Obama on the Middle East: Let’s Pretend

post to UNC Press Blog, 20 May 2011

Listening to President Obama’s address on the Middle East and North Africa made me think of a primitive Lego set. Its limited number of pieces can be arranged in a variety of ways to produce something that always looks fundamentally the same. What was billed as a major speech was carefully tailored to fit the current circumstances, but it won’t significantly alter U.S. policy.

Much of what Obama had to say was familiar and predictable. He celebrated popular change in Tunisia and Egypt while condemning the hard-line regimes in Libya, Syria, and Iran. He assured us that unfolding events were validating basic U.S. values. These positive developments, the president suggested, made it possible to turn the policy page—putting behind a decade of war and occupation and taking up the task of political and economic development. He imagined, of course, things unfolding along U.S. lines: democracy, human rights (civil if not social), free markets, and integration within the global system of trade and investment.

For those with a long memory, his words echoed notions of modernization that flourished early during the Cold War struggle for the Third World and resulted in a string of failures (most famously nation building in Vietnam and Iran). Those with a short memory will recall that the kind of faith in regional transformation now professed by Obama helped pave George W. Bush’s path to disaster.

Behind the president’s decision to settle for the familiar and predictable was a reluctance to face the multiple ways a U.S. regional commitment has turned increasingly problematic. That commitment rests on a set of dubious assumptions:

  • that antagonistic regional powers will go away or recognize the error of their ways. Iran and Syria don’t seem to get the message.
  • that the United States can maintain a preponderant role. But these two regional powers along with Turkey and possibly soon Egypt are taking a stronger hand on key issues at U.S. expense. And extra-regional powers—the EU, China, and Russia—are likely to act in ways that will accentuate U.S. limits.
  • that popular risings will follow U.S. preferences guided by Washington’s counsel and constrained by Washington’s aid packages. This calculation neglects the widespread and lively resentment of U.S. backing for an Israel engaged in occupation and repression. It also neglects how memory of long-term U.S. support for strongmen will color public opinion and decision making.
  • that the Palestinian issue is subject to resolution through negotiations—some day, some way. Forget that the past half century no less than recent experience suggests otherwise and that Washington has found itself increasingly isolated internationally as the sole supporter of a dangerous, untenable, and illegal Israeli policy of annexation.
  • that the continuing war in Afghanistan and a heavy U.S. military footprint across the region are irrelevant. These not-so-hidden dimensions of the U.S. presence muddy the president’s message, to put the matter mildly.

In short, Obama’s presentation lacks the first element of good policy. It fails to honestly confront the main trends and defining features of the problem confronting us. Rather, it deludes itself by playing on that old dream of the world remade in the American image and by asserting a continuing regional relevance even as that relevance steadily fades. Obama is clinging to a policy of “let’s pretend.”

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