Former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton offers some stern criticism of the Obama administration’s approach to the Arab Spring.

A funeral for a member of Free Syrian Army (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

In explaining the intellectual disarray regarding the president’s approach to Syria he comments:

There is no coherent politico-military strategy at work here, only an effort to appease domestic and international critics of a Syria policy badly misguided from the outset.


The central issue for America has never been whether to aid the Syrian opposition or simply sit on the sidelines. The real question is how broader U.S. strategic objectives in the Middle East and elsewhere are affected by the conflict among Syria’s ethnic and religious factions.

He cautions that “our most important objective must be to ensure that Syria’s large stockpiles of chemical weapons and related materials do not fall into the hands of international terrorists and exit the country for use elsewhere.” And he further urges we actually figure out who in the opposition we should be aiding.

All of this, of course, is made more complicated by our dawdling and self-delusion about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Had we acted more swiftly, declining to play the “mother-may-I” game with Russia and China at the United Nations, our options would have been greater and disagreeable elements would not have found a foothold in Syria.

The administration suffers from attention deficit disorder when it comes to the Middle East. We pay no attention when troubles mount (in Syria, in Libya, in all of North Africa) and when hostilities appear to be over we ignore the potential for chaos and Iranian opportunism (e.g. Iraq, Libya). To top it off, we only get riled up about the internal affairs of the one democracy in the region (Israel) while turning a blind eye to the actual human rights offenders.

Take Saudi Arabia for example. The good news is that it is contemplating doing away with public beheadings; the bad news is it remains a repressive regime. Ahmed Al Omran, a Saudi blogger and journalist, writes in Foreign Policy: Two Saudi activists were sentenced to long prison sentences this past Saturday for “a series of charges that include founding an unlicensed human rights organization, seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder, undermining national unity, breaking allegiance to the ruler, disobeying the ruler, and questioning the integrity of officials. These are considered serious charges in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where political dissent in not usually tolerated. It does not allow protests, political parties, or unions. Saudi Arabia is also a main ally of the United States in the Middle East.” Secretary of State John Kerry arrived the very next day, only managing to muster a mealy-mouthed platitude. (“We encourage further inclusive reforms to ensure that all citizens of the Kingdom ultimately enjoy their basic rights and their freedoms.”) No wonder actual reformers in the region see the United States as self-serving and hypocritical.

And in Egypt we see the most dramatic example of incoherence. We reward the Muslim Brotherhood with financial, military and diplomatic support as its serial, vicious anti-Semitic ramblings spew forth. We give advanced military equipment and hundreds of billions in aid, unconditionally and after tut-tutting President Mohamed Morsi’s invocation of emergency powers.

Maybe it is time to get back to basics: Help our real friends, promote peaceful democratic evolution (Morocco, Jordan), finish what we start (Iraq, Libya) and don’t start what we can’t finish. And most of all, make it crystal clear that close relations with the United States requires progress on human rights and that we will act to secure Syria’s WMDs and will take whatever action is needed to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Our incoherence is an invitation for repression, violence and instability.