Obama’s Failed Middle East Strategy

Walter Russell Mead explains why a well intentioned, carefully crafted and consistently pursued grand strategy failed.

strategy

Walter Russell Mead has a terrific piece in the WSJ on “The Failed Grand Strategy in the Middle East.”

The argument is tightly written and largely defies excerpting but three highlights:

The plan was simple but elegant: The U.S. would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey’s AK Party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic. This would kill three birds with one stone. First, by aligning itself with these parties, the Obama administration would narrow the gap between the ‘moderate middle’ of the Muslim world and the U.S. Second, by showing Muslims that peaceful, moderate parties could achieve beneficial results, it would isolate the terrorists and radicals, further marginalizing them in the Islamic world. Finally, these groups with American support could bring democracy to more Middle Eastern countries, leading to improved economic and social conditions, gradually eradicating the ills and grievances that drove some people to fanatical and terroristic groups.

[…]

With the advantages of hindsight, it appears that the White House made five big miscalculations about the Middle East. It misread the political maturity and capability of the Islamist groups it supported; it misread the political situation in Egypt; it misread the impact of its strategy on relations with America’s two most important regional allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia); it failed to grasp the new dynamics of terrorist movements in the region; and it underestimated the costs of inaction in Syria.

[…]

One of the interesting elements of the current situation is that while American foreign policy has encountered one setback after another in the region, America’s three most important historical partners—Egypt’s military, Saudi Arabia and Israel—have all done pretty well and each has bested the U.S. when policies diverged.

What’s noteworthy about the failures is that little of this was obvious. The only obvious-in-hindsight miscalculation was absurdly high expectations of the Arab Spring; but getting caught up in the spirit of a movement that ostensibly supported our values and interests is certainly understandable.

Further, as brilliant as Mead’s analysis of the cultural and political causes of the policy failures—and I recommend reading the full piece to get the nuances—his proposed way forward is problematic, indeed.

First, allies matter. Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Egyptian military have been America’s most important regional allies both because they share strategic interests and because they are effective actors in a way that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and smaller states aren’t. If these three forces are working with you, then things often go reasonably well. If one or more of them is trying to undercut you, pain comes. The Obama administration undertook the hard work necessary to rebuild its relationship with Israel; it needs to devote more attention to the concerns of the Egyptian generals and the House of Saud. Such relationships don’t mean abandoning core American values; rather they recognize the limits on American power and seek to add allies where our own unaided efforts cannot succeed.

Allies certainly matter and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are certainly, along with Turkey, the most important states in the region. We’ve historically had reasonably good relations with all of them. But, Realist as I am, I find cozying up to the Egyptian military at a time when it has overthrown a democratically elected government and is ruthlessly slaughtering its opposition more than a little problematic. While no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood and fully recognizing the hamhanded excesses of the Morsi presidency, the people chose an Islamist government. There just aren’t enough liberals to go around. In the longer run, backing strongmen who violently oppose our values has tended to backfire.

Second, the struggle against terror is going to be harder than we hoped. Our enemies have scattered and multiplied, and the violent jihadi current has renewed its appeal. In the Arab world, in parts of Africa, in Europe and in the U.S., a constellation of revitalized and inventive movements now seeks to wreak havoc. It is delusional to believe that we can eliminate this problem by eliminating poverty, underdevelopment, dictatorship or any other “root causes” of the problem; we cannot eliminate them in a policy-relevant time frame. An ugly fight lies ahead. Instead of minimizing the terror threat in hopes of calming the public, the president must prepare public opinion for a long-term struggle.

While Mead’s analysis of the threat here starts off well, there’s a difference between dispersion and power. Al Qaeda is more scattered and harder to root out than it was on 9/11. But by all measures it’s less able to mount major attacks on American interests. Additionally, its aims seem to have reverted to what they were before Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri built the organization out of a motley collection of jihadist groups, returning to a more domestic focus. For that matter, it’s hard to argue that the Obama administration has downplayed the threat right after a historic wave of embassy closings and travel warnings. Nor has he taken the gas off of the war on terror, even though he’s stopped calling it that. We’re killing terrorists, militants, and young men who might conceivably be either all across the region in a massive drone campaign.

