“NOT A VERY SMART MAN”
Thinking about the Obama administration’s foreign policy makes me keep coming back to the following joke:
Three men are on a small plane, the pilot, a very important person (various names are used when people tell this joke), and a young hiker. The plane’s motor goes out and it is going to crash. The pilot tells the two passengers: Sorry but we only have one extra parachute.
The celebrity sneers, “I should get it because I’m the smartest person in the world.” He grabs a pack and jumps out of the plane.
“Sorry, son,” says the pilot. “We don’t have any more parachutes.”
“Oh, yes we do,” answers the teenager, “the smartest man in the world just jumped out of the plane with my backpack.”
If I were a cartoonist illustrating the joke in this case, I’d show a smug Obama jumping out of the plane with the backpack labeled, “U.S. national interests.”
This reflection is prompted today by a very predictable story—predicted by me repeatedly—that the administration is now further, and futilely, watering down projected sanctions on Iran in hope of getting Russian and Chinese support. Spring 2010 has arrived and after fifteen months higher sanctions, or indeed any credible U.S. deterrent, on Iran hasn’t. Even now it isn’t clear if the Obama administration can get the nine votes needed in the UN Security Council to do anything.
Note that this is probably the last material effort the West will make to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Even if it takes Tehran a couple of years to do so, it’s unlikely–given how long and hard it is to get even some symbollic sanctions adopted–that low administration will-power and international support will lead to anything else being done.
Incidentally, the administration was supposed to be ready for this step, according to its own statements in September and then December 2009. That it still hasn’t worked out a broadly based plan is a sign of its incompetence. And remember this was a presidency which supposedly enjoyed strong international support.
Some are saying that sanctions wouldn’t deter Iran any way, therefore implying it doesn’t matter if nothing much is done at this point. There is some truth in the first part of that statement but not in the second portion. By implementing strong sanctions, an effective president would be forging an international coalition to get tougher down the road, reduce the assets available to Iran in order to slow down their project, scare large elements of the Iranian elite so they would be more cautious even when they get nuclear arms, make the Gulf Arabs more likely to resist Iranian demands and influence, along with other benefits.
That the administration seems to understand none of these points is part of the problem. Here’s a statistic that might shock you: the Obama administration is almost precisely one-third of the way through its term. If it hasn’t learned how to understand the world by now, prospects aren’t good for the remainder of its term. The best hope of improvement–that the administration itself wakes up to the problem–is just about gone.
Let’s put it bluntly: The foreign policy of the Obama Administration, especially in the Middle East, is a disaster and a future of very dangerous problems is completely foreseeable. Indeed, all of this was pretty obvious before the last Election Day.
About the only point the administration and its supporters can claim–even the Guantanamo prison is still open!–is that this administration has made the United States more popular in the world. Actually, the polls don’t reflect that assertion to an impressive degree. Even when the numbers went up, they are Obama’s personal popularity, not that of the United States. And in key countries—Turkey and Pakistan come to mind but there are many others—the changes have not been big ones.
And even then, there is the point that popularity doesn’t get you anything material, as the lack of a consensus on Iran shows. In addition, the country which stands up for its interests is always going to be less popular in many places than the one which asks for nothing and gives away too much.
In the Middle East, U.S. policy is bad for Iranians who want to be free of their oppressive regime; for Turks who don’t want to live under an increasingly Islamist government; for Arabs who don’t want to face Islamist rule, growing internal instability because of a revolutionary challenge, or to bow down to Iranian power.
It is also bad for Israel, but that is scarcely an isolated case. Even if U.S.-Israel relations were perfect every other problem would still be there.
By systematically showing weakness, by favoring enemies over friends, the administration is destroying U.S. credibility in the region. By unintentionally encouraging enemies, the government is inspiring them to strike harder and faster. By unintentionally discouraging friends, the government is signalling them to shut up, back down, and even appease the radicals.
In Iran, the lack of White House support–despite formal statements about repression there–encourages the opposition to give up. In Turkey, the rivals of the regime believe that U.S. policy is on the side of their own government. In the Arabic-speaking world, the process of avoiding trouble with Tehran and its ally Damascus because the United States is not seen as a reliable protector is well under way.
Israel will make the small, relatively costless concessions necessary to maintain normal relations in the hope that this will satisfy an administration that just wants to look good. If the White House proves vindictive beyond rational considerations, Israel will ride that out. Of course, the more the U.S. government bashes Israel, the more it convinces the other side that it doesn’t need to make any concessions for peace. Indeed, it gives them an incentive to be more intransigent, since they know that U.S. frustration at the failure to make any progress in a peace process will be taken out on Israel.
If one were to continue this survey elsewhere in the world, the situation would be parallel if less dire. Central Europeans fear Russia; Latin Americans are annoyed at perceived U.S. favoritism toward Venezuela. China is angry about various U.S. actions and worried about holding so much of the American debt. Russia is almost openly contemptuous.
Yet the pretense continues in all too many places that things are going fine.
A hope that should not be ignored is that the action of radical forces themselves will force the administration to take notice and revise its behavior. No matter what the White House thinks, it doesn’t want to look like a failure having made a big mess, suffered losses, and been defeated.
The next best hope is that a wave of public criticism and congressional complaints—which many think will be intensified by the results of next November’s election—will force the administration to be more restrained. Obama has other items on his agenda, especially domestically, that he does not want to compromise by getting Congress angry with him. The most likely beneficiary of this process would be U.S.-Israel relations but it is unlikely to help a great deal on other issues.
The problem is that such factors can stop the White House from doing mistaken things but cannot force it to take productive steps. Perhaps the best one can hope for is the lack of any big and open crisis in the world, allowing the administration to muddle through and claim that it has kept the United States out of trouble. But some very big trouble is building up, have no doubt about that.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood