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A Dangerous Game

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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What’s missing? Any American friend in the Middle East can give you the list: Punishing Assad for using chemical weapons after the American president drew a red line. Giving the Syrian nationalist rebels what they need to drive Assad from power and thereby weaken both Iran and Syria. Letting the ayatollahs know they will give up their nuclear weapons program or see it destroyed. Giving democrats, liberals, and religious minorities the moral and political support they need to survive against the twin pressures of Islamism and military dictatorship. What’s missing, in other words, is the use of power. The new “modest” policy eschews American power as if it were a malign inheritance from the past, like sexism: That’s the way we were in the bad old days, but we’ve worked our way through to a new and more mature approach now. This explains the astonishment of our Middle Eastern friends and allies who find themselves facing Lavrov and Putin, Khamenei and Soleimani, Assad and Nasrallah. Our allies have not attained the same level of enlightenment about world politics as the Obama team, among whom terms like “victory” and “enemy” are thought outmoded. What our friends know is that our enemies aren’t playing Risk, they’re playing for keeps. Everyone from Morocco to Iran gets that, but no one in the White House seems to.

It is only four years since Barack Obama went to Cairo to say “as-salamu alaykum” and “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world.” This was the task for which he claimed to be especially, indeed uniquely, qualified: In that speech he said, “As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.” And, he noted, “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.”

Oh well. Four years is a long time in politics. In Arabia, where Islam began, Obama is now reviled by leaders who believe he is either dangerously naïve or indifferent to the risks they face. In Egypt his policies have managed the neat trick of alienating everyone from the Muslim Brotherhood to the army to the liberals and democrats. In Israel there is dread about an administration that appears to view drone strikes as the apex of America’s assertion of power—and all else
as morally ambiguous.

Addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last spring, Ehud Barak said this: “It is no secret, and I’ll repeat it again, that we live in a tough neighborhood, where there is no mercy for the weak. And no second chance for those who cannot defend themselves.” That’s another line that could easily have come from the Saudis, Emiratis, Jordanians, and so on: That’s how they all see the Hobbesian world in which they live. For a while, for some decades, the “war of all against all” was limited by a Pax Americana that imposed some rules. 

Now those rules can be broken in the face of official American indifference—disguised, to be sure, in briefings, speeches, and spin as a new strategic approach. “We have to be humble,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told the columnist David Ignatius last week. Ignatius, a reliable Obama apologist, called it “strategic humility,” but even he acknowledged that it is “quite dangerous.”  

To those whose futures are put in peril by it, the Americans appear to be imposing huge new risks on nations that have been their friends for decades. The New York Times called that a more “modest” Middle East policy, but the only thing “modest” here is the vision and ability of those in charge in the White House.

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