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Sandstorms

Barack Obama and the Great Arab Revolt.

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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President Obama seems incapable of either sentiment. He obviously knows this is a momentous time for the region—he has said so often. But the abstractness of his attachment to foreign affairs has seeped into the National Security Council and the State Department, making his team often sound like professors testing a new game theory. It leaves him vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the Great Arab Revolt, which have likely only just begun to shake the region. Depending on what happens in Bahrain, Syria, and Libya, the region may get extraordinarily bloody. If Bahrain were to descend into a savage Sunni-versus-Shiite insurrection, inflaming Sunni-Shiite relations in Saudi Arabia’s neighboring oil-rich Eastern Province, the United States could easily be looking at $7-a-gallon gasoline. If Qaddafi goes down, a rebellion could start in neighboring Algeria, which has probably been slow to ignite because of the memories of its ferocious civil war in the 1990s. Turmoil in oil- and natural gas-rich Algeria could also send energy prices spiraling. 

LIBYA

Regardless of whether one thinks the president’s intervention in Libya was right or wrong, the way he intervened has likely guaranteed that the eventual fall of Qaddafi will cost many more lives and leave Libya in worse shape than if Obama had chosen more aggressive American action—including lots of Special Forces on the ground—earlier. The president had to know—despite whatever Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said publicly—that the decision to intervene meant regime change. The stiff retorts of Gates to questions about American objectives in Libya show his concern about “mission creep.” It will be brutally ironic if Gates, the administration’s preeminent “realist,” who surely would have opposed the Iraq “surge” if he’d stayed in the Iraq Study Group, ends up making in Libya exactly the same mistake as his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, in Iraq: dogged opposition to sending sufficient force to accomplish the mission. 

The French and the British always knew this wasn’t just a humanitarian operation. They also know, better than anyone, that NATO is effective only with American leadership. It is astonishing that Clinton administration officials did not more vigorously warn Obama about the reality of NATO’s command structure and culture. It is astonishing that the president, who has watched the European commitment dwindle in Afghanistan, would want to attach the credibility of his presidency to a European-led gambit where, to borrow from Antony Blinken, “patience” is the decisive virtue. (Imagine for a moment that the Algerian military junta, viewing Qaddafi now as a bulwark against internal rebellion, clandestinely supplies the Libyan regime with munitions and other aid. Our patience then would work to strengthen Qaddafi.) Although this was not Obama’s initial intent, he is now trying to turn NATO into an EU defense force, something France and Britain once contemplated and abandoned precisely because both parties realized that the United States really was the “indispensable nation.” 

The French and British welfare states have eaten their countries’ armed forces (the once formidable Royal Navy will soon not even have a jump-jet aircraft carrier). With the exception of the French, the rest of NATO—“the mightiest military alliance in the world”—is still more pathetic in its capacity to project force, even across the Mediterranean. Given that Obama’s own budget would slash American defense spending to help save the American welfare state, he might have had a bit more sympathy for the European predicament. Obama may think, as Ryan Lizza suggests in the New Yorker, that his leadership will ultimately be tested further east, with the rise of India and China, and through the management of America’s (presumed) relative global decline. But presidential leadership is always tested—often defined—by war. Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya, not China (unless Beijing makes a military play for Taiwan), seem on track to write the most telling part of Barack Obama’s “profile in courage.” 

We are now caught in the peculiar position of having as commander in chief of a new war in the Middle East, a region that mercilessly embraces power politics, a man who sees hesitancy as deliberation and retreat as strength. The crisis of the American welfare state may in part explain the president’s reluctance to will the means to complete his own mission; as the columnist E.J. Dionne remarked, war is hell on the spending priorities of progressives. Yet the president’s deliberations surely proceed from a mindset that sees American power as prone to cause more harm than good, the belief that American intervention, especially in the Middle East, ineluctably creates virulent antibodies. 

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