The Caravan

About that Flexibility, Mr. President

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

In your well reported aside to Vladimir Putin, you promised him greater flexibility after the election. That moment has come. Your critics have been fearing that this flexibility could lead you to take steps that would compromise American security interests and disqualify you in the eyes of voters. Luckily, you don’t have to feel constrained by meddlesome voters anymore: you have a freer hand. How will you use it?

Please remember that your reelection also frees you from another constraint, the isolationist and anti-military currents in your party. To your credit, you have already pursued wise counter-terrorism strategies even though they irritate progressives: drone warfare abroad and tough security measures at home. Nonetheless, you had to play to that left for electoral purposes. With your reelection you finally have a chance to make a clean break with your McGovernite base through new policy initiatives, especially in the Middle East. It’s up to you to seize the moment.

First, killing Osama bin Laden bolstered your standing with the public. Bravo. For domestic political reasons, however, you had to oversell that singular event with untenable claims that it meant the full defeat of al-Qaida and the disappearance of a terrorist threat. These overstatements helped your reelection. Unfortunately they are false. You do not serve the nation—or your own reputation—well by minimizing the threat of Islamist terrorism. Misleading the nation on the terrorist murder of Ambassador Stephens was not your best hour. You still have time to articulate the urgency of robust security and counter-terrorism strategies. You have the bully pulpit to educate the nation that the danger continues. Use it.

Second, for the foreseeable future, the world will depend on oil, which means that secure access to the large Middle Eastern reserves are in America’s national interest. The US therefore needs to play a proactive role in promoting stability in a region undergoing dramatic changes. Your policy of “leading from behind” helped you dodge some of the foreign policy challenges of the past years: you deserve congratulations for your political dexterity. But it is finally time to show some mettle and forge a path that combines democratization—which our ideals compel us to support—with the security that our interests require. Because we have not tried very hard to influence the tone in the democratic transitions in the Arab world, a creeping Islamization is taking over. This is a real test for our “soft power” capacity. No more stand-offishness, please: it’s time for you to lead. Get engaged! The US should advocate consistently for democratic reform, while also building ties to oppositional forces at all levels in order to support currents compatible with our values. Selling our ideals short will gain us no respect.

Third, unless you can halt the Iranian threat to Israel, a violent confrontation will ensue. Jerusalem takes Tehran’s intentions very seriously, and you should as well. Israeli security is in America’s interest, because of shared values, security cooperation and economic ties. The best way to protect Israel from the Iranian bomb would have been to elicit a regime change in Tehran—you unfortunately lost your chance to support the democratic Green movement, which offered a real prospect for political transformation. You preferred to sit that one out. Still, find ways to support the domestic opposition. Don’t’ abandon the forces of democracy.

In the meantime though, make it clear to the Iranian leadership that you are serious in your support for Israel. Yes, you have deployed your rhetorical prowess to express support for Israel at opportune moments, such as when you spoke eloquently at AIPAC, but events at the Democratic Party convention made it clear that your own party harbors strong anti-Israel currents. Now that you have won the election, you have greater flexibility and no longer have to curry the favor of the far left. It’s time to stop your cold war on Israel and rebuild that alliance. Ending the Iranian threat is also the only possible route to addressing the Palestinian situation by providing Israel with a sense of security and by undermining Iran’s proxy, Hamas.

Your reelection has given you latitude to act. Use it to support American values and American interests. But don’t forget that your post-election flexibility is inevitably constrained by the judgment history will make. Care about your legacy. You don’t want to be remembered as an isolationist president who failed on the security front or who let the Middle East spiral out of control. This is your watch.

Russell Berman is the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Comparative Literature and German Studies at Stanford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.


This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Obama’s Second Term – Middle Eastern Memos is provided by Itamar Rabinovich, Charlie Hill, Robert Satloff, Asli Aydintasbas, Habib Malik, Reuel Gerecht, Leon Wieseltier, Tammy Frisby, Abbas Milani, and Fouad Ajami.