Let's give Gov. Tim Pawlenty some credit for wading into the Middle East in a serious policy speech yesterday. I'm going to pick through it in this post, taking major issue with some things he said and commenting in a more neutral manner on others. Ready? Okay...
I want to speak plainly this morning about the opportunities and the dangers we face today in the Middle East. The revolutions now roiling that region offer the promise of a more democratic, more open, and a more prosperous Arab world. From Morocco to the Arabian Gulf, the escape from the dead hand of oppression is now a real possibility.
Now is not the time to retreat from freedom’s rise.
Agreed. Though it was right here that I started to think about how the United States can effectively respond to what is taking place in the Middle East with limited and reduced resources.
Yet at the same time, we know these revolutions can bring to power forces that are neither democratic nor forward-looking. Just as the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and elsewhere see a chance for a better life of genuine freedom, the leaders of radical Islam see a chance to ride political turmoil into power.
Probably true. Thought not chief among my own concerns about the revolutions in the Arabic-speaking world.
The United States has a vital stake in the future of this region. We have been presented with a challenge as great as any we have faced in recent decades. And we must get it right. The question is, are we up to the challenge?
Probably not, actually. Gov. Pawlenty's teammates in the Congress aim to slash the International Affairs budget.
My answer is, of course we are.
If we are clear about our interests and guided by our principles, we can help steer events in the right direction. Our nation has done this in the past -- at the end of World War II, in the last decade of the Cold War, and in the more recent war on terror … and we can do it again.
Sometimes, though, as we have seen in the Middle East, our interests do not match up with our principles.
But President Obama has failed to formulate and carry out an effective and coherent strategy in response to these events.
This is certainly true. But I have a little sympathy for the president here. It's tough to formulate a coherent regional strategy when our interests vary to such a high degree from country to country.
He has been timid, slow, and too often without a clear understanding of our interests or a clear commitment to our principles.
Meh. I actually see the guy's advisors trying to balance our interests against our principles, which is not the easiest thing to do in a region with Saudi Arabia in it.
And parts of the Republican Party now seem to be trying to out-bid the Democrats in appealing to isolationist sentiments. This is no time for uncertain leadership in either party. The stakes are simply too high, and the opportunity is simply too great.
Well! At this point in the speech, I started to wonder whether or not we were about to get a taste of the full-throated freedom agenda stuff that kind of died in the maelstrom of Iraq and Israel's debacle in Lebanon in 2006.
No one in this Administration predicted the events of the Arab spring - but the freedom deficit in the Arab world was no secret.
For 60 years, Western nations excused and accommodated the lack of freedom in the Middle East.
That could not last. The days of comfortable private deals with dictators were coming to an end in the age of Twitter, You Tube, and Facebook.
And history teaches there is no such thing as stable oppression.
President Obama has ignored that lesson of history. Instead of promoting democracy – whose fruit we see now ripening across the region – he adopted a murky policy he called “engagement.”
Not sure how one is the opposite of the other, though I'm now sensing where this is going...
“Engagement” meant that in 2009, when the Iranian ayatollahs stole an election, and the people of that country rose up in protest, President Obama held his tongue. His silence validated the mullahs, despite the blood on their hands and the nuclear centrifuges in their tunnels.
While protesters were killed and tortured, Secretary Clinton said the Administration was “waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes.” She and the president waited long enough to see the Green Movement crushed.
I'm sure the administration has some good reasons for not wanting to openly side with the protesters in 2009 in Iran, but that decision has made the administration an easy target for the other party.
“Engagement” meant that in his first year in office, President Obama cut democracy funding for Egyptian civil society by 74 percent. As one American democracy organization noted, this was “perceived by Egyptian democracy activists as signaling a lack of support.” They perceived correctly. It was a lack of support.
Interesting. I had not heard this. It would, of course, be interesting for Gov. Pawlenty to point out here that his own party now controls the purse strings. Should the Congress now spend more on these kinds of democracy promotion programs abroad?
“Engagement” meant that when crisis erupted in Cairo this year, as tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, Secretary Clinton declared, “the Egyptian Government is stable.” Two weeks later, Mubarak was gone. When Secretary Clinton visited Cairo after Mubarak’s fall, democratic activist groups refused to meet with her. And who can blame them?
Plenty of activists met with Sec. Clinton, actually, though Gov. Pawlenty is correct that the United States was on the wrong side of history on Egypt.
The forces we now need to succeed in Egypt -- the pro-democracy, secular political parties -- these are the very people President Obama cut off, and Secretary Clinton dismissed.
This is weak sauce. You can't blame the U.S. government for the fact that secular political parties are not stronger than they are.
The Obama “engagement” policy in Syria led the Administration to call Bashar al Assad a “reformer.” Even as Assad’s regime was shooting hundreds of protesters dead in the street, President Obama announced his plan to give Assad “an alternative vision of himself.” Does anyone outside a therapist’s office have any idea what that means? This is what passes for moral clarity in the Obama Administration.
I'm with Gov. Pawlenty on this one, but there is a contradiction coming up later. Wait for it.
By contrast, I called for Assad’s departure on March 29; I call for it again today. We should recall our ambassador from Damascus; and I call for that again today. The leader of the United States should never leave those willing to sacrifice their lives in the cause of freedom wondering where America stands. As President, I will not.
We need a president who fully understands that America never “leads from behind.”
Oh, man. Whichever advisor uttered those infamous words in front of a reporter from the New Yorker needs to be flogged.
We cannot underestimate how pivotal this moment is in Middle Eastern history. We need decisive, clear-eyed leadership that is responsive to this historical moment of change in ways that are consistent with our deepest principles and safeguards our vital interests.
Opportunity still exists amid the turmoil of the Arab Spring -- and we should seize it.
Hahaha, Tim Pawlenty sounds like Brad Pitt's Achilles from that horrible Troy movie. I'm fired up, Tim! Let's storm the beach!
As I see it, the governments of the Middle East fall into four broad categories, and each requires a different strategic approach.
The first category consists of three countries now at various stages of transition toward democracy – the formerly fake republics in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. Iraq is also in this category, but is further along on its journey toward democracy.
For these countries, our goal should be to help promote freedom and democracy.
Okay, I'll buy that.
Elections that produce anti-democratic regimes undermine both freedom and stability. We must do more than monitor polling places. We must redirect foreign aid away from efforts to merely build good will, and toward efforts to build good allies -- genuine democracies governed by free people according to the rule of law. And we must insist that our international partners get off the sidelines and do the same.
