President Obama, as we saw at West Point, is very focused on winning the news cycles and rebutting criticism but far less focused on the challenges we face. He congratulated himself on the Iran negotiations and said it is wrong to say we can’t do something about Syria (although he’s done nothing about Syria), but what about the rest of the Middle East? He didn’t talk at all about Egypt, the “peace process” (he did after all invest so much personal credibility in that one), our other allies, human rights in the region or any aspect of Iran aside from the nuclear negotiations. If he were paying greater attention he’d notice some dangerous developments.
He might want to take stock of at Iran’s economy. Critics of the Iran interim deal warned that lifting some sanctions without other sanctions poised to drop on the mullahs if they cheated on the accord or failed to reach a permanent deal would change the market psychology. And boy did it. Secretary of State John Kerry may deny Iran is “open for business,” but others disagree. Russia is already trying to negotiate a deal around the oil restrictions. Moreover, The Post reports:
For the first time in decades, business people from the United States are visiting Iran in significant numbers, exploring the possibility of future partnerships as Iranian and American entrepreneurs begin to envision a reopening of long-closed commercial channels.
Although sanctions blocking most types of trade between the two countries remain in place, there are no bans on travel to Iran. For U.S. citizens granted a visa to Iran, local hosts can organize programs, which have included recent visits to investment firms, Tehran’s stock exchange, factories, farms and high-tech start-ups.
(Read the rest of the report if you’d like a somewhat stomach-turning example of how readily businessmen are willing to do deals with the biggest state sponsor of terror, one that brutally represses its people. Such is the process of making Iran seem to be a normal state while clinging to his revolutionary-inspired aggression.)
The investors’ visits are already generating income for Iran and the prospect of new business lights up the stock market, increases confidence in the regime and assembles a raft of business interests that will now decry any reimposition of sanctions. Is the president even paying attention? It does undermine his premise that lifting sanctions wouldn’t really help the Iranian government get off the floor.
Then there is Egypt. The president consistently has embraced whatever character scrambles to the top in Egypt without studiously attempting to move the regime(s) in favorable ways. First Hosni Mubarak was our friend, then not so much. Then we bear-hugged Mohamed Morsi. It then was hard to tell what the administration’s policy was on the coup that couldn’t be called a coup. And now in the wake of controversial elections bestowing the presidency on coup leader Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, the White House seems, well, uninterested in troubling goings on there. In addition to his political repression, Sissi is mimicking Gamar Abdel Nasser’s economic philosophy, the New York Times reports:
He has quickly displayed a certain nostalgia for the Nasserite state dominance of the economy that set the stage for six decades of stagnation. He has proposed government projects to force down prices and profits as well as to irrigate and give away vast areas of desert. And he has expressed frankly condescending views of the public. . . .
The economy teeters close to the brink. An inefficient system of energy subsidies is bankrupting the Treasury, but the low prices have become so ingrained that any reform could be explosive. In 10 months, the Egyptian government has burned through $20 billion of financial aid from supportive Persian Gulf monarchies, and it is counting on billions more for at least the next several years.
But Mr. Sisi often suggests that the problem is not the fault of the state but the failings of its people, whether a lack of industry and enterprise, a moral laxity that has tolerated rampant sexual harassment, or even the exponential growth in the population. . . .For challenges from protests to poverty, his solutions are almost always expanding the government’s power. In an interview, he talked of unlocking the “magic wand” of Egyptians’ “self-ability,” but by “maximizing the role of the state.”
Perhaps this doesn’t raise a red flag (so to speak) in a White House enamored of government-centric economies but it is a huge problem, and arguably as immediate as the political one.
Where are the carrots and sticks to try to move Sissi toward democracy and a more market-oriented economy? For all their talk, the president and his administration are very poor in the institution-building part of soft power, which requires constant tending and a clear articulation of our expectations. Little if anything has been said about the slide toward a Nasserite economy, and there’s been no official expression of concern about the election process. And it is hard to have any sustained influence since we still don’t have an ambassador there.
Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams advises that “we have to set standards and principles that will guide policy. His statist economics will harm the economy and there’s a real risk of future instability – to which it appears he will respond with repression.” He observes, “The election turnout suggests that his popularity is not high. We should not seek the kind of intimate relationship that we had with Mubarak unless he earns it. It should be clear to Egyptians that he is his own man, not our guy.”
Unfortunately, neither Obama nor his team seems particularly focused on the economic ruin and resulting political explosion that will afflict Egypt and the region if Sissi does not ease up on repression and pursue market reforms. Obama is in denial about Iran’s economic revival and chooses to disregard its public expressions of contempt for the idea it will give up its nuclear program. Unfortunately, despite Obama’s rhetoric, the United States is losing influence in the region. We simply aren’t paying attention (or are intentionally ignoring events); it’s impossible to discern if we are following a coherent approach.
For Obama, national security is about “ending ” (this means leaving) wars and a series of discrete events (Iran negotiations, Syria) for which he must endure criticism. The result may be a period of intense instability and violence. For our allies, or countries that want to be our allies, they are getting the message that they’re on their own. For the most part, they are.