There was recently a remarkable article in the New York Times, based on an interview with the National Security Adviser, Susan Rice. In it, she described what the Times called the "new, modest U.S. policy in the Middle East." Susan Rice said we have three goals in the Middle East:
- Negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program.
- Negotiations with Syria over its chemical weapons program and over the war taking place in Syria.
- Negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians over Middle East peace.
What is striking is that it really is the foreign policy of Belgium: negotiations, negotiations, negotiations.
The foreign policy of the United States is, apparently, now to be centered in the United Nations, Brussels and Geneva, where we have talks about Syria with the Russians and talks about Iran with Iran's representatives.
What is missing in this formulation? In one word: power.
The president seems to regard power and the use of power pretty much the way he regards, for example, sexism -- as if this is a problem we had in the past; in past decades we had to deal with this phenomenon, but we have overcome it. As if this is the great thing about the United States: that we have gotten beyond an old‑fashioned concept such as the use of power.
Once upon a time we would have said that the center of American policy in the Middle East is actually not Geneva or Brussels or the United Nations, it is the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf and the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Once upon a time, the rules for the Middle East were actually enforced by the United States.
I find when I talk to Arabs and Israelis nowadays, they are both saying the same thing: "What is the matter with you people? Don't you understand we have counted on you since the Second World War; you have essentially kept the peace here, you have been, as the British would say, 'the top country' in the Middle East since the Second World War, or at least since the British withdrew from Aden. You are going to walk away from that and you think your interests are going to be protected here?"
Who said that? We can go down a long list of people. Was it the King of Jordan, was it Prince Saud of Saudi Arabia? Was it Binyamin Netanyahu? Was it the Emirates, was it the Lebanese Christians, was it the Moroccans?
The answer is: all of the above because, in private, they are saying the same thing. This is the only thing President Obama has actually achieved in the Middle East: He has brought the Israelis and the Gulf Arabs together.
In the world, and the international political system, we -- and certainly they in the Middle East -- are faced with the Hobbesian situation of a "war of all against all" except for one thing -- the United States. It used to be that the United States was what prevented that situation from exploding in ways that hurt both all of them and the West as well.
Saddam Hussein, for example, invaded Kuwait; it was the United States that said, No, we are not having countries swallowing each other up. So we reversed that attempt by sending 500,000 troops -- parenthetically a feat that we could no longer achieve because of the downsizing in the military -- but we enforced that rule.
When the Iranians started building a nuclear weapons program, it was the United States that said -- three presidents have said -- "You are not permitted to do that." There was at least someone saying, "No, this is not a Hobbesian 'war of all against all': there are certain rules here that everyone will live by, and we, the United States, will enforce them."
This started a long time ago -- certainly after World War II, when the U.S. effected these rules against the Soviet Union. Obviously that is not the way the current U.S. Administration views the Middle East or its role there.
Is this approach more the result of incompetence on the part of the administration, or ideology? Go back to the president's first important speech about this: remember he went to Berlin as a candidate in 2008, and practically every German seems to have gone to applaud that speech. They may not be so keen on him nowadays, but that is a different question.
Campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama made a major foreign policy speech in Berlin, in which he stated: "We are all citizens of Berlin". (Image source: Wikimedia Commons/Matthias Winkelmann)
The president said in that speech -- he was talking about Iraq -- "We have seen the consequences of a foreign policy based on a flawed ideology. This is the conventional thinking that has turned against the war but not against the habits that got us into the war in the first place."
It is not enough to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan; you have to break those habits. What are the habits that have to be broken? This is the man who learned foreign policy from Rashid Khalidi and William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. The habits, as the Administration might see them, are "militarism," "aggression," "Cold War thinking" and an alleged effort to dominate the world, "Imperialism" -- or what many others might call patriotism.
In 2008 the president made one of the most amazing statements that perhaps any president has ever made: "Tonight I speak to you not as a candidate for president." This was the 2008 Berlin speech. "But as a proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world." Later in the speech he said, "We are all citizens of Berlin."
That is not what President Kennedy said. On June 26, 1963, President Kennedy said, "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is, 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'" He did not say, "I am a Berliner." Fast forward to President Barack Obama: he is saying we are all Berliners.
Matt Continetti, of the Washington Free Beacon, wrote "If we are all citizens, then the concept of citizenship has no meaning. The concept of citizenship which implies rootedness, partiality, particularity has no meaning. If we are citizens of everywhere, we are also citizens of nowhere."
You hear this from the president over and over again. "Global citizen;" "new era of engagement." He used that line in about 10 different speeches starting with his first State of the Union "reset."
