The Caravan

Obama’s Greater Middle East

Thursday, December 6, 2012

It’s difficult to recommend a new approach to the Greater Middle East when the overarching philosophy of Barack Obama’s first term lingers on. In 2008 the Illinois senator sincerely believed that the United States was disliked in Muslim lands primarily because of George W. Bush, American aggressiveness, and Israeli right-wingers. He was convinced that as president he could reset America’s image because he had, in his own words, the “credibility of someone who lived in a Muslim country for four years” as a child and thus had “a sense of that culture that…[would allow him] to more effectively bring about the kinds of cooperation that we need to go after terrorists and isolate them and bring the Muslim world together with the Western world to pursue the kinds of strategies that make everyone prosperous.”

Mr. Obama wanted the United States to do less (minus the drones) and thus be liked more. The president’s attempted engagement in 2009 of Ali Khameneh’i, the Iran’s supreme leader, and Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Alawite dictator, naturally followed. So, too, his coolness towards Israel and the quiet awkwardness during the enormous pro-democracy street demonstrations in Tehran in the summer of 2009 and the Tahrir pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo in 2011. This less-is-more leftwing cautiousness also gave us the president’s last-minute decision to follow French president Nicolas Sarkozy into Libya, but do next to nothing in country once Muammar Qadhafi fell. It lies behind the president’s continuing resistance to intervening in Syria, and his firm plans to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.

The convulsive issues in the region—nuclear weapons for Khameneh’i, the Taliban wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Sunni rebellion in Syria, democratization in Egypt, and the lethal Islamic militancy that reared its head in Benghazi—will certainly prove no more amenable to American ministrations in the second term. If the president still believes the United States should lessen its presence among Muslims, then the Syrian civil war could claim 100,000 lives (death toll currently is around 35,000), superheat the region’s Sunni-Shiite divide, and quite possibly fuel nuclear proliferation, yet Washington wouldn’t intervene to down the Assads.

And does the president care enough about Egypt’s fate to take on a stingy, Middle Eastern-fatigued Republican Congress? Does he care enough—does he know enough about Islamic militancy—to take the bully pulpit against the Muslim Brotherhood and play financial hardball if it tries to gut democracy? If Afghanistan collapses and jihadists with global aspirations again set up shop with Islamabad’s energetic assistance, what is the president going to do? Drone warfare against the jihadists in northern Pakistan will cease since the Afghan launching pad will be gone and Pakistani generals, who have long backed some of the worst militants, will probably interdict U.S. drones in their skies. Why would they fear Mr. Obama, who’s “pivoting” to Asia? Will he fire cruise missiles at terrorist training camps? We’ve been there.

And although the president has obviously learned that the Islamic Republic’s ruler isn’t keen to chat, Mr. Obama has refused to give “red lines” on uranium enrichment. Let us suppose Tehran keeps increasing the number of centrifuges enriching to 20 percent. Today, the regime probably has a nuclear break-out capacity of between two to four months. Within a year, that time could be thirty days. Depending on Iran’s access to centrifuge components, a break-out capacity of two weeks would not be that far off. Does anyone—in the United States, Israel, or Iran—really believe that President Obama would take America into its third post-9/11 Middle Eastern war with a two-week notice? Would he do it even with a thirty-day warning?

Almost all of the “crippling” sanctions against Iran for which the president has claimed credit were generated by Congress, usually against White House resistance, or by the Europeans, with France, again, in the lead. If the president really believes sanctions and diplomacy are the keys to solving this problem peacefully, why hasn’t he hit Iran with economy-stopping central-bank and insurance sanctions, most of which could be implemented unilaterally by the United States? The president has repeatedly stated that a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable risk; might Khameneh’i justifiably have some doubt?

Looking ahead, the only thing we know for sure: President Obama will ask Israel to resume negotiations with a corrupt Palestinian dictatorship on the West Bank. He may do so with new determination, convinced that he still has what it takes. Haven’t we seen this already?

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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 RabinovichCharles HillRobert SatloffAsli Aydintasbas, Habib Malik, Leon Wieseltier, Tammy Frisby, Abbas Milani, and Fouad Ajami.