One of the most tiresome clichés about the Middle East is that it never changes. In the old days, this notion of stasis was called essentialism. It is certainly true that there are significant historical changes – the ones that we cluster together in the term “modernization” – that have not yet come to the Arab societies of the region; and it is also true that there are powerful forces arrayed against the prospect of these changes. But the last few years have exposed the idea of the undying fixity of Arab life – so convenient for native theocrats and foreign corporations – as a myth. There is no region in the world where the winds of change are blowing more ferociously. The Arab Spring is one of the most momentous convulsions of modern history. Yet it is important to note that the some of the changes now affecting the Middle East are not indigenous, or of its own making. I have in mind one such change in particular. It is the bewildering but undeniable withdrawal of the United States from any really consequential role in helping to determine the outcomes of the various Arab revolutions.
This shrinkage of America’s conception of its place in the Middle East, and more generally of its place in the world, is the work of Barack Obama, his unspoken doctrine; and so his reelection does not bode well for the region. Or rather, it bodes well for its reactionary forces, who will encounter no formidable American obstacle to the pursuit of their interests and their ambitions. The president of the United States has been bizarrely content to be a spectator – in the front row, but still a spectator – of these hugely repercussive events. His passivity about Syria is of course the most egregious example. In Syria we now lag, morally and strategically, behind France, as we once did in Libya.
Everything that Obama warned would happen in Syria and around Syria if we intervened is happening in Syria and around Syria because we did not intervene. He has given Putin a veto on American foreign policy – which is to say, he has stubbornly insisted that action against Assad must come through the United Nations, where Russia can be counted upon to prevent it. Putin is not Obama’s problem, in the matter of Syria; he is Obama’s solution. Nobody really expects Obama to promote democratization and human rights into a pillar of American foreign policy, into a sufficient cause for American action; but even the president’s celebrated sense of realpolitik has failed him. The Syrian civil war spills across the borders of Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, and the United States does nothing. Cold hearts should be more competent.
Libya is another example of Obama’s effects. We did the right thing, but not robustly. After the fall of Qaddafi we were perfectly content to remain in the “behind” from which we “led”, except now without leading. The disaster in Benghazi was the direct result of the paltriness of our postwar posture in Libya. The proximate cause, of course, was the failure to act on, or even see, certain intelligence reports about the vulnerability of our people in Benghazi, but the larger cause was Obama’s disinclination to American prominence, and his dogmatism about the use of the American military to secure the gains that had been accomplished by the NATO operation.
Does Obama want democracy, and the thwarting of theocracy and jihadism, in the Arab world? Does he want the regime in Tehran to collapse, and be replaced by an accountable democratic government? Does he want the Israelis and the Palestinians to find their way to an agreement? Then he is going to have to do something about it. Multilateralism and multiculturalism will not bring about any of these outcomes. Only the forthright use of American power, following from the forthright acknowledgment of the necessity and the beneficence of American power, can create some of the conditions for a morally and strategically satisfactory conclusion to these crises. Drone warfare, though its utility for our counter-terrorism campaign is undeniable, is a way of evading the larger question of American power, of finessing it. (Obama’s greatest talent may be for finesse.) The end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the deaths of Muammar Qaddafi and Osama bin Laden, is not all we need to know about these still roiling regions. History in unceasing. It doesn’t stop even for the United States.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
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 Russell Berman, Itamar Rabinovich, Charles Hill, Robert Satloff, Asli Aydintasbas, Habib Malik, Reuel Gerecht, Tammy Frisby, Abbas Milani, and Fouad Ajami.