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A Weak Horse in the White House

American power: Use it or lose it.

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By LEE SMITH
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Here’s a mismatch: While Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is flying in mercenaries from around Africa to ensure the survival of his regime, President Obama is dispatching his diplomatic corps to Europe and the Middle East for consultations regarding the impending civil war in the North African state. It will be interesting to see how U.S. envoys are received by Washington’s Arab allies, especially in Riyadh, where King Abdullah was once targeted by Qaddafi to be “killed either through assassination or through a coup.”

A Weak Horse in the White House

Obama in Egypt, June 4, 2009

Qaddafi hired the hit man in the wake of a 2003 Arab League summit meeting in Cairo, during which he and the then-crown prince traded insults. The point of contention was Saudi Arabia’s alliance with the United States. Qaddafi said Riyadh had made a “deal with the devil” by allowing American troops to defend the Saudi kingdom during the first Gulf war—a deal, Qaddafi claimed, that expanded the U.S. presence in the region.

Who knows how Abdullah will advise the Americans to treat his near assassin? For Qaddafi’s brutal crackdown is the latest signal that U.S. influence in the Middle East is waning, and our allies are more anxious than ever about American resolve. This is not because any of the regional powers, and certainly not Qaddafi, have challenged Washington successfully, but because the commander in chief has himself undermined American prestige.

Regardless of how the political landscape of a post-Mubarak Egypt takes shape—the military regime holds on to power, or the Muslim Brotherhood gets a larger share of power, or a newly elected president embarks on a series of much-needed liberal reforms—the fact is that the Obama administration’s treatment of the former Egyptian president rattled Arab allies. Of course, the White House could have played that to its advantage, leaving even friendly Arab regimes with the impression that the Americans are serious about pushing democracy and dangerous when crossed. That is, if you step out of line, Washington has the knives out for you, even if you’ve kept the peace  with Israel for 30 years.

But the comparison between Obama’s strong words for Mubarak, a one-time pillar of American Middle East strategy, and his near absolute silence on Qaddafi, whose hands are dripping with American blood after four decades of terrorism, shows the Arabs that the White House is not serious but incoherent. The president cannot even abide by the one principle that has seemed to guide his Middle East policy since his 2009 Cairo speech—his personal public outreach to the Muslim masses.

In spite of his famous bow to King Abdullah, Obama was never particularly comfortable with Washington’s Arab allies. The effect of the Cairo speech was to undermine an ally, the president of Egypt, by going to his capital to speak over his head to Muslim people generally. This idea of an unmediated relationship between the president of the United States and the world’s Muslims was always in tension with traditional approaches to foreign policy. For the purposes of making policy, the many peoples of the world belong to states that are broken down into allies, rivals (friendly and less friendly), and enemies. But this is not how Obama sees the Middle East. Instead, he sees it in terms of an undifferentiated people who need to be convinced that the United States is unbigoted and indeed friendly toward their hopes and dreams.

The problem is that there is no such undifferentiated mass of people. Rather, there are a variety of Muslim sects (e.g., Sunni and Shia), countries (e.g., Iran and Saudi Arabia), and centers of power (e.g., regimes and opposition movements) with a wide array of interests that in many cases cannot be reconciled. Obama approached them all as if Pan-Islamism were alive and well, and not a discredited and failed ideology of half a century ago.

If the president will not, for instance, deploy U.S. airpower to impose a no-fly zone to prevent Muslims from being slaughtered throughout Libya (by other Muslims), it may be because he does not see the world in strategic terms. Washington would do well to advance its interests in the Middle East by helping one side in Libya to win and the other lose. The choice is not all that difficult, especially as U.S. power weighing in heavily against Qaddafi, long a sworn enemy of this country, would set a clear example for Qaddafi’s successor. Moreover, our Arab allies would at least then see some sort of consistency in the White House’s worldview. Such an intervention would be an act of statesmanship worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

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