Okay, but now I'm starting to ask those questions about where the money for this will come from.
We should have no illusions about the difficulty of the transitions faced by Libya, Tunisia, and especially Egypt. Whereas Libya is rich in oil, and Tunisia is small, Egypt is large, populous, and poor. Among the region’s emerging democracies, it remains the biggest opportunity and the biggest danger for American interests.
Having ejected the Mubarak regime, too many Egyptians are now rejecting the beginnings of the economic opening engineered in the last decade.
True. But that liberalization allowed Egypt's economy to grow but only benefitted a small percentage of the richest Egyptians. Sounds a lot like another country I know, actually.
We act out of friendship when we tell Egyptians, and every new democracy, that economic growth and prosperity are the result of free markets and free trade—not subsidies and foreign aid. If we want these countries to succeed, we must afford them the respect of telling them the truth.
Nothing controversial there. A lot of truth, in fact. Read the Economist's special briefing on the Egyptian economy for more.
In Libya, the best help America can provide to these new friends is to stop leading from behind and commit America’s strength to removing Ghadafi, recognizing the TNC as the government of Libya, and unfreezing assets so the TNC can afford security and essential services as it marches toward Tripoli.
I'm with this. The United States either needs to focus on a) removing Qadhdhafi or b) supporting the TNC militarily and politicially. One or the other. If Gov. Pawlenty wants to do that latter, I'm down with that. By the way, there's that "leading from behind" phrase again. Expect to hear a lot more of that in 2011 and 2012.
Beyond Libya, America should always promote the universal principles that undergird freedom. We should press new friends to end discrimination against women, to establish independent courts, and freedom of speech and the press. We must insist on religious freedoms for all, including the region’s minorities—whether Christian, Shia, Sunni, or Bahai.
The second category of states is the Arab monarchies. Some – like Jordan and Morocco – are engaging now in what looks like genuine reform. This should earn our praise and our assistance. These kings have understood they must forge a partnership with their own people, leading step by step toward more democratic societies. These monarchies can smooth the path to constitutional reform and freedom and thereby deepen their own legitimacy. If they choose this route, they, too, deserve our help.
I'm skeptical of how far Jordan is going to promote reform, actually. They still have one of the more brutal secret police in the region. But okay, I'll go along with this.
But others are resisting reform. While President Obama spoke well about Bahrain in his recent speech, he neglected to utter two important words: Saudi Arabia.
US-Saudi relations are at an all-time low—and not primarily because of the Arab Spring. They were going downhill fast, long before the uprisings began. The Saudis saw an American Administration yearning to engage Iran—just at the time they saw Iran, correctly, as a mortal enemy.
Oh boy, where are we going with this, Gov. Pawlenty?
We need to tell the Saudis what we think, which will only be effective if we have a position of trust with them.
Relationships of trust with the Saudis are built over decades, by the way.
We will develop that trust by demonstrating that we share their great concern about Iran and that we are committed to doing all that is necessary to defend the region from Iranian aggression.
Maybe. But I have spoken with a lot of high-ranking Saudi officials and princes, and all of them agree on two things: a) the United States must attack Iran because an Iranian bomb would destabilize the region and b) the United States must not attack Iran because a U.S. strike would destabilize the region. I wish Gov. Pawlenty the best in trying to reconcile this mixed message.
At the same time, we need to be frank about what the Saudis must do to insure stability in their own country. Above all, they need to reform and open their society. Their treatment of Christians and other minorities, and their treatment of women, is indefensible and must change.
Amen. But this is not the way to build up a position of trust with Saudi Arabia.
We know that reform will come to Saudi Arabia—sooner and more smoothly if the royal family accepts and designs it. It will come later and with turbulence and even violence if they resist. The vast wealth of their country should be used to support reforms that fit Saudi history and culture—but not to buy off the people as a substitute for lasting reform.
The third category consists of states that are directly hostile to America. They include Iran and Syria. The Arab Spring has already vastly undermined the appeal of Al Qaeda and the killing of Osama Bin Laden has significantly weakened it.
True. I might have myself argued much the same thing.
The success of peaceful protests in several Arab countries has shown the world that terror is not only evil, but will eventually be overcome by good. Peaceful protests may soon bring down the Assad regime in Syria.
Peaceful protests? Probably not. Civil war? Maybe.
The 2009 protests in Iran inspired Arabs to seek their freedom. Similarly, the Arab protests of this year, and the fall of regime after broken regime, can inspire Iranians to seek their freedom once again.
We have a clear interest in seeing an end to Assad’s murderous regime. By sticking to Bashar al Assad so long, the Obama Administration has not only frustrated Syrians who are fighting for freedom—it has demonstrated strategic blindness. The governments of Iran and Syria are enemies of the United States. They are not reformers and never will be. They support each other. To weaken or replace one, is to weaken or replace the other.
The fall of the Assad mafia in Damascus would weaken Hamas, which is headquartered there. It would weaken Hezbollah, which gets its arms from Iran, through Syria. And it would weaken the Iranian regime itself.
I'm going to give Gov. Pawlenty a pass on this for the moment. You'll understand why later.
To take advantage of this moment, we should press every diplomatic and economic channel to bring the Assad reign of terror to an end. We need more forceful sanctions to persuade Syria’s Sunni business elite that Assad is too expensive to keep backing. We need to work with Turkey and the Arab nations and the Europeans, to further isolate the regime. And we need to encourage opponents of the regime by making our own position very clear, right now: Bashar al-Assad must go.
When he does, the mullahs of Iran will find themselves isolated and vulnerable. Syria is Iran’s only Arab ally. If we peel that away, I believe it will hasten the fall of the mullahs. And that is the ultimate goal we must pursue. It’s the singular opportunity offered to the world by the brave men and women of the Arab Spring.
I'm with the governor here.
The march of freedom in the Middle East cuts across the region’s diversity of religious, ethnic, and political groups. But it is born of a particular unity. It is a united front against stolen elections and stolen liberty, secret police, corruption, and the state-sanctioned violence that is the essence of the Iranian regime’s tyranny.
So this is a moment to ratchet up pressure and speak with clarity. More sanctions. More and better broadcasting into Iran. More assistance to Iranians to access the Internet and satellite TV and the knowledge and freedom that comes with it. More efforts to expose the vicious repression inside that country and expose Teheran’s regime for the pariah it is.
