We have seen a series of Middle East foreign policy blunders by the Obama administration. As each one unfolds (e.g., the settlement freeze debacle, the failure to back the Green Revolution, the paralysis in Egypt, the half-measures in Libya) conservative critics are able to spot microcosms of the Obama foreign policy, now unofficially dubbed “leading from behind.” The scenario is the same: an exaggerated sense of the president’s personal influence; an obsession with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; conviction that Israel is the barrier to peace; undue faith in authoritarian figures; wariness of popular uprisings against despots; and, most important, as Reuel Marc Gerecht put it, “a mind-set that sees American power as prone to cause more harm than good, the belief that American intervention, especially in the Middle East, ineluctably creates virulent antibodies.”
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Syria. Granted, Obama is not alone in his specious reasoning that the Alawite dictator could be peeled away from Iran and play a constructive role in the region. James Taub writing in Foreign Policy explains:
You can’t help feeling that Western policy toward the Syrian regime has been guided by a kind of geopolitical wish-fulfillment, in which hard-headed “engagement” masked a dubious faith in Assad’s capacity and will. Or maybe it’s fairer to say that the upside of engagement was so great and the downside so small that everyone kept plugging away long after they should have given up.
This propensity to dream up excuses (e.g., the alternative is worse, he’s stable, he’s not attacked Israel) for continuing a courtship with Assad the Elder and Younger reached its apogee in the Obama administration.
Elliott Abrams, who served in an administration that for a time held the line against Assad (as with so much else, the second Bush term saw slippage on this front) writes of the events last week:
Amidst this week’s Middle East news one startling event has escaped the attention it deserves. According to news reports such as this one in The Wall Street Journal, an American diplomat in Damascus was detained and then “hooded by Syrian security agents and ‘roughed up’ before being released.”
This is a remarkable development. For one thing, it sums up as well as any anything could what the Obama administration has gained from two years of buttering up the Assad regime, loosening sanctions, letting them into the World Trade Organization, sending an ambassador to Damascus, and making believe Assad is a reformer. It has gained us Assad’s contempt.
Obama’s reaction to recent events, namely some stern words about the diplomat and exceptionally limited sanctions, is precisely what you’d expect. The deep-seeded belief that Bashar al-Assad can be of help somehow in the “peace process,” fear of a post-Assad Syria, an insufficient appreciation for the effect Assad’s removal would have in the Middle East and, above all, the fear that our involvement would only make matters worse — in other words, all the hallmarks of the Obama foreign policy approach — have left us with an incoherent policy. Moreover, as Gerecht explains it, this is an approach designed to worsen our standing: “If President Obama continues his present course, anti-American sentiment in Syria will likely skyrocket, which is a strategic shame since the United States has a chance of improving its standing in a democratic Syria, given how much anti-American vitriol the Assads have pumped out.” Come to think of it, the same could be said for most Middle East countries.