Obama’s Airbrushed History of the Middle East

In keeping with his practice of doing only softball interviews, President Obama sat down for some questions with Matthew Yglesias of Vox.com. The questions were predictably adoring; in response, Obama explained why his foreign policies haven’t worked out the way he intended:

Yglesias: … Under your administration, the country is still very involved in that region, but I don’t think we have as clear a sense of what is the sort of strategic goal of that engagement.

Obama: Well, partly it’s because of the nature of what’s happened in the Middle East. I came in with some very clear theories about what my goals were going to be. We were going to end the war in Iraq. We were going to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, trying diplomacy first. We were going to try to promote increased economic development in the Muslim countries to deal with this demographic bulge that was coming into play. We were going to promote Palestinian and Israeli peace talks. So, there were all kinds of theories.

And then the Arab Spring happened. I don’t recall all the wise men in Washington anticipating this. And so this has been this huge, tumultuous change and shift, and so we’ve had to adapt, even as it’s happening in real time, to some huge changes in these societies. …

But what people rightly have been concerned about [is] that the forces of disorder — sectarianism, most tragically in Syria, but lingering elements of that in Iraq as well, the incapacity of Israelis and Palestinians to get together, and the continued erosion of basic state functions in places like Yemen, mean that there’s more to worry about there than there might have been under the old order. We’re kind of going through a passage that is hard and difficult, but we’re managing it in a way to make sure that Americans are safe and that our interests are secured.

So the Arab Spring derailed Obama’s foreign policy!

Actually, the principal crises in the Middle East have little or nothing to do with the Arab Spring. ISIS owes its existence and its rapidly extended reach not to the Arab Spring–it is anything but an Arab democracy movement–but rather, to America’s premature withdrawal from Iraq. Likewise with the downfall of Yemen’s government, which was engineered militarily by an Iran-supported group. The resurgent Taliban, like ISIS, owes nothing to the Arab Spring.

As for Iran, the region’s most intractable long-term problem, the Arab Spring did try to make an appearance there, but the pro-democracy movement was rapidly crushed, with the apparent acquiescence of the Obama administration. Nothing has changed, and Obama’s Iran policy has proceeded as planned. Whether Obama is in the process of failing or succeeding depends on what you think his goal is. He told Yglesias, as he has often said elsewhere, that the purpose of the current negotiations is to “prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.” But nothing in the agreement that is being hammered out will do that; on the contrary, it will facilitate Iran’s progress toward nuclear armaments–progress that continues at this moment–combined with an ICBM capacity. One has to assume that foreseeable consequences are intended.

So Obama’s claim that his Middle Eastern policies are in disarray because of the Arab Spring, while never challenged by the Vox interviewer, is patently false.

The interview also gave Obama a chance to expound on his view of terrorism as a nuisance, as John Kerry memorably put it:

Yglesias: Do you think the media sometimes overstates the level of alarm people should have about terrorism and this kind of chaos, as opposed to a longer-term problem of climate change and epidemic disease?

Obama: Absolutely. And I don’t blame the media for that. What’s the famous saying about local newscasts, right? If it bleeds, it leads, right? You show crime stories and you show fires, because that’s what folks watch, and it’s all about ratings. And, you know, the problems of terrorism and dysfunction and chaos, along with plane crashes and a few other things, that’s the equivalent when it comes to covering international affairs. There’s just not going to be a lot of interest in a headline story that we [sic] have cut infant mortality by really significant amounts over the last 20 years or that extreme poverty has been slashed or that there’s been enormous progress with a program we set up when I first came into office to help poor farmers increase productivity and yields. It’s not a sexy story. And climate change is one that is happening at such a broad scale and at such a complex system, it’s a hard story for the media to tell on a day-to-day basis.

Although God knows they try.

Look, the point is this: my first job is to protect the American people. It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots…

Religious zealots, apparently. Maybe Crusaders.

…who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.

I don’t think the Paris victims were randomly selected. Maybe we need a new term to put alongside “workplace violence.” Call it “deli violence,” maybe. Obama’s offhand characterization of the Paris attacks sheds light, I think, on why he didn’t think it necessary or appropriate to go to Paris to participate in the pro-free speech demonstration there.

We devote enormous resources to that, and it is right and appropriate for us to be vigilant and aggressive in trying to deal with that — the same way a big city mayor’s got to cut the crime rate down if he wants that city to thrive. But we also have to attend to a lot of other issues, and we’ve got to make sure we’re right-sizing our approach so that what we do isn’t counterproductive.

Terrorism as an inevitable nuisance, like urban crime, to be kept within reasonable limits. If you don’t care what happens outside the United States–and most Democratic voters don’t–that approach will get by unless and until there is another significant attack here in the U.S.