And, very critically, we must have more clarity when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama told AIPAC that he would “always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel.” This year, he told AIPAC “we remain committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.” So I have to ask: are all the options still on the table or not? If he’s not clear with us, it’s no wonder that even our closest allies are confused.
Gov. Pawlenty, I have a question: would you launch military strikes against Iran to prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons? (y/n)
The Administration should enforce all sanctions for which legal authority already exits. We should enact and then enforce new pending legislation which strengthens sanctions particularly against the Iranian Revolutionary Guards who control much of the Iranian economy.
Again, what about strikes?
And in the middle of all this, is Israel.
Actually, to the left and upper right of all this.
Israel is unique in the region because of what it stands for and what it has accomplished. And it is unique in the threat it faces—the threat of annihilation. It has long been a bastion of democracy in a region of tyranny and violence. And it is by far our closest ally in that part of the world.
Despite wars and terrorists attacks, Israel offers all its citizens, men and women, Jews, Christians, Muslims and, others including 1.5 million Arabs, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, the right to vote, access to independent courts and all other democratic rights.
[Lips bitten. I suspect Arab Israelis and Palestinians living under occupation might have a few words to say, though.]
Nowhere has President Obama’s lack of judgment been more stunning than in his dealings with Israel.
It breaks my heart that President Obama treats Israel, our great friend, as a problem, rather than as an ally.
This is complete B.S. And Americans do not buy it.
The President seems to genuinely believe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the heart of every problem in the Middle East. He said it Cairo in 2009 and again this year.
This is also complete B.S. But you know who does care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? All those Arab democrats you've been talking about for the past 10 minutes.
President Obama could not be more wrong.
The uprisings in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli and elsewhere are not about Israelis and Palestinians.
This is actually true. But just because the uprisings were not about Israel does not mean our secular, Arab democratic heroes do not care about the Palestinians.
They’re about oppressed people yearning for freedom and prosperity. Whether those countries become prosperous and free is not about how many apartments Israel builds in Jerusalem.
Today the president doesn’t really have a policy toward the peace process. He has an attitude. And let’s be frank about what that attitude is: he thinks Israel is the problem. And he thinks the answer is always more pressure on Israel.
Okay, this is nonsense, and most Americans do not buy this. Most Jewish American voters do not buy this either and are not animated by this nonsense. But I suspect that most of this is not directed at Jewish voters but rather at conservative Evangelical Christian voters -- the kind who vote in Republican primary elections.
I reject that anti-Israel attitude. I reject it because Israel is a close and reliable democratic ally. And I reject it because I know the people of Israel want peace.
They most certainly do. Here's a question I have for Gov. Pawlenty, though: he realizes that many Israelis are scared to death about what will follow the al-Asad regime in Syria, right? I ask this because he seems to argue that we should a) support Israel on everything but b) work toward the overthrow of the al-Asad regime. What will Gov. Pawlenty do when our Israeli friends voice their concerns about post-Asad Syria?
Israeli – Palestinian peace is further away now than the day Barack Obama came to office. But that does not have to be a permanent situation.
Correlation =/= causation. Domestic Israeli and Palestinian politics might have more to do with this situation than the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
We must recognize that peace will only come if everyone in the region perceives clearly that America stands strongly with Israel.
I would love to hear Gov. Pawlenty prove why this statement is true.
I would take a new approach.
First, I would never undermine Israel’s negotiating position, nor pressure it to accept borders which jeopardize security and its ability to defend itself.
Second, I would not pressure Israel to negotiate with Hamas or a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, unless Hamas renounces terror, accepts Israel’s right to exist, and honors the previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements. In short, Hamas needs to cease being a terrorist group in both word and deed as a first step towards global legitimacy.
Third, I would ensure our assistance to the Palestinians immediately ends if the teaching of hatred in Palestinian classrooms and airwaves continues. That incitement must end now.
Fourth, I would recommend cultivating and empowering moderate forces in Palestinian society.
This is a new approach, actually. The first, second, and fourth points sound a lot like the approach taken by the Bush Administration between 2000 and 2006. But even the Bush Administration continued support for Palestinian security forces in the face of anti-Israeli sentiment among Palestinians. So this is actually more hardline than even the George W. Bush administration. And how the hell do you do #3 and #4 simultaneously? Also, good luck doing what you have just described in the above while at the same time engaging with Arab civil society and the new governments of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya as described earlier.
When the Palestinians have leaders who are honest and capable, who appreciate the rule of law, who understand that war against Israel has doomed generations of Palestinians to lives of bitterness, violence, and poverty – then peace will come.
Demonstrably false, actually. See Fayyad, Salam.
The Middle East is changing before our eyes—but our government has not kept up. It abandoned the promotion of democracy just as Arabs were about to seize it.
It sought to cozy up to dictators just as their own people rose against them. It downplayed our principles and distanced us from key allies.
Like Hosni Mubarak? Oh, wait, you mean Israel.
All this was wrong, and these policies have failed. The Administration has abandoned them, and at the price of American leadership. A region that since World War II has looked to us for security and progress now wonders where we are and what we’re up to.
That's probably true. But I think U.S. influence in the region is on the wane anyway, and I am not sure this is entirely bad.
The next president must do better. Today, in our own Republican Party, some look back and conclude our projection of strength and defense of freedom was a product of different times and different challenges. While times have changed, the nature of the challenge has not.
Well, let's give Gov. Pawlenty credit for making it clear where he stands on the primacy/restraint divide within the G.O.P.
In the 1980s, we were up against a violent, totalitarian ideology bent on subjugating the people and principles of the West. While others sought to co-exist, President Reagan instead sought victory.
Aaaaaand also withdrew from Lebanon in the face of violent Islamist extremism.
So must we, today. For America is exceptional, and we have the moral clarity to lead the world.
It is not wrong for Republicans to question the conduct of President Obama’s military leadership in Libya. There is much to question.
And it is not wrong for Republicans to debate the timing of our military drawdown in Afghanistan— though my belief is that General Petraeus’ voice ought to carry the most weight on that question.
Half true. The president's voice should carry the most weight on that question, though I wish he trusted his field commanders more than he apparently does.
What is wrong, is for the Republican Party to shrink from the challenges of American leadership in the world. History repeatedly warns us that in the long run, weakness in foreign policy costs us and our children much more than we’ll save in a budget line item.
Again, bold words for his own party.
