Yesterday I explored the errors and fantasies in Gov. Mitt Romney’s WSJ op-ed on the Middle East. Here I will briefly go over the mistakes that the Obama administration has made in the region. Unlike the proposed blunders of Romney, I have to say, most of these are errors of omission or of an abundance of caution. I’d give Obama a C on Middle East policy, whereas I’d give Romney’s announced plans an F. Still, the present administration has had significant failures.
1. Obama came into office determined to restart the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He failed in this attempt. In part, he was stymied when Kadima Party leader Tzippi Livni failed to attract enough coalition partners to form a government, in February of 2009, allowing Likud hard liner Binyamin Netanyahu to become Prime Minister. Netanyahu had boasted of derailing the 1990s Oslo peace process, and was the least likely partner for Obama you could imagine. After briefly acquiescing in a settlement freeze for some of the West Bank, which got Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to open negotiations, Netanyahu managed to deflect Washington’s demands that he go back to the bargaining table by vastly increasing the rate of Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank. The Palestinians angrily withdrew, not sure why they should try to negotiate over a pie that was being actively gobbled down by the other side. Since his failure, Obama has neglected to speak out on Israeli aggressive colonization measures or even on settler attacks on mosques, churches and individuals. Obama appears, incredibly, not to have realized how hard it would be to accomplish anything on this front, and not to have realized that he would have had to make it a top priority and put his presidency on the line about it, as Jimmy Carter did at Camp David. Sending George Mitchell out as a special envoy was simply too little.
2. Obama accepted the plan of David Petraeus and other Pentagon officers (who, admittedly, boxed him in) for a troop escalation in Afghanistan, combined with an ambitious counter-insurgency program that aimed at pacifying the country ahead of a US withdrawal. The alternative, allegedly championed by Vice President Joe Biden, was a much less ambitious counter-terrorism approach. The latter would not involve big conventional armies but sending light mobile special operations units in to deal with violent cells where they popped up. The operation against Bin Laden had this shape. The big counter-insurgency project and the troop ‘surge’ manifestly failed, as I predicted at the time. Petraeus and others were misled by their Iraq experience, where the US troop escalation in 2007 had some success, but only because it coincided with a Shiite ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis from Shiite neighborhoods, which fatally weakened the Sunni guerrillas, so that the US could polish a lot of those cells off. Afghanistan was not comparable.
3. Obama has used economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to deflect the enormous pressure from Netanyahu and his allies in the American Israel lobbies (which work through Congress) to bomb Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. Such a strike would release toxic chemicals and metals and would kill thousands of non-combatants in Isfahan. But the latest round of very severe sanctions on Iran, to the extent of trying to prevent the sale of Iranian petroleum, go beyond a boycott to being a form of blockade. It isn’t a naval blockade. Rather, Obama is preventing Iranian banks from interfacing with their counterparts and making it hard for other countries to pay Iran for the petroleum they buy from it. The US is now also threatening third-party sanctions on countries that buy Iranian petroleum. Blockades, like ultimatums, routinely cause wars. Roosevelt’s cutting off of Japan from US petroleum was part of the reason for Pearl Harbor (the Japanese had a choice of becoming a normal country or trying to keep their empire, and in the latter case the generals believed they had to take the Dutch East Indies for its petroleum, instead, and so had to neutralize the US pacific fleet). Moreover, there is danger of causing so much economic pain and isolation with severe sanctions that children and other non-combatants cannot get access to, e.g., needed medicines. Obama has put the US on a war footing with Iran, and may not have been as clever as he imagined about avoiding the traps Netanyahu set for him.
4. Having joined in the NATO effort to protect Libyans from the murderous regime of Muammar Qaddafi, Obama seems to have more or less lost interest in that country. It was predictable that when an idiosyncratic, personalized, police state collapsed, the country would limp along without the needed institutions until they were rebuilt. NATO (which is led by the US) should have helped train up a new Libyan army and police. As it is, the militias thrown up by the civil war are still too powerful (and some have become gangs), and the new elected government has too few police and military tools to establish order. In March, a mere 250 troops were graduated from the Tripoli academy. (Though, as I have underlined before, despite occasional incidents, security is better in Libya than we had any right to expect, and it isn’t the basket case it is often depicted in the US press).
The current Neocon critique of Obama over a terror cell’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the US ambassador and 3 others, by the way, makes no sense to me. No president could have done much to prevent such a sudden terrorist attack, and the fog of war would always prevent an exact understanding of the events for a period after such an attack. Why CNN has been bringing Murdoch hacks on, who have no knowledge of the situation on the ground in Benghazi, to make this flimsy case mystifies me.
5. Obama has been peculiarly passive as Syria has descended into mass murder, with over 30,000 dead and widespread displacement, hunger and misery. His hands have been tied by Russian and Chinese vetoes at the Security Council, to be sure. Nor would it be a good idea for the US to intervene with boots on the ground or by giving weaponry to the ragtag Free Syrian Army. But had he wanted to act more decisively on Syria, short of going to war, the president surely could have. Even just finding ways to get humanitarian aid in to starving Syrians would make a difference. (The current levels of US humanitarian aid are small and the delivery methods uncertain). They say that Bill Clinton has profound regrets over letting the Rwanda genocide proceed unhindered. Obama’s neglect of Syria, I fear, is likely to haunt him, and to haunt us all.
6. Obama should move the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain to some other port in the Gulf, and should speak out forcefully against the repressiveness of the Sunni monarchy against the Shiite majority in Bahrain. It is shameful for the US to have to depend on a government that is acting like a sordid little police state. It has just actually sentenced physicians to long prison terms for simply treating wounded rebels. That is the act of a petulant tyrant, and the US should dissociate itself from him.
7. Obama’s deployment of drones in northern Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia is deeply problematic. It has no real legal framework. It is classified and often run by CIA civilians, and so cannot be properly debated in an open, democratic way. Obama has claimed the prerogative of assassinating people by drone, and has even killed American citizens. Although some members of Congress are briefed on the program, it is too secretive and too far outside the realm of the rule of law to be compatible with the US constitution. Worse the drone strikes are probably politically counterproductive. Where the US hits again quickly after an initial strike, killing rescue workers, it is probably committing a war crime.
The Obama administration has done a fair job of navigating through the shoals of the Arab Spring. He should have called for Hosni Mubarak to step down much earlier than he did. But that was not a disaster, and neither are US relations with post-revolutionary Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. The US has good relations with the government of Hamadi Jabali in Tunisia. Obama called for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in Yemen from June of 2011. In general, Obama has done no harm, in the face of mass popular movements that changed the face of the region. The withdrawal from Iraq was necessary by the terms of the agreement Bush reached with the Iraqi parliament, and while Iraq will have problems for a long time, at least US troops are not fighting and dying there. There haven’t been big breakthroughs or successes with the possible exception of the nullification of Usamah Bin Laden, but also no major disasters and quagmires (Afghanistan is not a quagmire because Obama has announced he is getting out in 2014 no matter what).