Can we “address the root causes” our way out of this? I don’t think so. But it’s not clear to me what an “ugly fight” would look like given what we’ve been doing for the past twelve years.

Third, the focus must now return to Iran. Concern with Iran’s growing power is the thread that unites Israel and Saudi Arabia. Developing and moving on an Iran strategy that both Saudis and Israelis can support will help President Obama rebuild America’s position in the shifting sands. That is likely to mean a much tougher policy on Syria. Drawing red lines in the sand and stepping back when they are crossed won’t rebuild confidence.

I honestly don’t know what this means (I’ve sent a query via Twitter but it’s early) but I’m pretty sure I don’t like it. I agree that drawing red lines and not enforcing them is bad policy; I’d prefer to stop drawing lines we don’t intend to enforce than to start stupid wars to save face. And, sure, getting Saudi Arabia and Israel on board our Iran policy is a good idea—so long as that doesn’t mean waging yet another war with can’t win.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, World Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    Our three allies, as designated by Mead, are also part of the root cause of our problems. Besides the recent Egyptian army issues, they control about half of the Egyptian economy, ensuring that it remains in poverty. Saudi Arabia continues to be the source for funding for way too many jihadist groups, and Israel keeps building settlements. None of these three have interests that align very well with ours, though our domestic politics does require us to have unquestioning support for Israel and oil politics requires maintenance of Saudi ties.

    What policies towards Iran could we take that both Saudi and Israel would support? I suspect that would be ones that our neocon/theocon coalition would prefer, and those have proven disastrous for us.

    Steve

  2. James Joyner says:

    @steve: That’s all true. Ditto Turkey. Yet that doesn’t mean that the four aren’t our best options in that part of the world.

  3. george says:

    I suspect in the end his policies failed for the same reason the last five-plus Presidents’ policies have failed – there simply isn’t any policy that will work under the current circumstances. This is a fairly regular occurrence in engineering – no current solution possible. I’d argue its just as common in politics, but attempts have to be made anyway, if only because the attempts themselves may (slowly, perhaps over generations) change the current situation.

    And it is interesting to see why the various attempts (over the Presidents) have failed.

  4. DC Loser says:

    Let’s face it. The high point of US Middle East diplomacy occurred under Jimmy Carter.

  5. Tyrell says:

    What the president needs to do is bring back the old summit meeting idea. This time involving Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran,and of couse Israel.. Send Sec. Kerry and Hagel over there. Maybe Carter, Clinton (Bill), or Rice could also be helpful. Make some tough requirements and spell out consequences if progress is not made. The rights of citizens, minority groups. and all religious faiths must be recognized and respected – no exceptions and no more of this chemical weaponry and church burnings.
    As I have said before, that if General Allenby was still around, he would have things straightened out over there.
    “Midnight at the oasis ….send your camels to bed” (Muldaur) (hit song of the ’60’s – you could almost feel the heat)

  6. stonetools says:

    My (cynical ) definition of a “successful” Middle East policy:

    “Nuke ’em from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure”.

    @george:

    I suspect in the end his policies failed for the same reason the last five-plus Presidents’ policies have failed – there simply isn’t any policy that will work under the current circumstances.

    Bingo. Saying the President’s Middle East policy has failed is kind of like saying our efforts to achieve controlled thermonuclear fusion or faster-than-light travel have failed. A “successful” ME policy may not be possible, if we define success as bringing democracy, harmony, and lasting peace to the ME. Maybe we should define success down to something that’s actually achievable?
    I’d say any policy that doesn’t involve the large scale commitment of US ground forces in the ME should be deemed a success. Now that is a low bar, but I think we can do it.

  7. HarvardLaw92 says:

    At the risk of seeming a cynic, we’ll never have peace in the Middle East until the people inhabiting said Middle East want peace more than they want to nurse their petty grievances and religious fervor.

    India / Pakistan, Israel / Palestine, et al ad infinitum. Not since the Protestant / Catholic wars of the 16th Century has the world known anything like the current state of religious strife. On a fundamental level, it is about religion, and that has never produced much in the way of peace.