America already has one political party devoted to decline, retrenchment, and withdrawal. It does not need a second one.
Wow. I suspect we're going to see this "Democrats = Isolationism" meme more in 2011 and 2012.
Our enemies in the War on Terror, just like our opponents in the Cold War, respect and respond to strength.
Oh, goodness, has he been reading this?
Sometimes strength means military intervention. Sometimes it means diplomatic pressure. It always means moral clarity in word and deed.
That is the legacy of Republican foreign policy at its best, and the banner our next Republican President must carry around the world.
Our ideals of economic and political freedom, of equality and opportunity for all citizens, remain the dream of people in the Middle East and throughout the world. As America stands for these principles, and stands with our friends and allies, we will help the Middle East transform this moment of turbulence into a firmer, more lasting opportunity for freedom, peace, and progress.
Any and all scholars of the contemporary Arabic-speaking world need to read Greg Gause's nostra culpa in the latest Foreign Affairs, "Why Middle Eastern Studies Missed the Arab Spring."
Scholars did not predict or appreciate the variable ways in which Arab armies would react to the massive, peaceful protests this year. This oversight occurred because, as a group, Middle East experts had largely lost interest in studying the role of the military in Arab politics.
I am proud to have completed my own studies under the supervision of one of the few scholars still both inclined and equipped to carefully study the role of the military in Arab politics. But as Harb and Leenders point out (.pdf) with regards to Hizballah, few contemporary area studies scholars have either the training or inclination to carefully study the role of military organizations and their activities.
Ahhh, I remember the last time the president addressed the nation. Remember that? The whole "I have ordered Navy SEALs to track down and shoot Osama bin Laden in the head" address? I think we can all agree that was a great, great speech.
Today, the president is scheduled to deliver another speech. This one is on the Middle East, and I am neither aware of what the president will say nor sure why this speech is being given. I suspect this speech was planned some time ago in order to announce U.S. support for Arab self-determination -- which now includes military support to the rebels in Libya, a fresh round of sanctions against the regime in Damascus, and a package of economic and political aid to the people of Egypt.
The visit of King Abdullah this week, coupled with both the upcoming visit of Benjamin Netanyahu and some recent unpleasantness along Israel's borders, means the president will also be asked to address issues related to Palestinian self-determination specifically. The president will not want Netanyahu, in his address to the Congress, or other Israeli policy-makers, in crazy op-eds in the New York Times, to set the terms of the debate, so he will want to get out ahead and establish the parameters of the policy discourse.
That makes sense, but I suspect today's speech will be a bit of a mess because the president might try to do too many things with it and because expectations are now so high. Brian Katulis has gamely attempted to identify three goals around which the president might create a strategy for the region, and they all make sense. They also, though, highlight how difficult it is to actually come up with a coherent strategy for the region writ large. Although the Arabic-speaking world, at least, shares a common language and public sphere (to a degree, and thanks to media such as al-Jazeera), U.S. interests vary from country to country, making a one-size-fits-all regional strategy tough. Okay, so we support self-determination in Libya, Egypt and Syria. But why not in Bahrain or the Palestinian territories? Okay, so we will employ military force to effect regime change in Iraq and Libya. But why not in Syria or Yemen? These are questions Arabs have and to which they will likely not receive satisfactory answers.
I will be listening to the president's speech today with much interest and with very low expectations. I'll live-blog the speech, assuming I can get out of a meeting I have scheduled, and encourage you all to then check out the conversation moderated by @acarvin and our own @abuaardvark on Twitter (#MESpeech) after the speech.
Watch this space...
1143: OK, I just literally ran out of a meeting to live blog this thing and ... am now staring at a video of a briefing room. And John Kerry. And Mike Mullen. C'mon, already...
1149: @joshrogin: He's waiting for the Just for Men to dry #reasonsObamaislate
1155: Robert Fisk is apparently offering comment on al-Jazeera English. My friend @shadihamid writes, "I'm not sure if I like Robert Fisk's commentary on #MESpeech. He doesn't seem to understand how US policy works." Shadi, I think you meant to write, "I'm not sure if I like Robert Fisk's commentary on _______. He doesn't seem to understand how ______ works."
1159: Issandr el-Amrani (@arabist) writes, "Adherence to official US policy and internationally accepted solution (i.e. 1967) should not be big news."
1200: Man, this guy is really late. I've got $10 that says he's in Hillary's office right now with a pencil, a map and about three other people trying to draw out the borders of a Palestinian state, Mark Sykes style.
1203: @Todd_Zwillich: Advance team just realized podium isn't facing Mecca #ReasonsObamaIsLate
1206: Turn off your cell phones and pagers, everybody. (Who the hell still carries a pager?!)
1209: Lots of Arab ambassadors in the audience. What are the odds that one of the regimes they serve will fall by the end of the speech?
1211: White House aides are saying the president is late because they were making last-minute changes to the speech. "Strategy for the Middle East" doesn't seem like one of those things you want to be tweaking at the last minute, though.
1216: POTUS talking about how al-Qaeda lost the Arabs. Funnily, enough, I -- ahem -- wrote an entire chapter on this subject for this New York Times best-selling e-book.
1218: POTUS draws comparison between American revolutionaries and those in the Arabic-speaking world. Now he's talking about self-determination, political and economic.
1220: You can feel the strong influence of @abuaardvark on this section dealing with the new Arab public sphere.
1222: America to the Arabic-speaking world: "I'm not a witch. I'm you."
1224: Holy cow! I guess we really are all neo-conservatives now. Obama talking about how we cannot focus on stability -- we must support self-determination. I'll leave it up to you as to whether he sounds more like Woodrow Wilson or Natan Sharansky.
1226: "The United States opposes the use of violence and oppression against the people of the region."
1227: The United States supports "freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, equal rights of men and women, the right to choose your own leaders."
1227: Values > Interests; or, rather, our values are our interests.
1228: Now the president is talking about post-Iraq liberal interventionism and why we intervene where we can -- but why it's unrealistic to expect the United States to intervene everywhere.
1229: I wish I were as optimistic about Libya as this president.
1231: All of this liberal interventionist rhetoric is great, but as the president is speaking, his administration is slashing the defense budget, and the Republican House of Representatives is slashing our International Affairs budget. At some point, our aspirations run up against a smaller pool of resources available to policy makers.
1233: Strong words for Bashar al-Asad. Strong words for the regime in Bahrain, though, too.
