Why was it that only days before Iraq’s parliamentary elections, we were getting no sense of what they meant for the United States? Barack Obama’s White House and the American public seemed strangely detached from the event, the mental door having been closed on Iraq some time ago. This begs a larger question: What does the US stand for in the Middle East?
Judging from the Obama administration’s performance recently, it’s hard to tell. If we take a random selection of values or principles that might be guiding the US in the region, we enter a policy fog, the frequent over-reliance on style at the expense of substance. One can say many things about George W. Bush’s years in office, positive and negative, but he never sinned through ambiguity. A year into Obama’s term, however, ambiguity and disorientation are presidential trademarks in the Middle East.
Does the administration stand for democracy, for example, or more broadly has it made human rights principles a centerpiece of its policy? Not really. During his campaign Obama consciously played down that trope by accepting that he would talk to the region’s rogues without condition. He tried with the Iranian regime, which ignored his overtures, and when the Green Movement took to the streets last summer, the president for a time studiously avoided encouraging the demonstrators. In his Cairo speech, Obama only paid lip service to democracy and human rights, showing that they were really not what preoccupied him.
Now Washington has sent an ambassador back to Damascus - without conditions. Syria’s responsibility for the assassination of Rafik Hariri has been quietly played down (though to be fair, no less so than it has been in Beirut), and the Assad regime’s abuse of its own population is of utter disinterest to the Americans. Syrian involvement in the myriad bomb attacks in Iraq, its support for Iraqi Baathists, and its permissiveness toward Al-Qaeda in Iraq have not made the administration reconsider its Syrian opening. Violence works, and Obama has not proven otherwise.
In that case, can we say that the administration stands for stability and balance in the Middle East? Syria may have a nasty regime, defenders of that argument might say, but at least it can help the US counter-balance its other regional rivals, above all Iran. If so, then nothing indicates that Obama’s team is close to achieving that premise. The Syrians have made it amply clear that they will not turn against Iran, nor do they see any advantages in doing so, and Damascus’ propensity for exporting conflict to Iraq, the Palestinian areas, and Lebanon, hardly enhances stability.
One country where the balancing game might be played against Iran is Iraq, but there the US has managed in the past year to greatly undermine its own effectiveness. The administration’s focus on a military pullout has reduced its leverage in Baghdad (recall Vice President Joe Biden’s failed mission recently to get the Iraqi government to reverse a decision to ban Sunni candidates). There is also the fact that Obama, from the beginning, never clearly defined what role Iraq would play in American regional strategy. The president has neither highlighted the country as a model of Arab pluralism and democracy (albeit an imperfect one), nor as an essential front line in the containment of Iranian regional influence.
So, if the US priority in the Middle East is not advancing democratic ideals or enforcing human rights principles, and if its ambition to impose stability and balance is sorely lacking, then what else defines its behavior? Is it to enhance American power regionally? Power was at the center of the neoconservative worldview, so when Obama entered office he tried to portray his administration in less stark a light. Yes, power was important, for example in Afghanistan, but America would also seek dialogue, consensus, peace between Arabs and Israelis, and would generally put on a kinder, friendlier face than the Bush administration.
That kinder, friendlier face was shown two weeks ago, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly declared that the US would not use force against Iran. An attack on Iran would doubtless be a terrible idea, but for Clinton to rule out such an action so bluntly was not the best use she could have made of American military superiority. Indeed, it clarified a situation that the Obama administration should not have clarified, and the statement may ensure that the hardest of the hardliners in Tehran will win all future domestic debates on the best way to deal with international efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
American power has been equally absent elsewhere. Nothing has been done to make Syria pay for undermining Iraqi stability, which presumably is a vital American interest. Iran has been more effective than the US in building networks of alliances in Iraq, even though the Americans have spent seven years in the country. Nothing has been done to make Israel more pliant on a settlement with the Palestinians, though administration spokespersons have described Palestinian-Israeli peace as a vital US interest. And Washington has, similarly, been incapable of persuading Arab states to implement even limited normalization with Israel as a prerequisite to regional talks, which Obama promised he would restart.
The reality is that the Obama administration these days provokes little confidence in its allies and even less fear in its adversaries. The US remains the dominant actor in the Middle East, but to what end? If Obama’s ultimate goal is to be different than George W. Bush, he hasn’t even managed that. As setback follows setback, he is increasingly finding himself constrained by the same dynamics that Bush faced. But at least Bush knew what he was supposed to be about. Obama just seems lost.