December 13, 2013
COMMENTARYWednesday, August 21, 2013
Obama’s Egypt policy makes perfect sense
By Aaron David Miller
WASHINGTON — The only thing that’s really clear about US Middle East policy these days is its stunning lack of clarity. Neocons and liberal interventionists alike protest loudly, and a great many others with less ideological baggage silently scratch their heads.
Anomalies, contradictions, confusion, and more than a little hypocrisy abound. The US intervenes militarily in Libya to support the opposition, but not in Syria. It supports political reform and democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia, but not in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
It will engage the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents who have killed US soldiers, but it steers clear of any dialogue with Hamas. And it rationalizes away a military coup and brutal crackdown in Egypt to maintain ties to the generals, undermining its own democratic values by continuing military aid.
Still, even while it seems confused and directionless, Barack Hussein Obama’s Middle East policies have logic and coherence. Indeed, they follow strict directives. I call them “BHO’s Five Commandments,” and they tell you all you need to know about why the president does what he does, from Cairo to Damascus.
Commandment number one: care more about the middle class than the Middle East.
Obama may not be able to fix either one. But there’s no doubt he'd rather be remembered as a president who tried to repair the US’s broken house than one who chased around the world on a quixotic quest to fix somebody else’s. Immigration reform, the budget, making Obamacare work, continuing to focus on infrastructure, education — these are things that are important to the US people and to the legacy of a president who is of one of only 17 elected to a second term. Time’s running out. Why squander it on problems he cannot fix, like Syria?
Commandment number two: pay attention to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama’s critics argue he’s already paid too much attention to the wars, drawn the wrong lessons from both, and as a result overcorrected and abdicated US leadership. But you really can’t pay too much attention to the two longest wars in US history — wars that cost more than 6,000 US lives, thousands of serious casualties, trillions of dollars, and a great deal of US credibility.
Obama’s current approach toward Syria and even Egypt has in fact drawn the right lessons from these wars: he’s intuitively grasped the limit of US influence in changing the nature of Middle Eastern societies caught up in internal conflict. If we couldn’t reshape what happens in Kabul and Baghdad with hundreds of thousands of troops and trillions of dollars, how are we going to have an impact on what Egypt’s generals do or don’t do with a trifling US$1 billion or so?
He’s also understood the need to be careful about the use of US military power in these situations — that power is a means to effect a political end. And when that relationship is dubious, out of whack, or just not achievable, risk aversion is more appropriate than risk readiness. In Syria, the danger isn’t the false Afghanistan/Iraq analogy of boots on the ground; it’s the more apt lesson about using US military power in a situation where the political objectives are unclear and the costs truly unknown.
Commandment number three: kill US enemies.
Where the president hasn’t been shy and retiring or risk averse is on the national security side, particularly when it comes to counterterrorism. And despite the rhetorical shifts hinting a change in priorities — an emphasis on diplomacy over war, a reduction in drone attacks — this commandment will continue to dictate the broad outlines of the administration’s approach.
Whatever doubts the president has on the wisdom and utility of drone strikes that have killed thousands, however thin the legal and moral arguments may be, this wartime president has one mission: keep the US safe. That means preventing another 9/11-style attack. If the previous administration believed in preventive and pre-emptive war using invasion and regime change, this president has narrowed the prevention to counterterrorism. The attacks on 9/11 were the second-bloodiest day in the history of the continental US, surpassed only by a single day in the battle of Antietam in 1862. And Obama plans to keep it that way. The president’s war on terror — whatever his own nuances — won’t be over until the day he leaves the White House. And as the risk he took in the operation to kill Osama bin Laden demonstrates, he’s prepared to do much.
Commandment number four: stay with the devil you know.
Obama may want to think of himself as a transformative leader, but he’s really very transactional and status quo when it comes to foreign policy — doubling down in Afghanistan, keeping Gitmo open, avoiding diplomacy with the mullahs, rationalizing away his own redlines on Syria’s chemical weapons, and now trying to walk the fine line between changing and sustaining traditional US policy on Egypt.
Obama wants to be on the right side of history and uphold US values, but he’s increasingly confused on what that actually means. It is the cruellest of ironies that US relations with the status quo Arab kings are the best ties Washington has in the region. But maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise. We are a status quo power during a time of great upheaval. And instead of breaking with the past we’re looking for a way to ride it safely into the future.
I think we’re probably heading for a suspension of assistance to Egypt. From Obama’s perspective, changing the status quo — cutting ties with the generals and risking military overflight privileges, losing cooperation on counterterrorism, and unilaterally removing the US from the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David process — outweigh the risks of maintaining it.
Commandment number five: protect our core interests.
For Obama, the Middle East is divided into five core interests and two discretionary ones. What really counts is getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan; keeping the country safe from attack; weaning the US off Arab hydro-carbons; carrying out the US commitment to Israel's security; and trying to prevent Iran from acquiring nukes. From his vantage point, he’s checked the box in at least four so far; and he’s working on the fifth.
The two interests of choice, if you will, are pursuing Arab-Israeli peace and making the Middle East safe for democracy. Those are desirable but really not critical, whatever John Kerry may think about the importance of an Israeli-Palestinian deal, and the president has shown very little inclination to risk much on either.
You may think the Middle East is a mess and Obama’s approach a muddle. But I bet you, given his domestic priorities and where he thinks the US public is, he doesn’t. Whatever the president is worrying about these days, I’d be surprised if he’s tossing and turning at night over Egypt and Syria. Governing is about choosing, and for now the president has made his choices clear.