Longtime foreign affairs correspondent Matthew Lee sums up the White House’s new-ish Middle East strategy thusly:
It’s a smaller vision that seems to rely on ad hoc responses aimed at merely keeping the United States relevant in an increasingly volatile and hostile atmosphere.
His administration has been forced to deal with three years of civil war in Syria. A Western-backed opposition is struggling to topple an autocratic government and repel Islamic fighters who also are destabilizing neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, where al-Qaida has resurged less than three years after Obama withdrew U.S. forces.
The U.S. is struggling to identify a coherent position in Egypt after the military ouster of the country’s first democratically elected president. The administration tried its best to avoid calling the power transfer a coup.
It is losing patience with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is refusing to sign a security agreement with the U.S. The pact would allow the U.S. to leave some troops in the country to help train and assist Karzai’s army in keeping the Taliban at bay after America’s longest conflict ends Dec. 31.
Secretary of State John Kerry is trying to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal against resistance from both sides, in a quest dismissed by some as quixotic.
Yet apart from Kerry’s efforts, Obama’s national security team seems to have settled on a largely hands-off, do-no-harm approach to developments in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Egypt.
Reacting to events with nothing bigger in mind than avoiding harm is a tactic, not a strategy.
A sane strategy would have begun in 2009, by boldly getting behind Iran’s Green movement — up to and including given material aid and political recognition to an opposition government on the ground in Iran. It wouldn’t have taken too many public nudges (or too many pallets of weapons) to get the revolutionaries really going. And as I’ve said before, if Iran really wants nukes then it’s going to get nukes. The real question is whose finger rests on the trigger. Me, I’d rather it be someone friendly towards us, maybe even with a small sense of indebtedness. But I’m old-fasioned that way.
The Iranian people were sick enough of the mullahs to take to the streets and risk being gunned down in broad daylight. Professor Ditherton Wiggleroom’s refusal to do anything might count as the single biggest missed strategic opportunity so far this century. Because absent the mullahs, the rest of the Middle East’s problems would become less intractable, or at least far less violent.
From there, things got worse — except perhaps in little Tunisia, which has all the strategic importance as Bangladesh.
It may well be that Strategic Flinching, as I like to call our new policy, might be all we have left to us for years to come.