This past spring, when the leaders of Turkey and Brazil got together to lend a hand to the Iranian pursuit of a nuclear bomb, Charles Krauthammer adopted their perspective to explain what was happening: “As the U.S. retreats in the face of Iran, China, Russia and Venezuela, why not hedge your bets? There’s nothing to fear from Obama, and everything to gain by ingratiating yourself with America’s rising adversaries. After all, they actually believe in helping one’s friends and punishing one’s enemies.” Krauthammer titled his column “The fruits of weakness.”
In the new issue of the Weekly Standard, Lee Smith reviews current events in Egypt in the context of the Obama administration’s conduct in the region. His article provides a kind of update to Krauthammer’s column and is similarly titled “The wages of weakness.”
Like Krauthammer, Smith observes that “[i]t’s not hard to see how things might have gone differently had the administration held fast to the cardinal rule of Middle East politics: Reward your friends and punish your enemies. By failing to do so, the White House projected weakness in the region rather than the strength that is required to keep enemies on alert and allies in line.” Looking back, he writes:
It was the June 2009 uprising following the Iranian elections that first showed Obama’s mettle. While millions of Iranians took to the streets to demonstrate, the administration dithered for two weeks before taking a stand. That alone showed the sort of weakness and passivity that emboldens bad actors. But the rationale for the White House’s silence only made it worse.
Obama did not want to antagonize the Iranian government because he wanted to engage them over their nuclear program. Every regional ally–from Jerusalem to Riyadh–told him that this was a fool’s errand, but the president was not to be deterred, even as the Iranian rulers thumbed their nose at the American president and told him they did not want to negotiate.
The administration also wanted to engage Iran’s ally, Syria, even as Damascus was supporting foreign fighters making their way into Iraq to kill American troops and our Iraqi allies. Furthermore, the Assad regime continued to back both Hamas and Hezbollah, who had laid siege to American allies in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Israel. Instead of bringing Damascus into the American column, Obama’s outreach pushed an ally, Saudi Arabia, into the Syrians’ arms.
Because the Saudis interpreted U.S. engagement with Syria and Iran as a retreat from Lebanon, they believed it was the better part of valor to court the Syrians, in hopes they might help attenuate Iran’s influence in Lebanon. Moreover, the House of Saud and Syria struck a deal over Iraq, where they would coordinate efforts to weaken, if not topple, an American ally, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. A series of massive car bombings in Baghdad did precisely that, and again the administration did nothing to protect its friends or punish its enemies.
Any Middle Eastern observer would be forced to conclude that if the American leader was not weak, he at least lacked a strategic compass. After all, here was a president who kept insisting on the centrality of an Arab-Israeli peace process that everyone else in the region understood was a nonstarter. It hardly helped matters when Obama publicly humiliated America’s closest ally in the region, Israel–a piece of abuse that must have amused Mubarak even as it appalled him.
Smith berates Obama for not being stronger in standing up to Mubarak. I don’t know. Smith does not consider whether Obama’s public turn on Mubarak is not also the manifestation of “Obama’s mettle” (i.e., weakness). All that remains to complete the picture is for Obama expressly to proclaim that we have overcome our inordinate fear of Islamism, as he did in his own way this week.
UPDATE: Lee Smith expands on his article and responds to this post here.