Obama's Bi-Polar Foreign Policy

The President's approach to the Middle East over the last three years suggests Obama has a bi-polar foreign policy. He alternates between moments of laying low, as in Iran, and manic energy for change, as in Egypt. The result is confusion among our allies and a sense that no one knows what will come next.

Consider Obama's foreign policy in the Middle East and try to draw a straight line through it. You'll have a difficult time. He was against the Iraq War and the surge of troops there, but for the war in Afghanistan and a similar surge there. He was very reserved during the massive street protests in Iran after a questionable election there, but supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and demanded Mubarak step down. He gave military support to rebels in Libya but insisted the US should work through the feckless UN in the case of Syria, where far more have been killed by their own government. What is the policy, or better yet the principle, guiding his actions through all of these events?

In a story published Monday, the NY Times suggests that there isn't one. What the article's authors do find is Obama making decisions on the basis of political mood swings, "his handling of the uprisings also demonstrates the gap between the two poles of his political persona: his sense of himself as a historic bridge-builder who could redeem America’s image abroad, and his more cautious adherence to long-term American interests in security and cheap oil."

When protests took place in Iran, Obama stood on the sidelines. But according to unnamed sources, months later, "Mr. Obama expressed regret about his muted stance." Determined not to make the same mistake again, Obama reversed course at the next available opportunity. When Egyptians took to Tahrir Square to demand the ouster of President Mubarak, Obama jumped on the bandwagon. But the details of Obama's decision are interesting. After listening to Mubarak's refusal to step down on Al Jazeera, Obama announced to his advisers, "That’s not going to cut it." Just like that, Obama called a press conference and made a public speech siding with the protesters and announcing that the end of Mubarak's reign, "must begin now."

As dictators in Saudi Arabia and the UAE began to wonder if they were next on his list, Obama once again went quiet. When the Saudis used the military to crack down on protests in Bahrain, Obama stood on the sidelines. Former Chief of Staff Daley admits, "For the global economy, this couldn’t happen." In other words, freedom is one thing and cheap oil is another.

But then, how to explain Obama's decidedly low-key approach in Syria? The US banned oil imports from Syria last year, but even before that, the amount we bought from them was negligible – about 1,000 barrels a day. So why would Obama insist on working through the UN rather than sending in air support.? Why allow Russian and Chinese vetoes to insure no progress is made?

The NY Times suggests there is no clear answer to these questions, though there is a contributing problem. Obama simply does not build relationships with foreign leaders in a manner that could help him manage these crises more effectively:

Arab officials echo that sentiment, describing Mr. Obama as a cool, cerebral man who discounts the importance of personal chemistry in politics. “You can’t fix these problems by remote control,” said one Arab diplomat with long experience in Washington. “He doesn’t have friends who are world leaders. He doesn’t believe in patting anybody on the back, nicknames.

“You can’t accomplish what you want to accomplish” with such an impersonal style, the diplomat said.

Obama's jarring shifts between manic idealism and depressive realpolitik--Mr. Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Mr. Cool on Iran and Syria--leaves our allies and enemies wondering what he will do or say next.


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