September 15, 2012

Obama's Hope Is the Middle East's Lesser Evil

In the days following President Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention, administration officials and U.S. media seesawed over a post-convention "bump" that reportedly elevated his values above Republican challenger Mitt Romney. Numerous polls, including a recent Fox News survey, have marked down a widening gap across the board: education (+14), Medicare (+11), terrorism (+8 points) and foreign policy, where Obama rated 15 points higher than Romney. Many Americans and the Middle East's populaces do share something in common after all.

They are stuck with the Obama administration's foreign policy by default.

Judging from the overall actions of his first term, Obama himself received no bump in the Middle East after delivering a one-sided and misleading acceptance speech in Charlotte, North Carolina. Four years removed from promising a new era of engagement between the U.S. government and Muslim world, both sides refuse to stray far from the negative perceptions that have accumulated over decades of war, intervention, exploitation and continual strife. Obama isn't personally responsible for this status quo, only for over-promising and under-delivering in order to cast a favorable political glow upon himself. Stagecraft would trump statecraft as the U.S. economy came first and now U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf's sphere of influence is, as Romney warns, lacking "American leadership." Unfortunately his proposals are both vaguer than Obama's and more hostile to the region's stability, and his circle is staffed by pollsters that apparently aren't "going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers."

"The worst part of this election is there are so many valid grounds to criticize Obama," The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald Tweeted the day after Obama's speech, "and the Right voices almost none of them."

Shades of War

Although Romney's policies in the Arab world are masked by ambiguity, scarecrows, red herrings and other distractions, his potential administration runs on traditional GOP diesel and factors into account a widespread anti-Muslim trend in the mainstream Republican party. Blaming Obama for "diminishing American leadership" is standard fare, and a valid point in the Middle East if not for his own hawkish and insensitive tendencies. Inside his October 2011 white paper, titled "American Century Strategy: secure America's enduring interests and values," Romney meets Obama at numerous points of mutual interest while exposing the toxicity brewing beneath his sweet rhetoric. His circle of GOP veterans believes that the "unfinished" project for an "American Century" is something to be completed, and the Arab revolutions something to be manipulated under the banner of democracy.

"To protect our enduring national interests and to promote our ideals, a Romney administration will pursue a strategy of supporting groups and governments across the Middle East to advance the values of representative government, economic opportunity, and human rights, and opposing any extension of Iranian or jihadist influence. The Romney administration will strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab winter."

In a "dangerous, destructive, chaotic" world, Romney plans to "lead the free world" as the "free world leads the entire world." This policy includes joining Israel's crusade against Iran's nuclear sites, a potential war that an estimated 60-70% of Americans disapprove of, as a means of projecting America's strength. Obama, on the other hand, has fashioned himself into an arbitrator of war and peace, wielding a Nobel in one fist and Osama bin Laden's head in the other. The race for bin Laden offered a trophy to the winning administration and Obama will personally reap the benefits as long as he lives. The glorified kill, along with the advance in drone warfare and strategic rise in U.S. Special Forces, also allows him to continue his foreign policy of "less force" with minimal domestic resistance.

Obama's case for non-military action against Iran, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and promising to "disrupt terror plots wherever they form" became more convincing after May 2nd, 2011. Well-meaning critics of America's newest version of war find difficulty in attacking a policy that costs less American lives and taxpayer dollars.

War Obama still brings, though, and leaves unfinished. The President has grown fond of bragging that he "ended the war in Iraq," and refuses to unspin Romney's own policy because ongoing Iraqi casualties make for dangerous political ground. Romney claims that "a democratic Iraq allied to the United States is within our reach," but Obama is "threatening to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory." After promising to use a "broad array of foreign policy tools - diplomatic, economic, military," Romney then zeroes on Obama's "failure" to install a residual military force and ignores the political void that the administration has encouraged by supporting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He fails to understand (at least in public) that Washington's problems in Iraq stem from political inequalities, not military shortages. Prolonging the deployment of U.S. troops would give the divisive al-Maliki more leverage over his opponents, not less, while an extension could generate as many security problems as it solves.

Obama, Romney and Tehran have all ended up in al-Maliki's leaky boat, a circumstance that neither candidate likes to talk about.

The incumbent and challenger find similar common ground in Afghanistan, where Romney seems to agree with the bulk of Obama's strategy despite their public feuding. He may keep a lower profile for this reason: Romney's white paper approves of the 2014 transition to Afghan security forces, demands greater accountability from Afghanistan and Pakistan's governments, and expects a residual force to be discussed in the future. The Obama administration also hopes to maintain a long-term security presence after 2014, contrary to his DNC announcement that "in 2014, our longest war will be over."

Nor does the absence of U.S. troops end an asymmetric war. Here the candidates share something else in common, because Romney opposes negotiating with the Taliban and plans to "rid" the group from Afghanistan - and extend the war in this unrealistic quest. He's also more likely to send ground troops across Pakistan's border in search of the elusive Haqqani network, another move that is liable to prolong the conflict.

At a wider strategic level, Romney would surely get the hang of drone warfare as fast as Obama.

