israel to accept a permanent settlement with the Palestinians, and in this way facilitate a more stable inclusion of Israel into the family of relatively moderate Middle Eastern states. On the other hand, however, if such a permanent settlement proves impossible due to Israeli resistance, the US’s primary interest lies in divorcing itself sharply from the Israeli position, and making clear it no longer wishes to be associated with Israel’s policies.

With regard to the Iranian nuclear program, finally, the analysis is that US has in the past needlessly committed itself to the Sunni/Israeli side of a regional Sunni/Shia conflict. There is no real US interest in seeing the Sunni side prevail, particularly given its ties to anti-US Jihadist organizations. Indeed, it is not even a primary US interest to avoid Iran from ultimately obtaining a nuclear weapon, which will realistically only have regional consequences.

Best, then, to distance the US from the Israeli-Sunni alliance, and employ negotiations with Iran in order to reposition the US as a neutral observer-rather-than-participant vis-a-vis the Middle East’s power struggles. To this end, negotiations with Iran can be mutually beneficial: for Iran to gain US neutrality is a major win in its struggle for prominence in the region, and in return the US might gain a measure of peace and stability from the Shia corner that it has previously lacked. For example, Iran could help secure a solution for Syria, could reign in Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps most importantly, could help in stabilizing (rather than destabilizing) Afghanistan after a US withdrawal.

Now here is my contention: all this US-cutting-ties-with-erstwhile-allies under the guise of seemingly reasonable “realist” thinking is, in a word, ‘unmerited’ (yeah there was another word there first).

The fundamental failing of the “realist” view is that it hews to the populist sentiment that America’s engagement with the Middle East should be seen exclusively through the prism of its costs. As if (and this is indeed the view of many in the intellectual establishment) the US needlessly and freely got involved in Middle Eastern politics, only to subsequently suffer the “terrible consequences” of its invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is a mistake.

For one, the costs of America’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan cannot be seen as unavoidable consequences of America’s stances in the region. Many of the costs in these conflicts were incurred due to entirely avoidable blundering by the US (indeed at least one of the wars, and perhaps both, were themselves blunders). Moreover, it can also not be assumed that US disengagement from the region will fundamentally alleviate these costs. Anti-Americanism in the Middle East runs deep, and should be expected to cause problems much beyond US policy shifts.

Furthermore, we should not overstate the costs that America did in fact incur in Iraq and Afghanistan (as they tend to be). American policy over recent years has been characterizing by a dramatic lurching from one extreme to another, as if being run by an impulsive hysteric. To be sure, it was an extreme, bizarre and naive project that the Bush government brought on the region through its neoconservative efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the problems of America’s wars in these countries should not lead the US to run in panic from everything it has been doing in the region for at least four decades. The slogan that the US is “tired of foreign wars”, bandied about so often these days, is simplistic and lazy, and will inevitably have to be reversed by subsequent administrations.

But most importantly, America’s “realists” are missing the core grounds that produced US alliances the Middle East in the first place: the inevitable global competition among states for influence and resources, from which the US had come out victorious after decades of hard work, and which will now reappear with a vengeance.

Current US policy appears to suppose that if the US withdraws, no harmful actors will take its place. But this supposition is already coming undone in a dramatic way.

For example, as the US is turning away from the Sunni struggle with the “Shia Crescent”, Arab states (as well as Israel) are vocally incensed and already turning elsewhere: witness France’s torpedoing of the first leg of negotiations with Iran. Likewise, Syria and Egypt are turning to Russia and China in ways the consequences of which are hard to foresee.

To be sure, at present all this may seem harmless enough, and the memories of Iraq and Afghanistan are still sufficiently fresh to make US disengagement seem like the sensible choice. But as US power vacates the region, conflicts between new powers and patrons (France, China, Russia, India, etc.) will no doubt produce international havoc on the middle long term, which the US is entirely naive to believe it can remain unaffected by.

At that point, the US will come to realize once more why engagement in a region arises in the first place, and what the value was of having securely won states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel to its camp. In that light, the Obama administration will look foolish to have abandoned those gains in a fit of fashionably realist “nation building at home”.

[UPDATE: the familiar counterpoint here is that the US can safely disengage from states like Israel, Egypt and Saudi-Arabia because there are no genuine rivals around to replace US patronage. Suffice it to say that it strikes me as incautious to bet the US position in the region on this speculative thesis.]

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