Mr. Obama returned from his recent vacation just in time. News had just broken of a possible chemical weapons attack in Syria’s capital, almost a year to the day after the President drew his infamous red line (or was it the dreaded periwinkle squiggle? I forget) on the use of such weapons by the Syrian regime. Meanwhile the UN Security Council convened an emergency meeting to discuss the news. Our newly appointed U.N. Ambassador, Samantha Powers, skipped it. She was vacationing in Ireland. Never mind. She tweeted:
Reports devastating: 100s dead in streets, including kids killed by chem weapons. UN must get there fast & if true, perps must face justice.
At any rate, no action was taken, which is surely what would have been the result if she or the President himself had attended.
Well, back to the grind. Mr. Obama and Ms. Powers would do well to consult Walter Russell Mead’s postmortem on the Administration’s “grand strategy” in the Middle East. I am still not entirely sure that Mr. Obama really had a strategy, but Mead makes a plausible case.
The Obama administration had a grand strategy in the Middle East. It was well intentioned, carefully crafted and consistently pursued. …The U.S. would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey's AK Party and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic. This would kill three birds with one stone. First, by aligning itself with these parties, the Obama administration would narrow the gap between the 'moderate middle' of the Muslim world and the U.S. Second, by showing Muslims that peaceful, moderate parties could achieve beneficial results, it would isolate the terrorists and radicals, further marginalizing them in the Islamic world. Finally, these groups with American support could bring democracy to more Middle Eastern countries, leading to improved economic and social conditions, gradually eradicating the ills and grievances that drove some people to fanatical and terroristic groups.
That has the advantage of at least sounding coherent and reasonable. It has the disadvantage of having failed miserably.
With the advantages of hindsight, it appears that the White House made five big miscalculations about the Middle East. It misread the political maturity and capability of the Islamist groups it supported; it misread the political situation in Egypt; it misread the impact of its strategy on relations with America's two most important regional allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia); it failed to grasp the new dynamics of terrorist movements in the region; and it underestimated the costs of inaction in Syria.
That strikes me as correct, though all five boil down to the same thing: a failure to recognize who is competent at what. Any progress in the region depends on persons, parties, institutions, etc., that can deliver at least marginally competent government. As Mead points out, the Administration hoped to make new alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in Turkey. The Brotherhood turned out to be miserably incompetent both at politics and at administration. Erdogan seems to be sliding toward “tinfoil-hat” weirdness:
Prominent members of the party leadership look increasingly unhinged, blaming Jews, telekinesis and other mysterious forces for the growing troubles it faces.
With the exception of Iran, Islamists have shown very little aptitude for competent, let alone progressive governing. What the radicals have shown an aptitude for is mischief and mayhem. Defeated, at least temporarily in Iraq, they have reformed and renewed their strength across the region. The Administration was not wise to speak of an end to the war on terror.
Mead’s prescription is to renew our investment in allies that are forces for stability in the region: Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Egyptian military. Again, that seems right. Mr. Obama has offended all three though, Mead tells us, he has been busy mending our relationship with Israel.
On the issue of Syria, however, he repeats the conventional wisdom that Mr. Obama might have rescued the situation if he had intervened forcefully and early. By dithering, he let the wounds fester and now Hezbollah is fighting for the regime while militants from around the region are getting training and experience fighting against it. The violence is spilling over into Lebanon and other places. Perhaps if the President had acted at the beginning, he could have forged alliances with genuine moderates.
Here I have to come to Mr. Obama’s defense. Dither he did, but is it really plausible that competent government would have emerged out of the spontaneous rebellion that ignited the war? Mead’s own arguments suggest otherwise. Syria is a mess and I do not know what policy would make sense there.
It does seem to me that it was stupid to insist that Mr. Assad must go back when it looked like he was going anyway. Battlefield events are hard to predict. It was certainly a bad idea to draw a red line in the sand unless you have a very good idea of what you are going to do if the line is crossed. Mr. Obama’s consistently insipid language sends the message that his words mean nothing. Now that he is back from vacation, if indeed he is back, he would do well to tend to that matter.