Obama "Misplays Hand" in Middle East

That’s what Bruce Jentleson argues today in Politico. Here’s the beef:

Yes, there are inherent limits to American power that can’t be denied. But the Obama administration could be playing its Middle East hand much better than it has.

Obama’s team has been way too indecisive. Getting away with waiting to the bottom of the ninth to make the shift away from Hosni Mubarak may have taught the wrong lesson. At one key juncture after another in Egypt, steps have been too partial, most recently with the cancellation of the Bright Star military exercise, which was not accompanied by any further significant suspension of military aid despite the military’s thumbing its nose at U.S. efforts to mediate. In Syria, the administration has known more what it does not want to do than what it does. In Bahrain, the gap between pro-reform rhetoric and only token hits on arms sales has been gaping. In Afghanistan, it’s still starts and stops on peace talks with the Taliban and other post-withdrawal measures.

It’s not that a plan has to be set and kept as is, irrespective of how it plays out. But without a guiding strategy, policy ends up reactive more than pro-active.

In all fairness, Obama wasn’t given a very strong hand in the Middle East. All he had was a strong American presence in mostly-pacified Iraq, a small-scale, low-risk counter-terror campaign in Afghanistan, a reliable (if brutal and unloved) ally running Egypt, Libya’s Moammar Kadhafi quietly helping us against al Qaeda, and Israel successfully dealing with the twin threats of suicide bombers and incoming missiles.

(We’re giving everybody a pass on Syria, which was always a powder keg strapped to a mustard gas shell covered in gasoline sitting on a bonfire next to a schoolyard. No good was ever going to come out of there.)

The Middle East in January 2009 in short had the Americans in, the Russians out, and Islamists on the run.

Weak hand, indeed. Which explains why Obama got us kicked out of Iraq, bet big on a futile surge in Afghanistan, turned his back on Mubarak, helped chase out Kadhafi, and is now arm-twisting the Israelis into making concessions to terrorists.

It’s just not his fault.