December 26, 2011

Bad Call, Mr. President

A favorite Republican pastime is comparing Democratic presidents and presidential wannabes with Jimmy Carter, who, fairly or not, is remembered by many as having been both hapless in terms of foreign policy and weak toward the enemies of the United States.

Theoretically, that should be really difficult to do with President Obama. Most Americans have a tough time taking seriously those who would call "weak" the guy who a) gave the order to thwack Osama bin Laden, b) surged in Afghanistan, and c) successfully directed the air campaign that removed Qadhdhafi from power.

But now those Jimmy Carter comparisons are a lot easier to make in practice. In an eerie echo of Carter's decision to allow the embattled Shah of Iran to travel to the United States to undergo medical treatment, hastening the Islamic Revolution, President Obama has allowed the equally embattled leader of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to do the same.

That sound you subsequently heard this evening was America's Yemen experts (all three of them!) banging their heads on their desks in frustration. What kind of message does it send to the people of Yemen and the greater region when the United States allows an abusive autocrat to take refuge in a New York hospital while his people demonstrate in support of democracy in the face of bullets from his security forces? Just whose side is the United States on in the Arab Spring? If Bashar al-Asad gets pancreatic cancer, should we expect for him to be treated at Johns Hopkins?

How, you might ask, did this golf foxtrot come to pass? An aforementioned strength of this administration -- its ruthless and successful campaign to decimate al-Qaeda and its affiliates -- is also a weakness in that it overshadows everything else and causes the administration to see entire regions of the globe through a CT-shaped soda straw. The United States does not have a Middle East policy or even a Yemen policy. It has a counterterrorism policy, and all things Yemen are viewed through that prism. It is telling that the lead administration official responsible for the decision to admit Saleh to the United States was not the Secretary of State but rather the president's chief counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan.

The Obama Administration is making the same mistakes many Gulf regimes are making: thinking, to paraphrase Toby Jones, that it can continue into 2012 with 2010's assumptions -- as if 2011 never happened.
Does the Arab Spring matter or does it not? If it does not, the United States can continue its relationships with Gulf states dominated solely by issues related to counterterrorism and oil. If it does, though, the United States has to think more broadly -- both in terms of its bilateral relationships in the region as well as how what it does in one country will be seen elsewhere in the region.

I know the administration will say they have a plan to use this time Saleh is out of the country to shepherd him from power, to which I say the administration is being too clever by half. As Gregory Johnsen noted, the Saudis did not manage to keep Saleh in Saudi Arabia, so what hope do we have to keep Saleh here? And will any clever backroom negotiations to end Saleh's rule matter to millions who will not see beyond the United States offering refuge to a brutal dictator? The administration will also argue that it understands the comparison with the Shah and the attending risks -- but I think knowing and then ignoring the lessons of history is even worse than being ignorant of them to begin with.

I'll just conclude by noting that the administration has yet to name a successor to Colin Kahl at the Department of Defense, so as all of this takes place, the United States does not have anyone behind the wheel of U.S. defense policy in the region. Merry Christmas!