In its four years of re-setting American policy in the Middle East, the Obama Administration has made the following choices: it remained mostly silent when the 2009 Iranian elections seemed to momentarily destabilize the Ahmadinejaid regime; it pointedly called for a reconfiguring of Israeli borders with the tenuous pre-1967 lines as the starting point for negotiation; it has embraced the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya without expressing major reservations about the radical, even Al Qaeda based elements on the edges of the upheaval; it has not coupled foreign aid to the emergent regimes to a softening of internal policies that suppress religious minorities; and the White House has visibly tamped down momentum for Israeli action against Iran’s nuclear aspirations.
To President Obama’s allies, this is the carefully calibrated record of a government bent on shoring up American popularity in the Arab world. To critics, it is a muddled, ad hoc realignment of American interests. I lean toward the second perspective. But even the defenders of Obama diplomacy are hard-pressed to deny the obvious: the strategy seems to have yielded far from enough dividends within either the Arab street or its ruling classes in the wake of last week’s violence. And any results have ranged from ephemeral gains (a slight diminution of anti-Americanism and a rhetorical affinity for democracy, both of which have come undone under the recognition that American democracy is not empowered or inclined to censor the Internet) to the outright counter-productive (the appearance of an American/Israeli wedge has isolated Israel’s hawks on the global stage, which must embolden Iran’s conceit that it can militarize its nuclear capacity while the West debates).
Of course, making the critique stick has proved elusive for Obama’s domestic opponents. The Dinesh D’Souza charge that Obama’s approach is the work of a closet radical who wants to shrink America’s footprint sells more movies than an obscurely titled political documentary has any right to expect, but it is not a criticism that resonates with swing voters who find Obama admirable even if ineffective. Mitt Romney’s attempt to make the case suffered from bad timing—the murder of the diplomatic team in Benghazi hours after the Republican nominee’s blast at the administration’s response to protests in Cairo sowed confusion and made Romney seem to greet a tragedy with a political offensive—and the injury was compounded when an advisor too broadly suggested that a Romney presidency could have averted the week of violence, a conclusion that dug too hard to discern a logic in the motivations of furious rioters.
But the fact that the case has not been made well does not mean it shouldn’t be made. Obama’s presidency is actually much guiltier of the sin of calculation than the sin of being agnostic about Israeli or even American interests. The consequence has been a foreign policy in the region that seems drained of any conviction about the moral dimensions on the ground. Iran remains the sole nation not named North Korea that routinely lapses into a promise to extinguish a neighbor. The Arab world continues on an anti-democratic course that has ironically made Israel’s sizable Arab minority the freest Arabs in the Middle East, in terms of the right to political expression, and gender and sexual autonomy. An Egyptian government lavishly funded by US dollars is systematically repressive of its Coptic Christians, and seemed tongue-tied in confronting extremists threatening the American embassy. As Al Qaeda disintegrates, radical Islamic fundamentalism remains a prevalent world view even in an advanced society like Egypt, whose clerics and often its intellectuals continue to stigmatize Jews in the most despicable and verbally brutal manner.
This combination of realities demands a toughness of mind and language. While it is off-base to think that toughness would silence mobs or take the fangs away from murderers, an administration that spoke more bluntly about the absolutes in the Middle East would impress Arab governments who in the way of politicians everywhere want to have it both ways and who therefore exploit ambiguity. The same inspiration might also strengthen American ties to the forces within Arab society that view fundamentalism as a backwater.
A perceived failing of George W. Bush’s neoconservatives was the tendency to construe Islam as one monolithic force with no ideological shades of subtlety. To be sure, Obama’s White House has understood the strains in the Muslim world and has sought to capitalize by appealing directly to the rank and file with a kinder, gentler, more sensitive rhetoric. But the Arab resistance to Western style pluralism has thwarted the young, secularized moderates whom Obama is seeking to capture. In Cairo, they have been brusquely pushed aside by the Muslim Brotherhood and dead-end military autocrats; they have been outmaneuvered by Hamas, and brutalized or expelled in Damascus and Benghazi.
Which leaves a fantastic irony: Obama, who has strived to distinguish between Muslim factions, has actually treated the elements in power as if they shared the interests and aspirations of the next generation in the Arab street. But the thugs and theocrats left in power are resistant to a charm offensive. And the radicals still outnumber the modernist idealists. Obama’s version of the Middle East calls to mind Gandhi on Western civilization: it would be a very nice idea.