1234: Holy cow, the president just pointed toward Iraq as an example to be followed in the region. How do other Arabs feel about that? My sense is that the Arabic-speaking world looks at the horrific maelstrom of violence into which Iraq descended in 2004 and thinks, "Uh, no thanks."
1238: The rhetoric about womens' rights and freedom to worship is great, but SAUDI ARABIA.
1240: Mentioning the destruction of Shia mosques in Bahrain is huge. That is going to infuriate the regime in Bahrain.
1241: Stabilizing and modernizing the economies of Tunisia and Egypt is where this speech goes beyond mere rhetoric. This gets as initiatives the United States can actually do, such as debt forgiveness.
1246: I just got the text of the speech and am skipping ahead: "The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation."
1247: The only thing POTUS is saying about Israel is stuff U.S. presidents have been saying about Israel since, oh, 1967. Issandr is right: there is no news here. The president is not saying anything Presidents Bush or Clinton would not have said.
1252: Jeffrey Goldberg: "President Obama is a better Zionist than Danny Danon and Likud hardliners, who will bring about end of Israel through endless occupation." True. Crazy, though: Obama is not so much presenting an alternative to what other U.S. presidents have said but rather an alternative to what Israeli leaders are offering their people right now.
1257: Aaaaand, that's it.
QUICK REACTION: Well, that speech did a few things:
1) It delivered a very anti-dictatorship, pro-self-determination message that would have made Woodrow Wilson proud. The president deserves a lot of credit for boldly taking on the regime in Bahrain -- even going so far as to blame it for the destruction of Shia mosques in that country. Huge. Cynics like me, though, will note the president did not say the words "Saudi" or "Arabia" anywhere in the talk. Women not having equal rights? People not allowed to worship freely? No freedom of assembly? Yeah, that is U.S. ally Saudi Arabia more than any other state in the region.
2) In support of Palestine, the president committed himself to basically the same stuff that every other U.S. president has talked about. In support of Israel, meanwhile, the president both brushed back the Palestinians on bringing statehood up before the United Nations and expressed scepticism about the deal between Hamas and Fatah. This was an incredibly pro-Israel speech, and anyone who says otherwise is talking nonsense. Only an extremist like Danny Danon could whine about what the president said. I can't believe the U.S. media -- and I'm looking at you, New York Times -- is reporting the president's support for two states built along the 1967 lines as news.
I am off to the White House to get spun on the speech in a few hours and will have more comments later. Overall, though, I was underwhelmed and suspect most Arabs will be as well. But maybe the early analysis is right, and this speech was more aimed at a U.S. audience than at the peoples of the region itself.
As some of you may know, I spent several days last week chained to a chair at my local coffee shop producing a chapter for a new e-book Random House is publishing on what the death of Osama bin Laden means for the War on Terror. My chapter, “How Al Qaeda Lost the Arabs,” is the first chapter in the collection after Jon Meacham ('87)'s introduction, and you can buy it for your iPad, Nook, or Kindle.* I was honored to have been asked to contribute a chapter to this volume on account of the other, much-more-distinguished-than-me contributors: James Baker, Bing West, Karen Hughes, Evan Thomas, Dan Markey and Richard Haass.
Writing a book chapter in two days is difficult, to say the least, and my chapter reflects the speed with which it was written. It also reflects the challenge of describing complicated events and phenomena in less than 5,000 words. So for those of you who are going to buy the book -- and at $1.99, you all better buy the damn book -- I am writing this short readers' guide to my chapter. Some of what follows will only make sense if you actually buy and read the chapter.
1. You will note that my chapter has more end notes than any other chapter in the book. Indeed, my chapter has more end notes than all of the other chapters in the book combined. In part this is due to the fact that I'm trying to describe some pretty complex phenomena, and thankfully, quite a few scholars and journalists have gone before me. So I basically pulled all the relevant books I could find off my shelves at home and in my office and did my best with what was available. (Which was quite a lot, happily.) All of the secondary sources I cited were in English, though often written by Arab scholars, while about half of the newspaper articles I cited or from which I quoted were in English with the other half in Arabic. If you read this blog or anything else I write, you'll note that I usually try to write for a general audience while at the same time nodding toward serious scholars and their work in my notes. Part of this is to keep my own work honest, while part of this is intended to direct the reader to more serious scholarly work that I think supports my own work but which does a better job of explaining what, again, are phenomena to which a 5,000-word essay cannot do justice.
2. I horrified Will McCants and Afshan Ostovar -- unlike me, two serious scholars of Islamic history -- last week as I described over dinner the way in which I had managed to reduce roughly a century and a half of Arab intellectual history into less than a single page of text. (And, on a dare, into less than 140 characters.) Obviously, Albert Hourani did a better job in 400 pages than I did in 500 words. Later, I reference the explosion of European capital and the development of non-monarchical systems of government in the 19th century while nodding my head toward Eric Hobsbawm's three volumes on a historical period I summarize in <cough> a paragraph.
3. In the same way, I make a reference to those like Ibn Taymiyya who relied on fiqh as their basis for political thought but didn't really mention the alternatives, which Tarif Khalidi gets into in one of the last chapters his Classical Arab Islam.** The first few chapters of Hourani are also good for this.
4. I do not really have the time to describe all the ways in which the public discourse in the Arabic-speaking world has been transformed over the past two decades. I do not mention, for example, Twitter, Facebook or even cell phones. But the overall point is the same: what had previously been whispered speech or transgressive jokes told in taxis or in coffee shops was now out there in public, challenging regimes as never before.
5. I make a reference, in my essay, to Muslim-Christian unity in Egypt. Ahem. So apparently that time has now passed! In all seriousness, I have been as horrified as anyone by the scenes from the past few days in Cairo. Sectarianism in Egypt is real, as are Salafists hell-bent on stirring up trouble. But since I make a reference to what I see as a still-unresolved conflict between the heirs of Muhamed 'Abduh, I do not think the broader point I am making here is rendered false by events.
6. In short, I hope you enjoy my essay and think you will, but read it with an understanding of the author's time constraints and an appreciation for the fact that I at least make an attempt to acknowledge the broad, deep body of scholarly literature out there.
*Although the book is already available for both the iPad and the Nook, for some reason it going on sale through Amazon the day after tomorrow. You can pre-order it here, though, and buy it everywhere else here Oh, look, you can buy it now on Amazon.