In the Administration's analysis of the world situation, there seems to be a great problem that needs to be solved; and the problem is the United States. It needs to break and overcome these old habits. Some of you might think instead that we have a great problem with Islamic extremism. That is not the president's view. The president made this really quite remarkable statement in his Cairo speech: "I consider it as part of my responsibility as president of the United States is to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear."
Think about that. It's really quite astonishing. I would say that if a president made that comment about Judaism or Christianity most of us would say, "That's really quite bizarre. It is actually not his job."
To pick out and isolate Islam as the one religion, criticisms of which he has the responsibility to correct, is actually amazing.
You look at the Administration's policy: what is the goal here? What is he trying to achieve? It is certainly not a human rights policy; he seems remarkably indifferent to human rights everywhere.
Start with June 2009 in Iran: completely indifferent to the uprising that could conceivably have overthrown the Ayatollahs. Maybe it could not, but we shall never know. Or China: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first trip there. When she was asked, "Why don't you say more about human rights?" she said, "We know what they'll say in response." So much for human rights in China, for human rights in Russia.
I'll refer back to the Soviets for a second because when George Shultz was negotiating with the Soviets, he said that in every meeting he brought up the names of Orlov, Sahkarov, and Sharansky. We saw what Jackson‑Vanik did. Standing up to tyranny succeeded in enabling people leave the Soviet Union.
Secretary of State Schultz always used to say that one of the ways to do it is very simple. When you are meeting with the Soviets, he used to say, you start the meeting with human rights because if you have a two hour meeting and time is up and then you say, "Oh, wait a minute. I have one more thing I need to add" while everybody is walking out the door, it is obvious to them that that is the lowest priority item to you. So do not do that.
One of the things that have changed in this administration is that people who are fighting for democracy in places such as Turkey, Russia or China, do not feel that they have any moral or political support coming from Washington, in a way that they have over the years.
They are just not interested. On the humanitarian side, also not interested. When the president visited Africa, there were a fairly good number of articles in the newspapers talking about how disappointed Africans were. After all, they had gotten a lot of attention from President Bush. Now they had an African American president. Surely the amount of attention would be doubled, tripled. Instead, of course, it had largely disappeared.
The key job for humanitarian activities in Africa is the Africa desk at USAID, the Assistant Administrator for Africa. It has been vacant for over a year and a half. The president did not even bother to fill the job.
What is he interested in doing? Military strength? Clearly not.
Go back to the days when the president came to office and said we were going to create a great economic recovery plan. Remember the term "shovel ready"? We were looking for shovel ready projects. Actually, there were lots of shovel ready projects available in the military: after years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was much work to be done replacing, for example, tanks and half-tracks and artillery that had been worn out.
But none of the funds available went to that kind of military project; apparently he did not want to have anything to do with it. In Libya, the British and the French led. The U.S. was dragged into the conflict, and after two weeks it walked away. In Mali, the French led. They went in alone, with the hope that others would follow.
They asked for one thing from the United States: tankers. That was the item they lacked to be able to refuel jets flying from French bases in Senegal. The American reaction was to say that we could, but where do we send the bill. After enough protest, the policy was changed, but it has been like that, or worse.
Take Syria, where the president sent his Secretary of State out to give what could be called "war speeches."
If you go back and look at those speeches Kerry gave in that week, they were terrific, heart‑wrenching speeches about the children being slaughtered in Syria by the use of chemical weapons. Great stuff to get the American people ready for military action that weekend. Until Friday came and the president changed his mind.
It is striking, by the way, that while among them, Vice President Biden, Secretary Hagel, and Secretary Kerry have about 80 years in the U.S. Senate, when President Obama decided to send the issue of Syria to the Senate and House for a vote, he did not even consult with any of those three people, Biden, Hagel, Kerry.
I am not arguing that he should have consulted them because they would be founts of wisdom, but I did not appoint them. He appointed Hagel and Kerry. He chose Biden. It is a sign of the immense disrespect in which he holds all three of them that he makes this decision without even consulting them -- or actually consulting anyone outside of his own White House staff.
I have been told that New York's Senator, Chuck Schumer, who is, after all, the whip, was given about an hour's notice that this would be announced and it would be on TV -- essentially the same notice that CNN got.
What is the purpose here? The purpose seems to be to limit American power. That is why I call it an ideological policy. It is really the product of the president's view that American power is a danger to the world and that his job as president is to restrain it, restrict it and diminish it -- and that then the United States and everybody else in the world will be significantly better off.
