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A Turkey of a Policy

Obama makes the Middle East an even more dangerous place.

Jun 21, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 38 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Third, while it is no secret that the United States is increasingly viewed as a spent force and an unreliable ally in this region, it is not so much the events of the past 17 months that impress Middle Easterners as it is that the Obama administration remains oblivious to the impact of its policies. Everyone there sees clearly that Obama desires to be out of Iraq more than he desires to stabilize that country. Since a strong Iraq would be a force of resistance to Iran, this policy suggests that the rise of Iran will be unchecked by America. So does our policy on Iran’s nuclear program, where the fantasy that U.N. sanctions will solve the problem persuades no Arab or Israeli official. So does our distancing ourselves from Israel, which all understand is a deliberate policy. If America does not plan to stand up to Iran or help Israel do so, Iran will acquire nuclear weapons and its desired preeminence will only grow. Those who wish to survive will accommodate, whatever their private views; they will not stand up to a Turkish-Iranian alliance without strong, decisive American leadership.

This is not, of course, how the Obama administration sees the region, or the world. From the Cairo speech to the National Security Strategy, the president has described a very different international situation: The United States has but one enemy, al Qaeda, and for the rest we must not be “defined by our differences.” The National Security Strategy that refers to “21st century centers of influence—including China, India, and Russia” as if these powers were in similar relationships with the United States is clearly devoid of any sense of the difference between allies and adversaries. In fact, it is not a “strategy” at all, but merely a listing of desirable outcomes for the United States. 

The Gaza flotilla incident might have been a great setback to the radical camp had the United States reacted sharply, defending Israel, condemning the jihadists on board and their sponsors in Turkey, blocking U.N. Security Council action, and refusing to sponsor another international inquiry that will condemn Israel. And Israel’s interests were not the only ones at stake: The blockade of Gaza is a joint Israeli-Egyptian action to weaken Hamas. But the American position reflects the Obama line: carefully balancing the interests of friend and foe, seeking to avoid offense to our enemies, or, as Churchill famously described British policy in the 1930s, “resolved to be irresolute.” Middle Eastern states, including Arab regimes traditionally allied with the United States, view this pose as likely to get them all killed when enemies come knocking at the door. 

Still, whatever the trends and whatever the American errors, nothing is inevitable except the passing of certain key actors. Turks may tire of Erdogan’s speeches and return a government that seeks a true balance between East and West rather than a headlong dive into alliances with Iran and Syria. Iran’s nuclear program may be stopped by an Israeli action, or some day by the collapse of that increasingly despised regime. Israelis and Palestinians may find a way to a better modus vivendi through pragmatic actions that improve Palestinian life, expand self-rule, and reduce the Israeli presence in the West Bank. The sad and dangerous thing for all moderates in the region, from Lebanese who fear growing Syrian influence to Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, and Bahrainis who fear Iranian domination of the Gulf to Palestinians who fear Hamas, is that such desirable outcomes are far less likely now. Ironically, a “moderate” America seeking diplomatic “engagement” and military disengagement, seeking to avoid trouble and to palliate radical forces, does not produce moderation in the Middle East; America the fierce and certain ally gives moderates strength and radicals pause.

The bloody battle on board the Marmara lasted only half an hour, but larger and bloodier battles lie ahead unless the United States reasserts its role in the region. The vacuum our weakness creates will be filled by forces hostile to our interests, our allies, and our beliefs. In the end they’ll have to be beaten; the only question is the timing—and the cost.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

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