**Tarif Khalidi was one of my professors at the American University of Beirut, and he caught me reading Classical Arab Islam one afternoon in 2005. He immediately started flipping through it, wincing at all the things in it he now disagreed with, and signed the book, "To Exum, from the author who no longer believes it." I'm pretty sure his last chapter on political thought escaped his winces, but if not, I apologize.
A few things need to be said about Michael Doran's essay in Foreign Affairs:
1. The idea that the Bush Administration was entirely populated with people who knew nothing about the Arabic-speaking world is false and ugly. Doran was teaching at Princeton and had published widely on the Arabic-speaking world before joining the administration. He is a first-rate scholar of the peoples and history of the Middle East.
2. I was emailing with Parag Khanna this morning and told him I think it's too early for him or anyone else to be making broad claims about what these events mean for the Arabic-speaking world as a whole. As Doran correctly notes here (and Lisa Anderson notes elsewhere in the same issue of Foreign Affairs), this is hardly the first time the Arabic-speaking world has been swept up in revolutionary fervor in the past century. And as Anderson notes, the challenges of a state like Libya and a state like Egypt going forward are completely different.
3. Doran is correct, in my estimation, to be worried about current and future violent non-state actors in the Arabic-speaking world and the ways in which Iran might support them. This is something that would have worried a responsible policy maker as much in December 2010 as today -- and I don't just say that as a guy who wrote his dissertation on Hizballah.
4. Let us not be so blinded by what Iran may or may not do that we fail to take the opinions and preferences of Arabs seriously. Doran writes:
Faced with the accountability of the democratic process, Egypt's new rulers will not feel nearly as free as Mubarak did to side with Washington and Jerusalem when the next round of conflicts involving Israel erupts. In the post-Mubarak era, the resistance bloc has a new weapon: the Egyptian crowd, which is now freer than before to organize on its own. Renewed violence will undoubtedly spark massive street demonstrations, not only in Egypt but also in Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. But it is in Egypt where the bloc will concentrate its energies, providing the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups with a pretext for organizing the mob and casting themselves as the conscience of the Egyptian people. They will demand that the military sever all ties with Israel and the United States -- and it is far from certain whether Egypt's insecure army officers will have the mettle to withstand the campaign.
I have no big problem with much of what Doran writes here. I do have a problem, though, with his emphasis on what he calls "the resistance bloc" -- Iran and Syria together with violent non-state actors like Hamas and Hizballah. Iran and its allies aside, Egyptians do not very much like Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people. Iran, Syria, and Hizballah could disappear off the face of the Earth tomorrow and that would still be the case. So when Egyptian leaders do not respond with the same timidity to the next Israeli incursion into Gaza as Hosni Mubarak did, those leaders will likely be reflecting the genuine policy preferences of the Egyptian electorate -- not creeping Iranian influence.
5. Issandr, in an epic rant on Arabist, wrote the following:
If things do come to a head between Saudi Arabia and Iran, I know which one I'll be rooting for: Iran, while its current regime is awful, is at least a sophisticated civilisation. Its current regime will hopefully one day fall. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, represents one corrupt family and its alliance with the most fanatical, retrograde interpretation of Islam in the world. Their downfall cannot come soon enough.
I'm not sure I would go that far (in fact, I know I would not), but the focus on Iran and Iranian influence in the Middle East is indeed a little curious considering the fact that Saudi-sponsored radical Sunni extremism has killed a lot more American citizens than Iran ever thought about. Saudi Arabia, with its oil reserves and spare refining capacity, is an exceptional case in terms of U.S. policy, I realize. But it's puzzling to me how Doran can take such a "black" view of Iran and Iranian influence and such a "white" view of Saudi Arabia and Saudi influence. To paraphrase one of my favorite works by the noted orientalist Robert Earl Keen, in the Middle East, we surely live and die by shades of gray.
With so much going on today in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen, it's worth taking a step back and asking some preliminary questions about what it all means in terms of the bigger picture. One of our interns, John Dana Stuster, who has the misfortune of working with me but has spent a little time in the Arabic-speaking world, used Malcom Kerr's seminal The Arab Cold War: Gamal 'Abd al-Nasir and His Rivals, 1958-1970 as a departure point for wondering where we are headed in terms of regional power dynamics. What follows was written by Dana.
The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing popular upheaval in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain will affect the Middle East, but how remains to be seen. Indeed, there is little to indicate what the new governments of Tunisia and Egypt will look like, or if the governments in these countries at the end of this year will look at all like the governments in these countries at the end of two years. The door is open for more overthrows as these neo-revolutionary states find their new political footing.
Neo-revolutionary is an important distinction. The Middle East has other revolutionary states, vestiges and reminders of the last period of revolution in the region. In trying to understand the implications of the past three months, there may be some relevance in looking to previous spates of revolution in the Middle East.
The Nasirist Arab revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, typified by the Free Officers coup in Egypt but which also included revolutions in Syria, Iraq and to a certain extent North Yemen, factionalized the Middle East. The Arab states coalesced into two opposing groups: conservative monarchies intent on the continuity of their governance, the foremost being Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and new regimes like Egypt, Syria and Iraq eager to spread their revolutions across the Arab world. Malcolm Kerr described this as the Arab Cold War, and like the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, the Arab Cold War saw moments of kinetic warfare in proxy battlefields. In the Jordanian Black September civil war, Syria sent a tank division (with hastily painted PLO insignia) in support of the Palestinians against the Jordanian monarchy, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia fought through proxies in North Yemen in that country’s civil war from 1962 to 1970.
The Middle East is not what it was fifty years ago. Saudi Arabia still retains some influence but is not the powerhouse it once was, and Egypt’s primacy has long passed; indeed, the centers of political gravity in the Middle East – Iran and Turkey – are not Arab states at all, nor have they polarized the region as was the case in the Arab Cold War. Iran, who came late to the Middle East’s revolutionary vanguard, remains divisive and a rival of Saudi Arabia, but these states have not engaged in the proxy wars that marked the regional tension of the 1960s. In stark contrast, Turkey has pursued one of the most cordial foreign policies in the world, trying to be friends with Europe, the Arab states, and Iran, while maintaining its relationship with Israel – this has had mixed results, but the effort is there. Some alignment remains. Iran has Syria and, increasingly, Lebanon in its orbit, and Saudi Arabia is still wary of Tehran’s role in the region. The Saudis, for their part, have stayed fairly close to the Hashemite monarchy and still retain a fair amount of influence throughout the Gulf, but it is far from the unity of the 1960s when the monarchists banded together against an existential threat.