    Short version: I think on some level that the only way to have peace in these regions is to FORCE peace onto these regions, and that is a fool’s errand from the outset. Unless, of course, we start defining “peace” as something less than the absence of conflict.

    Damn, I ended up sounding like a cynic anyway.

  8. Scott says:

    What is the right policy? The US has a predisposition for an activist policy. We always just have to be doing something. For better or worse, that is our foreign policy “personality”. Perhaps something totally different is in order. How about benign neglect? We really don’t have control over the levers of power to do anything else.

  9. Tillman says:

    I honestly don’t know what this means (I’ve sent a query via Twitter but it’s early) but I’m pretty sure I don’t like it.

    I’m with you. Am I missing something concerning Iran? I feel like the Saudis are overreacting to the Persians. They’re flailing about internationally precisely because they’re being squashed under economic sanctions.

    The only reason Iran could be considered as making out like a bandit is because it hasn’t had any internal conflict lately. That’s not a great standard.

  10. Pharoah Narim says:

    How in tarnation weren’t Jenos, Superdestroyer, Florack, and JKB the 1st four commenters on this piece?…..in that order.

  11. JKB says:

    Last Sunday, W. Lewis Amselem, over at Diplomad 2.0, had a post on Liberty vs. Democracy. He came around to the idea that the U.S., not just Obama, make a mistake in promoting democracy before liberty. That democracy is highest form of liberty. This implies that liberty and a love of liberty must come before Democracy.

    This is evident in all the “democratically” elected despots in countries where the people still suffer. And, also, in the rebirth of Chile in large part because Pinochet promoted economic and other liberty even in the absence of democracy under his rule. A similar effect happened in Spain under Franco. As well as, China where we see great progress due additional liberty even under Communist Party rule. For the latter, it is hard to see how advancement toward democracy can be stopped without the ruling party destroying the economic liberty and its incumbent wealth building,. The taxes from the government is becoming increasingly dependent upon for continuation and the population is will painfully, perhaps vociferously miss if removed.

    He took exception to American foreign policy’s obsession with promoting democracy overseas; he pointed out that the statue in New York harbor (OK, OK, it’s actually in New Jersey) is the Statue of Liberty, not the Statue of Democracy. He argued that if we sought to promote anything it should be liberty, not democracy.

  12. Andy says:

    James,

    Unfortunately I think your analysis here is almost completely wrong:

    What’s noteworthy about the failures is that little of this was obvious. The only obvious-in-hindsight miscalculation was absurdly high expectations of the Arab Spring; but getting caught up in the spirit of a movement that ostensibly supported our values and interests is certainly understandable.

    Actually it was obvious and predicted by many people who know the region and aren’t afflicted by DC groupthink. The fact that MENA populations did not have a lot of “political maturity” was blindingly obvious. There is little excuse for the “absurdly high” Arab Spring expectations given the reality on the ground, not to mention the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the locals proved to be a lot less Jeffersonian than we imagined. We had “absurdly high” expectations there too yet, apparently, learned nothing from the experience about the political culture that dominates the region. There is no legitimate excuse for ignorance of this point concerning the Arab Spring.

    As for misreading the political situation in Egypt, that was blindingly obvious too. The MB was the most well-organized political force in Egypt before the election besides the military and, since the military wasn’t running for election, it was pretty clear that the MB would perform much better in the election than their real support would indicate, which is exactly what happened. More than that, though, it was clear from the beginning that the MB intended to use their electoral success to change the balance of power in Egypt by rewriting the Constitution, Islamizing the bureaucracy, judiciary and other institutions to ensure the dominance of the Islamist faction. All along they blamed their failures on the Christian Coptic minority and fanned the flames of violence against them. But hey, it’s Democracy, right?

    This was on top of Morsi granting himself extraordinary powers. The Constitution was written and rammed through without support from the opposition. For the drones in DC policy circles these events were minor concerns because, after all, the MB was elected!

