The alleged use of deadly chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against civilians and opponents on the anniversary of President Barack Obama’s “red line” statement might have marked the collapse of Obama’s foreign policy–if such policy actually existed. In fact, however, the Obama administration has no foreign policy other than its continued opposition to the perceived postures of George W. Bush, more than four years gone.
Obama’s policy in Syria had been to rehabilitate the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Well before he won the presidency, Democrats–including current Secretary of State John Kerry–made a point of visiting Assad to show their approach to foreign relations was different from, and more effective than, the allegedly confrontational approach of the Bush administration. Syria’s nuclear weapons program, exposed when Israel destroyed it in 2007, did not prompt any change in Democrats’ approach to the regime.
Therefore Obama renewed diplomatic relations and re-opened the U.S. embassy in Damascus, elevating the status of the regime. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even referred to Assad as a “reformer.” The hope was that doing so would convince him to side with the U.S. over Iran, and to win goodwill in the Arab world more generally.
In Egypt, the Obama administration adopted a similar approach, i.e. appeasing a tyrant with the intention of establishing a clear break with Bush’s pressure for democratic reforms and encourage a new perception of the U.S. as more open to the Arab and Muslim worlds. In the midst of an orgy of federal spending, Obama cut funding for pro-democracy groups in Egypt and prioritized relations with Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
At the same time, however, Obama began trying to rehabilitate the Muslim Brotherhood, not because he wished to encourage a democratic process in Egypt that might include their participation, but because he wished to appease Islamist sentiment in general. His administration refused, for example, to identify radical Islam as the source of terrorism, and even redefined the term “war on terror” itself as “overseas contingency operations.”
Therefore when the Arab Spring erupted in 2011, the Obama administration initially tried to argue that he was not a “dictator.” Then, as media criticism began to mount, Obama switched sides and backed Mubarak’s ouster, all the while claiming that he had not, in fact, changed his policy. His previous efforts to rehabilitate the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate organization gave some amount–though not much–of legitimacy to that claim.
Today, in the aftermath of the Egyptian coup, Obama’s foreign policy has lost even the pretense of principle. He is showing outrage at the Egyptian military’s treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood protestors, cutting some aid and canceling joint military exercises (none of which he did in response to the Brotherhood’s own excesses when in power). Yet he refuses to call the coup itself a “coup,” or to cut all aid to the Egyptian military.
Meanwhile, in Syria, Obama is still refusing to do anything that might actually deter the regime from using banned weapons–such as imposing a no-fly zone, for instance–while accelerating aid to the Syrian rebels, who are dominated by anti-American jihadists. His policies are all half-measures and contradictions. Faced with the fact that his academic anti-colonialism has little real-world relevance, he is just avoiding any real commitments.
In fact, the only real foreign policy priority of the Obama administration is to avoid being blamed for anything that could possibly go wrong. He concluded his remarks on Egypt last week by insisting: “We don’t take sides with any particular party or political figure. I know it’s tempting inside of Egypt to blame the United States or the West or some other outside actor for what’s gone wrong.” The buck stops…with Egypt, he said. Not with me.
That is not to say that the Middle East’s current problems are easy to resolve. Republicans and conservatives have had a tough time coming to a consensus about what should be done. The Arab world presents only bad options and worse options: a genocidal regime in Syria versus brutal jihadist groups; a military tyranny in Egypt versus radical Islamists with hegemonic ambitions. The dangerous temptation to withdraw is strong.
The one point of agreement among conservatives–even the likes of Patrick Buchanan, these days–is that the U.S. should primarily be concerned with shoring up Israel against common enemies such as Al Qaeda and Iran. In other words, the best path might be to focus on the sole U.S. ally in the region. But the Obama administration has done the opposite, pressuring Israel and giving Iran leeway, despite continued frustration.
It is arguable that the Bush administration had a similarly rudderless foreign policy when it took office in 2001, driven only by the desire to do the opposite of its predecessor. Yet it pulled together a new strategy–however flawed–after 9/11, when circumstances had changed. Obama has failed to learn from crisis–whether the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, or the Arab Spring and its aftermath. “Not Bush” is a non-policy, but a real failure.