Perhaps the greatest difference, and maybe the reason the Middle East is no longer so starkly polarized, is the absence of an ideological bloc. In the Arab Cold War, the revolutionary regimes united under the banner of Gamal abd’ al-Nasir’s brand of pan-Arab socialism, but pan-Arabism, which peaked with the formation of the United Arab Republic in 1958, collapsed amid the Arab infighting after the 1967 war with Israel. There is no equivalent to pan-Arabism in contemporary Arab politics, or if there is, it hasn’t emerged yet. It may be that in a year’s time the neo-revolutionary states will have an ideology of their own – even if they do, it seems unlikely that they would have enough clout in the region to promote an international ideology.
The relevance of the Arab Cold War to the discussion of the recent Arab revolutions is this: when the Arab revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s occurred, it realigned the Middle East and created rifts between the old regimes and the new. The emergence of neo-revolutionary regimes, regardless of what form they take, is threatening not just to the old monarchies but those vestigial revolutionary states as well. The popular movement that will be the foundation of what follows in Tunisia, Egypt and potential others is inimical to the systems of governance in these other states. It seems reasonable that both the Iranian and Saudi factions will have concerns about their association with states whose recent revolutions threaten their own regimes. Though there is nothing to suggest that the neo-revolutionary states will align with each other, it seems likely that they will be isolated within the internal politics of the Middle East. Although Tunisia, Libya and even Egypt were not exactly aligned with any bloc before, the revolutions of 2011 could affect the dynamics of the region’s politics by creating non-aligned states that are isolated from, or even adversarial with, the Iranian and Saudi blocs. The point, in sum: expect intra-Middle Eastern tensions to rise to a quiet simmer.
The way this might manifest isn’t readily apparent absent a political faultline like pan-Arab socialism during the Arab Cold War. The model outlined above lends itself to a division based on systems of government – the monarchists who don’t like the old revolutionaries (plus Lebanon), who both don’t like the neo-revolutionaries. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iran, however, seem intent on framing the divisions in the region as sectarian – which would work well for them, marginalizing the popular successes in Tunisia and Egypt and drawing the focus to the distinct aspect of fighting the Other in Bahrain, be they Shi’a or Sunni. To rewrite the narrative as a matter of sectarian conflict is, as Marc Lynch has observed, a dangerous fabrication, but if it takes hold, it could exacerbate the Saudi-Iranian tension into something more.
Or the Middle East may fracture along some other faultline entirely. There is so little indication of the direction the neo-revolutionary states will take. It will be years, probably decades before the implications of the past couple months are apparent (Kerr published the first edition of “The Arab Cold War” in 1965, thirteen years after the Free Officers coup in Egypt. He then revised it twice over the next six years). There’s a possibly apocryphal story that Chinese Premier Zhou En Lai, an amateur historian, was asked what he thought was the effect of the French Revolution on Western civilization. It’s said that he paused and considered his answer carefully before saying, “It’s too soon to tell.” It is too soon to tell, but it’s worth noting the possibility.
1. Yesterday, it was Gen. Mattis. Today's big cup o' ice water comes from Sec. Gates:
In his most pointed comment, Mr. Gates said that “we also have to think about, frankly, the use of the U.S. military in another country in the Middle East.”
I have written about how horrified I am that so many folks here in Washington are so casually considering military intervention in Libya -- just 24 months after the negotiation of a status of forces agreement effectively wound down the U.S. war in Iraq. Many* of the people I have read advocating for military intervention in Libya
a) have no expertise in no-fly zones or other military operations,
b) will not be the ones responsible for the lives of any U.S. troops committed to such an intervention,
c) were prominent advocates for another military intervention in an Arab state a few years back and,
d) were themselves no where to be found when Capt. Exum and his Merry Band of Rangers actually ended up fighting in Iraq several months later (and thus were not on hand to learn the lessons about the limits of power than some of us did).
The U.S. military should give the president every available option on Libya and should plan for possible contingencies. But it is good to hear Gen. Mattis, Adm. Mullen and Sec. Gates informing what has thus far been a woefully informed public debate. And it is good to see some needed push-back against what, again, has been an entirely too casual dialogue about possible military intervention.
2. That's a great segue to this heart-breaking, beautifully written piece by Greg Jaffe in today's Washington Post about Lt. Gen. John Kelly, USMC, and his son, who was killed in Afghanistan. I myself fought in Afghanistan in 2002 and again in 2004 and, since 2009, have pretty consistently advocated for counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan because I think they support the president's strategy to end that war. But when my cousin leaves active duty next month, my family will, for the first time since 2000, be one of those many, many American families that do not have any members serving on active duty or fighting overseas. And it will then be my turn to feel a little guilty about the incredible sacrifices that have been made by far too few Americans and their loved ones.
3. Finally, one of the best pieces of investigative journalism I have read in quite some time is this article in the Washington Monthly on the lucrative and poorly regulated terrorism counsultancy business. We basically have a cadre of yahoos running around the country teaching our police forces to fear any and all Muslims, which, if you're trying to radicalize your Muslim population, seems like a damn good way to go about doing it. Very few of these yahoos have any formal training or education in radicalization or currents of thought in political Islam. One consultant they profile is from the minority Christian community in Jordan and has a decidedly hostile view of Islam which he proceeds to share with his audience. Now, don't get me wrong, some of the very best scholars of Islam and political Islam in particular have been Arab Christians and Jews -- you can learn a lot from Albert Hourani (Protestant, Lebanese) and Sami Zubayda (Jewish, Iraqi), to name but two. But this article reminded me of this one scholar who often consults for the U.S. government and teaches about radical Islam without ever mentioning his ties to a certain right-wing Christian militia during the Lebanese Civil War. That has always rubbed me the wrong way.
What am I not reading? Well, Tom Friedman gets the bit about Google Earth and Bahrain right, but all the rest of this column -- the stuff about Salam Fayyad, al-Jazeera's coverage of Israel, President Obama and the Beijing Olympics -- just strikes me as crazy. Students of and experts in the politics of the Arabic-speaking world have never been big fans of Tom Friedman, but I have never seen a column of his greeted with such derision as this one, and I understand why. In defense of the man, let me just say that I once spent six months of my life reading newspaper dispatches in English, French and Arabic from the Lebanese Civil War, and Friedman's reporting for both the Associated Press and the New York Times stood out as top-notch. I sure can't defend this column, though.