    But, Realist as I am, I find cozying up to the Egyptian military at a time when it has overthrown a democratically elected government and is ruthlessly slaughtering its opposition more than a little problematic. While no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood and fully recognizing the hamhanded excesses of the Morsi presidency, the people chose an Islamist government.

    After noting Mead’s point that the US failed to appreciate the political maturity inside these countries, you write something that fails to appreciate the political maturity inside Egypt.

    This naive belief that elections=democracy in places with “winner take all” political factionalism is one of the great DC misjudgments that persists against all the evidence and experience of the last 10+ years, not to mention the early political history of our own country. Elections work when there are legitimate institutions to temper the excesses of populism and protect the interests of minorities. And guess, what, such institutions do not exist in most of the MENA. The result is that “elections” do not bring “democracy,” they simply give one faction the authority to cement its dominance against all competitors. At one extreme you have Gaza, where Hamas eliminated political opposition at the point of a gun. There are still useful idiots who still believe Hamas’ legitimacy flows from that one election. In Egypt, the MB took a longer-term strategy, but the goal was the same, political dominance. But they overplayed their hand, their attempt to buy-off the military failed and now, quite predictably, the military is doing in the process of eliminated the islamist threat to its own power. When will the DC policy establishment ever acknowledge and account for this reality of ME politics?

    There just aren’t enough liberals to go around. In the longer run, backing strongmen who violently oppose our values has tended to backfire.

    Yes, there aren’t enough liberals to go around, maybe we should quit thinking that liberal ideas will triumph from elections in the region? You complain about strongmen violently opposed to our values? Who, in Egypt or Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere shares our values and therefor should get our support? The small coterie of Western educated liberals who do not have any substantial constituency in their own countries? Ok, a policy of irrelevance is probably better than the incompetence we have now.

  13. Andre Kenji says:

    @steve:

    Saudi Arabia continues to be the source for funding for way too many jihadist groups,

    Saudi Arabia is the main backer of Wahabist mosques, that preaches a very fundamentalist version of Islam, not only on the Middle East, but on the whole world. There are issues with that with schools on the US, mosques in Europe. The Wahhabi Mosque in Brasilia has a horrible reputation, by the way.

    I don´t know why Saudi Arabia would be a better ally than Turkey, this reasoning is bizarre.

  14. Andre Kenji says:

    @JKB: BS. @JKB:

    This is evident in all the “democratically” elected despots in countries where the people still suffer. And, also, in the rebirth of Chile in large part because Pinochet promoted economic and other liberty even in the absence of democracy under his rule. A similar effect happened in Spain under Franco.

    That´s bull. Dictatorships are generally horrible for the economy, because dictators have to shore up their support among various sectors of the middle classes and among the businesses elites. Generally, the businesses that exists are businesses that are related to the government because the government protects the businesses that supports them(Not rare, many companies simply collapses when a dictatorship ends).

    Many dictators creates large public spending works just to shore up support(Ideas like a highway in the middle of the Amazonian Rainforest, even if anyone that studied the subject knows that´s a bad idea). And there are the bizarre pet projects of many dictators(Honxa´s bunkers, Salazar´s idea that the he could keep up Portugal colonies, what brought the Indian invasion of Goa).

    Chile is not a good example. The country is one of the most unequal in the World, and it´s a very low population country that´s highly dependent from mining. Besides that, take a look at Chile´s GDP:

    http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/data/MKTGDPCLA646NWDB_Max_630_378.png

    It only grows when Pinochet is gone, During the Pinochet years, it´s basically stagnant. Spain´s also would only grow when Franco was gone.

  15. bill says:

    6- they thought muslims could actually get along and live in peace with others.
    hate to say it but there won’t be “peace” in that part of the world for generations. as long as oil money and foreign aid prop these people up and give them a sense of entitlement they will never catch on. to think that this bastion of early civilization turned into such a horrible place is just mind-boggling.

  16. Pinky says:

    @Andy: Yes, yes, yes. There were plenty of people warning against the Muslim Brotherhood, arguing against antagonizing the rulers of Pakistan, calling for continued presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, warning against taking the side of Palestine against Israel, voicing concern about Turkey arguing against intervention in Libya, and calling for support of the Iranian protestors.