It is a William Ayers, Rashid Khalidi view; you could also call it a Jimmy Carter view. To be fair to President Jimmy Carter: Carter, first of all, admitted error after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Remember that statement he made that he had learned more about the Soviet Union in the past week then he had all the previous years of his life? He may not have meant it, but he said it.
To be fair, there was a reversal with respect to American military power, and in the final year of the Carter administration there began to be a reinvestment in American military power. Actually, the American military build‑up did not begin in 1981 with Reagan. It began, in an admittedly smaller way, in 1980.
The Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon or an Israeli attack on Iran to prevent the acquisition of a nuclear weapon might be the equivalent. Certainly if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, it is a very big deal, and not only for all the obvious reasons about security -- because the president has made about 20 speeches saying, "I will prevent…." He has not always used passive voice. He has said, "We will, I will prevent...."
That turns out to be nonsense. It has a huge impact on the United States and I think Americans hate Iran. When you have these polls saying, "What countries do you like best? What countries do you hate?" Iran is always way up there. People remember.
We see nothing like that with this president, who does not appear to believe he has made any errors because, from his point of view, he has not, if the purpose is to diminish American power in the world and the temptation to use that power. From that point of view, the president is experiencing great success.
Is this foreign policy reversible? My answer is yes for a number of reasons.
One of them is, because we do have friends and allies around the world who are anxious to join us; perhaps it will take a few years before they are able to help restore America to a greater influence. Every country in the periphery of China including the Communist countries, Vietnam, Laos, wants to join in that effort. Every country in the Middle East except, of course, Syria and Iran, wants to join in that effort.
I think that in world politics, as on Wall Street, there is such a thing as discounting. That is, people think about the future, and what they think will happen in the future begins to affect their conduct right away. The example is the move President Ronald Reagan made in foreign policy that most affected America's enemies and allies early in his term -- and let the Russians know as well as our friends, "Whoa, this will be different."
That act was firing the air traffic controllers. That was the moment when I think for many Americans but also for many people around the world people it was clear "He means what he says. He said he would do something here that everybody said he could not do, and he did it."
That act came early. It had no real world effect on foreign affairs. It was purely domestic, but it had an impact. If we had a new president who, right from the start, made it clear that the current days were over you, would not need to have five wars to prove to people the days were over.
People would begin to adjust to the return of the United States to a position in which U.S. foreign policy was distinguishable from that of Belgium. Choosing Belgium may be a bit unfair to the Belgians. Occasionally there will be a Belgian in the audience that will come up and say, "Why are you picking on us?"
But there is more to be said about Syria. There is a lot more to be said about the administration's policy with respect to Israel and the Palestinians and those negotiations. To him Israel seems to be a problem. It is not viewed as a great ally, a great asset, and a military asset. It is just a problem -- perhaps an example of the victory of ideology over what you see with your own eyes.
At the moment, Israel's relations with the Arabs are as good as they have ever been. The relations with the Egyptian army are terrific. Relations with the Moroccans are terrific. Relations with the Gulf Sunni Arabs are better than ever because they have a common enemy, Iran.
The notion that Israel is, in fact, a problem, is probably less true than it has ever been. The importance of Israel, for example, just to take one example, as a bulwark protecting the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which is important for their security, but also for our position in the Middle East, seems unappreciated. Israel's potential role with respect to Iran is viewed as a danger, rather than as a potential asset.
At the White House the U.S. Administration still says "All options are on the table, and don't underestimate the president."
The only thing I can reply is, "I travel in the Middle East a fair amount, and talk to Arabs as well as Israelis. I think it's fair to say that from Morocco to Iran, there is not one single person who believes that." I don't think he has any real allies abroad. If you asked that question a year ago the White House used to say, "Erdogan." They don't say, "Erdogan" any more.
There are so many intractable problems and no intimation that Hamas is prepared to move on any of those. What do Kerry and his friends really see that gives them any optimism in this area? I think the only variable in his view is "me". "I'm John Kerry. I can do this," which is ludicrous.
And there is a lot more to be said about Iran. What is clear is that they are revving up. They are moving from the first generation to second generation centrifuges, which are much more efficient and productive. They are moving more materiel underground. They are attempting the plutonium route as well as the uranium route. And presumably they are working on a warhead. Of course, they can have a bomb without making the announcement and they can make the announcement without having a bomb.
Reagan came on the scene and with peace through strength -- three words, clarified and explained to Americans what American foreign policy stands for.
Elliott Abrams is American diplomat, lawyer and political scientist, who has served in several presidential administrations.