Obama’s petty strategy

We are suddenly awash in interesting commentary on Obama’s foreign policy. John noted Julie Pace’s AP assessment yesterday. Michael Barone directs our attention to two more: Robert Kaplan’s “Obama’s ‘I’m not George W. Bush’ foreign policy” and Elliott Abrams’s “The citizen of the world presidency.”

Abrams in particular really has Obama’s number. He writes that Obama has come to teach us: “The lesson Obama has learned, and wishes to teach others, is that the exercise of American power, with the sole exception of direct strikes on al Qaeda terrorists, should be avoided for practical and moral reasons.” Does Abrams mention Obama’s bows to the King of Saudi Arabia and the Emperor of Japan? I don’t think he does, but they graphically illustrate his thesis.

Kaplan credits Obama with a foreign policy that is “not at all terrible,” but asserts that he lacks any “grand geopolitical conception.” By contrast with Kaplan, Walter Russell Mead finds that Obama has a grand strategy, at least insofar as the Middle East is concerned, but holds that it has failed. Mead is a long-time student of American foreign policy and his views should be added to those of Abrams and Kaplan in taking Obama’s measure.

Mead deduces the principles of Obama’s putative grand strategy from the experience of the past four-plus years. He doesn’t cite or quote any Obama administration pronouncement making them out. These are the tenets of what he believes to be Obama’s grand strategy:

The U.S. would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey’s AK Party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic. This would kill three birds with one stone. First, by aligning itself with these parties, the Obama administration would narrow the gap between the ‘moderate middle’ of the Muslim world and the U.S. Second, by showing Muslims that peaceful, moderate parties could achieve beneficial results, it would isolate the terrorists and radicals, further marginalizing them in the Islamic world. Finally, these groups with American support could bring democracy to more Middle Eastern countries, leading to improved economic and social conditions, gradually eradicating the ills and grievances that drove some people to fanatical and terroristic groups.

Mead finds the strategy to have foundered on “five big miscalculations.” Mead writes:

With the advantages of hindsight, it appears that the White House made five big miscalculations about the Middle East. It misread the political maturity and capability of the Islamist groups it supported; it misread the political situation in Egypt; it misread the impact of its strategy on relations with America’s two most important regional allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia); it failed to grasp the new dynamics of terrorist movements in the region; and it underestimated the costs of inaction in Syria.

Mead does not pause to make out the contours of a “moderate” Islamist movement or to suggest how the goals of Islamist groups might be reconciled with the national interest of the United States. He stops short of saying that Obama’s miscalculation inhered in its tenets, as I would (see Abrams addressing the British experience on a closely related point). If “moderate” Islamists support frankly terrorist groups such as Hamas, how “moderate” are they? Despite its limitations, Mead’s friendly critique of Obama’s performance is of interest. He is a fair and shrewd observer.

It seems to me that Abrams goes to the heart of the failure that Mead pronounces. Obama’s grand strategy is a strategy for American withdrawal from the region if not the world. It is less a grand strategy than a petty strategy, geared to a country whose power is to be made petty as befits its moral status in Obama’s eyes.


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