  17. Andre Kenji says:

    The problem of the Middle East is that if you take out Oil and American Government Money and in the end you have nothing to generate money(Turkey, that´s close to Europe, is probably the only exception). I have my doubts if Israel would survive without American Money and implicit Military support.

    Without economic activity there is no support to build strong institutions.

  18. michael reynolds says:

    1) There are always people warning that the ME is intractable. They’re always right, even when they contradict each other as to causes, because, well, the ME is, to use a subtle diplomatic phrase, FUBAR.

    2) Predicting failure in the ME doesn’t make you a genius, it makes you mundane.

    3) We either try things to help in the ME or we don’t. Both are actions. Yes, even inaction is an action. So all American presidents face the same conundrum: Is it better to be damned for doing or damned for not doing?

    4) Start with this: life is hopeless. We live and then we die. 100% of us. And all our works sooner or later are forgotten. And then the earth is consumed by the sun, the sun blows up and all record that were were ever here is gone, gone baby, gone.

    5) In the face of number 4 above there are two options: hope or despair. Despair looks like the smart guy’s move. You get to say, “I told you so,” a lot. But it’s not the smart move. The smart move is hope, however unlikely success, because the totality of what has been accomplished by homo sapiens begins with hope. There is nothing in despair but more despair. Hope may only have a .0001% chance of yielding success, but .0001 beats hell out of 0.

    6) Finally, here’s my hope: that the United States of America never becomes so far divorced from its ideals that we sneer at ideas of liberty and democracy. This isn’t just what we believe, it’s what we are, it’s why we are, it’s what still to this day, with all our many failures, makes us the greatest nation on earth. Naive? Yes it is. It always was.

  19. JKB says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    You rant about dictators, but I cited two, who for their tyranny, did increase economic liberty in their countries. A liberty that was entrenched and helped keep them from continuing the dictatorial cycle when that strongman fell from power.

    But please point to recent examples where the democratic vote without the prior liberty lead to economic prosperity and eventual improvement of the social condition? Liberty first, to prepare the ground for democracy. Otherwise, the most often result are “show” votes that leave the populace poorer and less free.

  20. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Pharoah Narim: Sorry, I have a life. And, occasionally, it intervenes.

    Reading between the lines of the quotes from the article, however, allows an alternative interpretation: just how effing stupid and clueless the Obama administration has been in regards to the Middle East.

    The plan was simple but elegant: The U.S. would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey’s AK Party and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic.

    The Muslim Brotherhood was never a “moderate Islamist group.” There is no such creature. “Islamist” is an extremist form of Islam; to term them “moderate” is as much an oxymoron as jumbo shrimp or Microsoft Works.

    The Obama administration undertook the hard work necessary to rebuild its relationship with Israel;

    “Rebuild?” That word means that the relationship needed rebuilding. And why would that be? Could it be because the Obama administration treated Israel like an unwanted acquaintance, a nuisance whose concerns were not worth addressing and was the real cause of all the problems?

    Obama’s policies seemed to boil down to “see what Bush did, then do the opposite.” That kind of knee-jerk contrarianism is the hallmark of the small-minded — at least one regular commenter here is the local avatar of that belief.

    The Egyptian military put a lot of time and effort to keeping the Muslim Brotherhood in check. Instead of just saying that military suppression of a fundamentally religious group is bad, did anyone consider that the Brotherhood was dangerous enough to merit such attentions?

  21. rudderpedals says:

    @JKB: But please point to recent examples where the democratic vote without the prior liberty lead to economic prosperity and eventual improvement of the social condition?

    East Germany?

  22. Console says:

    Obama’s policies seemed to boil down to “see what Bush did, then do the opposite.”

    Well, you do realize that Bush’s legacy in Israel is promoting democracy in Gaza… which was followed by the election of Hamas and an Israeli invasion. To the extent that Israel is wary of the US, it goes much further than Obama not stroking egos.

    But back to the subject at hand… exactly what the hell is “failure” in the middle east. Are we in a war? Has any of our allies been attacked? Are the oil markets in chaos?

