The Magazine

The Muddle East

Every idea President Obama had about pacifying the Muslim world turned out to be wrong.

Sep 16, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 02 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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If Congress refuses to support American military action against the Assad regime in Syria, and President Barack Obama declines to strike or strikes meekly, will American power—that marriage of will, resources, and perception—be diminished in the Middle East? If so, will the ramifications be severe? Could President Obama, like Iran-sanctions-supporting liberals and conservatives who don’t want to intervene in Syria, skip this Levantine war and nevertheless come out swinging against the nuke-seeking mullahs of the Islamic Republic? Might the triumph of Sunni jihadists in Syria actually be worse than Bashar al-Assad’s survival? 

thomas fluharty

thomas fluharty

When it comes to the Middle East, Obama’s presidency has largely been predicated on two ideas: A hegemonic America is a bad thing, and the second Iraq war was a serious mistake. We and Middle Eastern Muslims would coexist more harmoniously, so Obama has thought, if Washington were less bellicose. The fight against al Qaeda and support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process—once, and perhaps still, the epicenter of the president’s understanding of the region—would both advance if Washington were more dovish and reticent in the Middle East. The president’s vaunted 2009 Cairo speech, which was coolly received by secular Egyptian democratic dissidents, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, was the personal outreach of a man who really believed that he, with his mixed race and religious pedigree, was an ambassador to a new age of better relations between Islam and the West. 

Time has been unkind to Obama. The American withdrawal from Iraq has not left that country better off. Political violence has risen as the United States’ mitigating influence on internal politics, especially Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarian proclivities, evaporated. Sunni terrorism led by al Qaeda has skyrocketed. Iraq’s Shiite community, recovering slowly from Saddam Hussein’s depredations, no longer has an American buffer against Iran’s far greater strength. If American airpower were still in Baghdad, Tehran could not resupply Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah by air, and the Assad regime would lose the two resources most critical to its survival. Al Qaeda and Islamic militancy in general seem to have grown stronger globally even though radical preachers can no longer denounce “American crusaders” along the Tigris and Euphrates. Al Qaeda now boasts, along with Iran and its militant Iraqi allies, that it drove the Americans out of the country.  

And then there is the Great Arab Revolt, which has discombobulated the administration. Even in Libya, where the White House finally used some force “from behind” our European allies to down Muammar Qaddafi, it followed through with so discreet a footprint as to leave American facilities and personnel in Benghazi at the mercy of lightly armed Islamic radicals. 

In Egypt, the administration’s confused response—from the fall of Hosni Mubarak to the military coup against Mohammad Morsi—has left America seeming hapless, duplicitous, and weak. Any American president would have been in trouble in Egypt, but Obama’s sensibilities—his early friendly outreach to Muslim despots and Iran, his reluctance to apply pressure to authoritarian Muslim rulers, and his obvious discomfort with the moral challenges of American power—made him particularly diffident. George W. Bush, the born-again American liberator who destroyed the Arab world’s most savage tyrant and unleashed a tidal wave of conflicting emotions in the Middle East about imperialism, dictatorship, democracy, Arabism, and sectarian identity, is nearly forgotten in the region—except in Iraq. Barack Obama is now the American everyone in the region loves to hate. 

But what the withdrawal from Iraq started and the Great Arab Revolt accelerated, the war in Syria has pushed into overdrive: the omnipresent perception in the Middle East of American listlessness. In part, this is what President Obama intended. He wanted Middle Eastern Muslims to stop viewing the United States as a looming hegemon maintaining a certain (unfriendly) order. He didn’t envision, however, how messy things could become as the Great Arab Revolt worked its way through the region. The United States and Europe needed to lean in, to encourage patiently, with rhetoric, resources, and when necessary coercion, movement toward a basic democratic order, and not to fear the omnipresent Muslim complaint about Western intrusion. Ask an American, European, or Middle Easterner (including Israelis) to identify an American national-security interest from Morocco to Iran that President Obama would unhesitatingly fight for. The president probably would rally to Israel, yet it’s not easy to pinpoint even that case with confidence. 

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