*Note: "Many" does not mean "all," gang. Crisis Group has called for a no-fly zone, to pick but one example, and no one would dare accuse the folks on staff there of being callow about military interventions in the Middle East. I have read others make a case -- responsibly, and aware of the gravity of their recommendation -- for military intervention, and the majority of my above criticism does not apply to those people. So relax, David Kenner!
What I am reading today:
1. I just finished the very solid new Crisis Group report on Egypt. The first 15 pages read like a thriller, and the analysis on the Egyptian military strikes me as solid.
2. Max Rodenbeck on Tunisia and Egypt in the New York Review of Books.
3. And speaking of Rodenbeck, the Economist on Libya.
(Update II: 4. Be sure to read Michael Knights talking an incredible amount of sense about no-fly zones here.)
What am I not reading? (Okay, I actually read this.)
1. Joan Juliet Buck's breathless profile of Asma al-Assad, "A Rose in the Desert". Probably should have spiked this one, Vogue! The only thing worse than Buck's prose -- "Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand" -- is seeing the skills of a fine photographer like James Nachtwey applied to taking cuddly shots of Bashar al-Assad playing with his kids. Gross. What's next, Vogue? At Home with Kim Jong-il? Dining with Grace Mugabe?
2. Gah! I have to add another one nicely illustrating that fact that the difference between the neoconservative fantasy in the efficacy of military power is really no different than the same liberal interventionist fantasy.
There are various ways in which the horror can be brought to an end. Is a no-fly zone really too complicated to negotiate? Then let NATO planes fly over Tripoli to shoot down any Libyan aircraft that make war on the Libyan population. Is the United States really prevented by its past from deploying the small number of troops that would be required to rescue Tripoli from Qaddafi’s bloody grip? Then let a multilateral expeditionary force be raised and a humanitarian intervention be launched to free Libya from its tyrant and then leave Libya to the Libyans.
We are now paying the price for having waged two very difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that far too few Americans have participated in or been made to sacrifice for. I sometimes get accused of being a hawk because I have argued that resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns have represented our best chance to salvage bad situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but my experiences in both countries also taught me that a) force has its limits and b) we should all be very cautious about committing U.S. troops to combat operations in the first place. I'm horrified to read liberal interventionists continue to suggest the ease with which humanitarian crises and regional conflicts can be solved by the application of military power. To speak so glibly of such things reflects a very immature understanding of the limits of force and the difficulties and complexities of contemporary military operations. And then there is this:
I do not see a Middle East rising up in anger at the prospect of American intervention.
Hoo boy. Have I read that before?
Today, I read not only Jeffrey Goldberg's article on the policy options facing U.S. and Israeli leaders with respect to Iran's nuclear program but also Jon Lee Anderson's article built around an interview he conducted with that guy who wears the Members Only jacket. I greatly enjoyed both articles and recommend them to the readership, though I must confess to not understanding the business model at either the Atlantic or the New Yorker: these articles must have cost a fortune to produce in terms of travel and salaries for both writers, so how does giving them away for free on the internet make any sense at all? I subscribe to both the Atlantic and the New Yorker, and I am now feeling like a chump considering that fact that I read the first article online before it hit my mail box.
Anyway, the articles: they are good. I had some quibbles with each, though. At one point, Goldberg -- who, when reporting on Israeli and U.S. policy-makers, is pretty fantastic -- ponders the origins of Iranian anti-Semitism and ends up considering some stuff written by Shia clerics in the 16th and 17th centuries, perhaps unintentionally bolstering Hemingway's argument that writers should write what they know. I also wish Goldberg had spoken not just with the Netanyahu and Obama administrations but also with critics of the president. When an Esquire magazine writer recently asked some tough questions of Newt Gingrich on Iran, for example, it was kinda devastating:
You call Obama's Iran policy appeasement. But what's the alternative?
"Replace the government."
You're advocating war with Iran?
"Not necessarily. There's every reason to believe that if you simply targeted gasoline, and you maximized your support for dissidents in Iran, that within a year you'd replace the regime without a war."
That's it? After such an incendiary charge, your only solution is sanctions and speeches?
"The only thing you have to stop is gasoline," he repeats.
But that just seems like nuance, and only a minor difference with Obama's position.
"The difference between replacing a regime and appeasing a regime is pretty radical."
But you won't replace the regime that way. You're just tinkering with sanctions, which have never worked.
"I would cut off gasoline, and I would fund the dissidents," he repeats.
Oh... Anyway, I would have loved to see Goldberg ask questions of Palin or Gingrich or Romney on what U.S. policy toward Iran should be.
Anderson's article, meanwhile, has all the hallmarks of an article written by a writer who had to spin a story out of thin gruel. Anderson admits he was given very little cooperation by the Iranian regime outside of setting up the interview with Ahmembersonlyjad, but give Anderson credit for nonetheless making the article work. His article is a reminder that the Iranians are not just objects but agents in their own right: focusing on their agency and actions makes them both falible and all the more frightening in terms of what lies in store for the Middle East as a region in the years to come.
From Tablet Magazine, where Lee Smith asked me to grade the Obama Administration's efforts in the Middle East:
I tend to believe the actions of local actors are more significant than those of U.S. policymakers. And experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has taught me that U.S. military force alone cannot decisively protect most U.S. interests. I also believe U.S. interests in the Middle East should be prioritized against one another within the region and also against U.S. interests elsewhere.
As someone who has spent the past decade getting to know the Arabic-speaking world, I should act in my interests and claim the Arabic-speaking world to be the single most important region from the perspective of U.S. interests. But I can't do that honestly. As I read documents like the National Intelligence Council's 2025 survey, I grow to suspect that specialists of East and South Asia will be far more important to the United States than we would-be Arabists going forward. (All you young whipper-snappers out there reading this blog, in other words, should also be working on your Mandarin flash cards.)
How one feels about the first and second sentences in that paragraph, though, really determines how one feels the United States should orient and use our power in all parts of the globe. In general, we Americans -- especially some of our friends on the American Right -- tend to overestimate the importance of what we do in comparison to what local actors do. (Iraq and Afghanistan, seriously, should have taught us better.) That doesn't mean we fold up our tents and head home: we just have to be realistic about what we can hope to achieve through the application of U.S. power, military force especially.