  23. Andre Kenji says:

    @JKB:

    You rant about dictators, but I cited two, who for their tyranny, did increase economic liberty in their countries.

    You did not. Pinochet enacted some free market reforms with mixed results – like his “privatization of Social Security”, but Chile has a famously expensive “privatized” University System(That´s why so many students were protesting on the streets some months ago). Besides that, the fact that it was necessary a horrible dictator to enact these policies says more about the political viability of these policies than anything else. The most notorious result of these policies is the fact that Chile has one of the highest Gini´s in Latin America.

    In fact, the notorious accident with the trapped miners shows that Chile is very similar to it´s neighbors when the subject is “economic liberty” – if you have money and if you have political contacts, you are free from prosecution. No one was prosecuted from that horrible accident.

    By the way, I can read in Spanish and I talked directly with Chileans.

  24. Todd says:

    @stonetools:

    Saying the President’s Middle East policy has failed is kind of like saying our efforts to achieve controlled thermonuclear fusion or faster-than-light travel have failed.

    Yes.

    Also …

    Given the dysfunctional state of our current political discourse here in the U.S., does anybody else find it ironic that almost all of our proposed “solutions” for peace in the middle east are predicated on the idea that the various factions will find a way to put aside their differences/grievances and work together in the interest of their mutual common good?

  25. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s a quote attributed to Confucius: “If your plan is for a year, plant rice. If your plan is for a decade, plant trees. If your plan is for a century, teach children.” For the last thirty years we have been planting rice in the Middle East and expecting the results to be persistent. The Islamists, on the other hand, have been teaching children.

    Our policies in the Middle East should have included support for the growth of institutions which would have fostered democratic and liberal societies, at least over time. Institutions like a free press. Or secularism of the sort that prevailed in Turkey until relatively recently.

    Instead we supported authoritarian governments, more or less unquestioningly, and continue to do so. These government beat down every competing institution they could other than religion and now we’re surprised that the strongest, most organized institutions in many Middle Eastern countries are fundamentalist religious ones. The authoritarian governments we supported, in full control of the media in their countries, used us as a convenient whipping boy to deflect attention from our own wrongdoings and yet we’re surprised that the Egyptians, for example, blame us for everything whether we intervene or not.

    Our choices are to keep that area of the world at arm’s length to a much greater extent than we appear to have been willing or to support institutions that will, in the very long term, be favorable to our interests.

    It’s not television. Not everything can be resolved in a one hour time slot.

  26. wr says:

    @JKB: “This is evident in all the “democratically” elected despots in countries where the people still suffer. And, also, in the rebirth of Chile in large part because Pinochet promoted economic and other liberty even in the absence of democracy under his rule. A similar effect happened in Spain under Franco”

    Yep, there’s nothing that says “liberty” like torture and murder committed by state security services.

    Oh, but it’s only those people who are being tortured and murdered and disappeared, so it’s okay, right? I mean, as long as the stock market does well?

  27. wr says:

    @JKB: “You rant about dictators, but I cited two, who for their tyranny, did increase economic liberty in their countries. ”

    Economic liberty? What can that possibly mean? That the rich and well-connected were allowed to thrive on stolen money while the poor were tortured and murdered? And how important is “economic liberty” in a country where you can be disappeared for publicly disagreeing with the dictator — or even failing to show the dictatorship the appropriate levels of worship?

    Thanks, but I’ll take real liberty over “economic liberty” any day of the week.

  28. Gustopher says:

    I don’t think anyone who says that the policy has failed, without offering anything that even only in hindsight would have been better, is worth listening to.

    Take Egypt: do we support a dictator or the crowds demanding the dictator depart? Followed shortly thereafter by do we support the terrible president or the crowds demanding he depart? I think we’ll get a third chance there before too long, although whether we actually have any influence or are just acknowledging what has already happened is an open question.

    Syria — just as bad or worse options. At least there the president doesn’t seem to have a Syria policy so much as a capitol hill policy, trying to keep the war mongers from getting us too involved when there is nothing to be gained from it.

