There’s a Washington think-tank variation on the board game Risk, and here’s how it goes: I give you a short statement about Obama policy in the Middle East, and you have to say who it’s from.
“The Persians are taking over Iraq and Syria and building a nuclear weapon. Are you Americans crazy? You think you will outsmart them in Geneva? They send Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah troops to fight in Syria and you do nothing? You draw a red line over chemical weapons and let Putin erase it?”
So who said it: Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal? King Abdullah of Jordan? The Israelis? The Emiratis? The Moroccans? The Kuwaitis? Lebanese Christians? The list of candidates is long.
It’s hard to win this game, because in private, all these players are saying pretty much the same thing. At this point they are less angry than astonished by -American policy, though the Saudis have been coming out of the closet in recent weeks with real resentment about the way Obama is changing the rules. In the game Risk, there are no teams, and alliances are temporary and often disregarded. Our Middle Eastern friends see Obama as playing by those rules rather than the ones that have governed American policy for decades, where alliances are real and lasting, and behavior is predictable. In real life they did not expect to see an America -desperate for a deal with Iran. None of these American friends likes the new rules much because it is they who face the risks: For them, what are mere guessing games in Washington can mean life or death. While Secretary of State John Kerry has been making fine speeches and signing op-eds about what is acceptable and unacceptable in world politics, deaths in Syria rise each day (perhaps to 125,000 or even 200,000 now), there are 6 million persons displaced all over Syria and crowding into Jordan and Lebanon, and reports are coming out of cholera and polio.
The actions of the State Department have rarely seemed as disconnected from reality as they are today. The New York Times’s October 26 story about Obama’s new “modest” Middle East policy was based on interviews with Susan Rice. According to the story, and to Rice, we now have these goals in the region: a successful negotiation with Iran, a successful negotiation of Israeli-Palestinian peace, and a successful negotiation of the Syrian conflict. Gone, it seems, are bad old habits like the assertion of American power or the preference for defeating one’s enemies. The Iranians send troops to Syria, so we send John Kerry to talk with the Russians in a suite overlooking Lake Geneva. The only thing multiplying faster than Iranian centrifuges are talking points. But centrifuges produce enriched uranium, while talking points produce only position papers and Memoranda of Conversations.
Israel’s former minister of defense and head of the Israel Defense Forces Ehud Barak once said that Israel survives in the Middle East not because Israelis can quote the Bible, but because they have the best army around—and that’s a view their neighbors all share. Until recently, the top gun in the neighborhood was the Americans. Only they had the ability to send hundreds of thousands of troops to stop aggression like Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. They had the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, the Fifth Fleet in the Gulf, a red line against chemical weapons use, and dozens of flat statements promising to prevent Iran from getting to a nuclear weapon. But Susan Rice’s list of American priorities—presumably also Barack Obama’s—might be Belgium’s: all talk, all conferences, all Brussels and Geneva and the Security Council.
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.