Obama speaks often but does little on Mideast foreign policy

White House/Sonya Hebert

Article Highlights

  • Indecisiveness has cost. Obama waited as the Tunisian, then Egyptian and then Yemeni governments teetered.

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  • Also crippling American influence is Obama’s desire to lead from behind. @MRubin1971

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  • The gap between American rhetoric and policy reality is huge. @MRubin1971

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In 2008, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton questioned whether then- Sen. Barack Obama would be prepared for the unexpected 3 a.m. phone call should he become president. The voters concluded he would be. When that call came with the Arab Spring, Obama put it on hold.

"Like a gambler who demands to see the cards on the table before he makes a move, Obama waited as first the Tunisian, then Egyptian, and the Yemeni governments teetered. Only when protestors sealed the autocrats' fate did he place his bet." -Michael RubinIndecisiveness has cost. Like a gambler who demands to see the cards on the table before he makes a move, Obama waited as first the Tunisian, then Egyptian, and the Yemeni governments teetered. Only when protestors sealed the autocrats' fate did he place his bet. The cynicism is self-defeating: Protestors doubt U.S. commitment, while surviving kings and strongman question whether their decades-long U.S. partnership has value.

Also crippling American influence is Obama's desire to lead from behind. Multilateralism builds legitimacy, but not all multilateralism is the same: American leadership influences outcomes. When the White House works through allies, the United States becomes a slave to their agendas. Obama's partners in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey supported the most radical Islamist factions. Standing aloof does not create even playing fields. Because countries support proxies and factions who share their values, American passivity merely means those who share our vision of freedom, individual liberty, accountability, and democracy remain the poorest resourced. Conversely, American taxpayer money should never be an entitlement to hostile regimes or those who embrace democracy only so long as it serves their purpose.

Too often, American policy is reactive, not proactive. Presidents manage crises; they seldom plot coherent strategy. Obama is no different: In 2022, will the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis dominate Egypt? Will the Yemeni government control its territory? Will Turks enjoy free speech? Will Palestinians eschew terrorism? Will Israel and Palestine live side-by-side in peace? Will sectarianism decline? Will Iran have nuclear weapons? The president must answer these questions so the United States can plot strategy to achieve the desired outcome.

Obama is an inspirational speaker. Alas, this strength compounds another problem. The gap between American rhetoric and policy reality is huge. Past humanitarian declarations mock Syrians, who suffer daily death tolls which make Iraq and Afghanistan look placid. This sparks corrosive cynicism among ordinary Arabs. Manifested as a failure to uphold redlines, the gap also breeds enemy overconfidence increasing the likelihood of conflict. It is better sometimes to speak less and carry a big stick than speak often, and do little.

 

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About the Author

 

Michael
Rubin


  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.


    Follow Michael Rubin on Twitter.


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