  29. Grewgills says:

    @JKB:

    This is evident in all the “democratically” elected despots in countries where the people still suffer. And, also, in the rebirth of Chile in large part because Pinochet promoted economic and other liberty even in the absence of democracy under his rule. A similar effect happened in Spain under Franco…

    I had to stop right there. Did you really just imply that Franco increased liberty in Spain?
    I guess that depends on your definition of liberty.

  30. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Gustopher: I don’t think anyone who says that the policy has failed, without offering anything that even only in hindsight would have been better, is worth listening to.

    One need not know the right answer to recognize a wrong one. For example, I’m fairly certain that the square root of 11,449 is NOT 2.

    Likewise, a policy that is based on the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood will suddenly embrace moderation and tolerance and peaceful co-existence is pretty much effed in the head.

  31. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    I don’t think anyone who says that the policy has failed, without offering anything that even only in hindsight would have been better, is worth listening to.

    In order to offer something better, policy must have some kind of coherent purpose. The problem is not so much the our specific actions, which can be justified when taken in isolation – the problem is that our actions work at cross-purposes or don’t match what we say we want and what we say we want changes or is wishful thinking.

    So, if one wants coherent policy, then one needs coherent and consistent goals that acknowledge and account for the inevitable trade-offs. Platitudes and wishful thinking, which is our policy deconstructed, will get you nowhere.

  32. dazedandconfused says:

    @Andy:

    Yes, and in order to have that one must understand the people. This was on some time ago, Dennis Ross gathered together some of the pragmatic old hands of the Nixon’s era. It’s a different time, but the difference between the way these men sound and the way our policy people of today do is striking.

    http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/305617-1

    It’s been said that the people who really understood the Arabs were systematically removed and replaced with people more amenable to a certain ideology. The process started under Reagan, continued largely unabated during Clinton’s administration, and of course, beyond.

  33. george says:

    @Gustopher:

    I don’t think anyone who says that the policy has failed, without offering anything that even only in hindsight would have been better, is worth listening to.

    Actually that’s rarely true in any field.

    Science is actually based on the opposite approach – you cannot prove a theory true (proof lies in formal systems like math), but you can show it to be false and that’s the mechanism used to move forward. The experimenters who show a given theory is false almost never offer an alternative – their goal is simply testing what’s been put forward, and its vital to science. And every scientist I’ve ever known or heard of will tell you that when an experimentalist says that a theory has failed, it is very worth listening to, despite there almost never being an alternative offered.

    Pointing out Obama’s attempt failed, like Bush Jr’s before him, like Clinton’s before him, like Bush Sr’s before him, like Reagan’s before him, like Carter’s before him etc, is important, because its how we decide to try something else. If we can’t determine that something has failed, then there’s no reason to try a different tact .

  34. Barry says:

    James:
    “Walter Russell Mead has a terrific piece in the WSJ on “The Failed Grand Strategy in the Middle East.””

    WRM has never written anything worth anything (I checked, after encountering his name over at The Ame.rican Conservative). He’s just another idiot neocon who got onto the ‘public intellectual’ list. The WSJ editorial page has rarely had anything worth anything.

    And has been pointed out, the article is useless; it’s basically saying that Obama has not succeeded in doing what a large number of presidents have failed at. And Obama inherited a situation trashed further by Dubya.

  35. anjin-san says:

    The Egyptian military put a lot of time and effort to keeping the Muslim Brotherhood in check.

    Torture and summary executions are hard work…

  36. al-Ameda says:

    WRM: It is delusional to believe that we can eliminate this problem by eliminating poverty, underdevelopment, dictatorship or any other “root causes” of the problem; we cannot eliminate them in a policy-relevant time frame.

    If I was to be snarky I’d probably say something like, ‘well, I knew we should do nothing, I knew it …” Mead probably is of the opinion that our ‘good old days’ in the region were when the CIA played a role in overthrowing Mossadegh back in 1953. Maybe Mead hasn’t read the memo – those days are over, and our most recent debacle was overthrowing the regime in Iraq and ceding power in the region to Iran.