A Pattern of Division and Unity

The greatest regional divergence between candidates centers around U.S. policy towards Israel and Iran, where Romney believes he can score fast points by portraying himself as the anti-Obama. For his part Obama has tread cautiously around Tehran at the direction of America's military leadership and public resistance to a "big" war in the Gulf, awaiting the final results of global isolation. Romney concedes the need for economic and diplomatic isolation before clarifying that a real threat of war offers the only possibility of defusing Iran's nuclear ambitions, a plan that includes "repairing relations with Israel." Unlike Obama, he would "never refuse a meeting" with Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu (a story that the White House denies), reject Israel's insistence on a "red-line" for stopping Iran's enrichment program, or throw Israel "under the bus."

Casting Obama as "pro-Palestinian" reinforces the twisted state of U.S. policy under either candidate. In reality he has abandoned the Palestinians to Israel's terms for a two-state solution - requesting a settlement pause distorted this policy in America and Israel alike - and spent far more energy confronting the Iranians. Upon taking office, Obama announced that he would break ranks from the Bush administration's 11th-hour drive for peace and pursue an equitable two-state solution "from day one." Sadly he has fallen into the same trap of bias and inaction, even excluding the Palestinians from his second acceptance speech, which harms Israelis in the process. If peace is harder to make than war, it stands to reason that greater energy must be applied.

Romney claims that Iran, not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, serves as the region's central issue, and Tehran's external policies do run on a variety of unrelated interests. Yet one cannot help observing that the Islamic Republic of Iran has never known a world with a sovereign Palestinian state.

Aside from this divide Romney finds a good amount of common ground in the region, and Washington's transition-oriented counterrevolution to the Arab revolutions is no exception. Obama's absence on the Palestinian sideline has done its own local damage, but this conflict falls into an established struggle between the modern world's haves and have-nots. Romney is right one on account: Obama has failed to deliver the leadership that he promised in the Middle East. However the GOP's new face would offer no respite from Obama's pseudo friendship with the Palestinians and other democratic actors. In Egypt, Romney has consistently and falsely accused the administration of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, finding no fault in supporting the authoritarian Supreme Council of Arms Forces (SCAF) or thwarting Egypt's popular revolutionary forces.

Obama recently countered this charge by urging the Brotherhood to maintain Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.

Elsewhere in Yemen, Obama has deployed his trusted counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as his lord of war and, on important occasions, as Washington's senior "diplomat" in the country. Both he and Ambassador Gerald Feierstein are extremely unpopular figures due to the administration's handling of an ongoing revolution, and Feierstein is currently being denounced at the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a. Romney would surely appreciate the same luxuries afforded by drones, Special Forces, CIA agents and a dominate geopolitical relationship with Saudi Arabia, and thus operate no differently in Yemen. Bahrain's policy would also experience a smooth transition between Obama and Romney's administrations, just not the Bahraini protesters who labor under state-sponsored oppression. Counterrevolutionary actions in select states have reinforced a hypocritical pall over U.S. foreign policy in the region, especially Libya's mission and Syria's intervention, but neither acknowledges this burden.

Instead, Romney accuses Obama of encouraging an "Islamic winter" while portraying himself as tougher on Iran and Islamists. He presumably sees nothing wrong with supporting authoritarian governments, opposing Islamic political groups or aiding an Israeli military operation in the name of America's "enduring interests," even if this policy damages them. Before becoming trapped in another battle over apologies, Obama enjoyed his time in Charlotte by ripping Romney for "taking us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly."

Marooned On Hope Island

Given his own statements and positions, Romney is clearly incapable of fostering lasting stability and peace in the Gulf region. Improving the trajectory of U.S. policy in the Middle East requires the type of personality that Obama promised and never delivered, making his disappointment historically significant. Poll after poll concludes that he fell into an enormous trust gap left by previous administrations. Too many Muslims still perceive America as a unilateralist actor in the region - whether cooperating with its allies or not  - and an outright threat to their national interests. 

Accordingly, Obama's popularity remains anchored near Bush's in Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Yemen, Pakistan, the Palestinian territories and other areas entangled in U.S. foreign policy.

The dilemma of lesser evil may be an inherent problem of democracy, but rating America's presidential candidates cannot be jaded by the previous failures of George W. Bush's administration and past presidents. Finding a truly excellent candidate, rather than once again settling for the lesser of two negatives, is an ideal worth pursuing throughout history. As for the diverse peoples of the Middle East, nothing has changed since Obama entered the Oval Office: they must free themselves of foreign interference on the way to determining their future.


  1. It's not saying much to claim the lesser evil pedestal. But I agree that O is so much the lesser evil that his inevitable re-election will be a relief of some kind. His war of choice however will continue to unravel it seems, leaving him to clutch at the straws the spin-men manufacture for him. I have never jumped on the bandwagon when the NATO debacle has hit crises in Afghanistan over the years, knowing they have vast resources to fall back on whatever the setbacks. But I believe their mission is irretrievable now. What's your your 12-month projection in the light of recent events?

  2. A strategic announcement is due after the election. If Obama wins, he is sure to give a rousing speech to mark the withdrawal of surge troops and shape perceptions of a final withdrawal. Even if he spells out the exit of 60,000+ troops, more of the same will continue through 2014. Romney's policy won't lead to a divergence since both sides of Washington's establishment want to maintain a long-term, low-cost security presence in the region. And Americans generally approve of this hegemony, just not at a high cost of American lives and tax dollars.