[Re-posted from earlier today]
If you’re looking for a majestically sweeping indictment of everything president Obama has achieved in foreign policy over the last six years, go read Walter Russell Mead’s screed. The rise of an ISIS-led Sunni insurgency in Iraq is, apparently, “a movement that dances on the graveyard of his hopes.” No one wants to take on the emperor with no clothes or “the full and ugly course of the six years of continual failure.” He’s not done yet: “Rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed.” And on it goes. The Obamaites “have piled up such a disastrous record in the Middle East” that they couldn’t be trusted to “negotiate their way into a used car lot.” And the final denouement:
The President isn’t making America safer at home, he doesn’t have the jihadis on the run, he has no idea how to bring prosperity, democracy, or religious moderation to the Middle East, he can’t pivot away from the region, and he doesn’t know what to do next.
Inevitably, when one reads a piece like this, you expect the author to tell us what he would do next. If the results of specific Obama policies have been so disastrous, then surely he must be able to point to several mistakes, offer an alternative in hindsight, or, heaven forfend, provide a constructive proposal today. But you will, alas, find no such thing in the screed. The most you’ll get it this:
How could the U.S. government have been caught napping by the rise of a new and hostile power in a region of vital concern? What warning signs were missed, what opportunities were lost—and why? What role did the administration’s trademark dithering and hairsplitting over aid to ISIS’s rivals in the Syrian opposition play in the rise of the radicals?
Indeed, I’m sure those questions will be debated by pundits and historians. But Mead has no answers. He supported arming the “moderate” Syrian rebels, sure, but even he acknowledged this could end up in tears. And when you grasp his admiration for ISIS’ strategic chops, it seems quite likely that American arms could have ended up in the Jihadists’ hands. After all, one result of the US’ arming, training and equipping the moderate Iraqi army are the humvees and arms being paraded around Iraq by the Sunni-ISIS insurgency today. Arming any single side in a complex, metastasizing conflict is fraught with unintended consequences and the constant risk of blowback. But even if we’d been able to arm genuinely “moderate” Syrian rebels, does anyone believe they would prevail in an internecine war with the true fanatics? From the record of the last year or so, almost certainly not.
Mead also manages to blame Obama for the failure of the democratic revolution in Egypt. Quite how the US president could have changed the course of Egyptian politics in a period of massive unrest and revolution is not entirely clear. And that’s really the deepest flaw in the case against the president. There is an assumption – even now! – that the world is controlled by the US and that everything in it is a result of American hegemony. So there are no places on earth where the US is not a factor, and any bad things that happen are ipso facto a consequence of poor foreign policy. The planet is “Obama’s brave new world,” and the actual actors in it, from Moscow to Fallujah, from Qom and Cairo, are denied the real agency they have and keep exercising. And of course, whatever Obama has done has failed. When we don’t intervene, as in Syria, the result is a disaster. When we do intervene, as in Libya, the result is “an unmitigated disaster from which not only Libya but much of north and west Africa still suffers today.” So what does Mead suggest? This is as good as it gets:
The U.S. might do better to try to strengthen the non-ISIS components of the Sunni movements in Syria and Iraq than to look to Tehran and the Kremlin for help.
As they still say in Britain’s Private Eye, er…. that’s it. We should actually be arming the very Sunni forces that are trying to take Baghdad, and somehow hoping they’ll turn around and beat the fanatics if we ask nicely. Well, thank you very much, Mr Mead. How could the administration have ignored your genius for so long?
I think what’s missing from Mead’s harrumph is any sense that the world is, in the end, not about us; that the Arab and Muslim worlds are in a historic convulsion that has been fed by countless tributaries from the past and will forge many unexpected paths in the future; that the generational shifts, the impact of new technology and media, the decay of traditional Islam, the rise of an Internet Islamism, the legacies of the sectarian war in Iraq and the Assad despotism in Syria, and the rise of a new Shiite awareness … all these represent forces we have no way of arresting, let alone controlling, let alone micro-managing, as Mead suggests. Our role, if we are not to become insane, is not to manage the unmanageable; it is to understand that some historical processes have to take place and that some of them will not necessarily be in our interests.
Interventionists, in other words, can become like addicts.
Yes we need the courage to change the things we can change (like our surveillance, security and intelligence apparatus), but also, critically, the serenity to accept the things we cannot change (like the future of the younger Arab and Muslim generations or that of the ancient Sunni-Shia struggle), and the wisdom to know the difference. Interposing ourselves even now as the indispensable overseer and arbiter of the fate of Iraq and Syria and the Middle East is to further engage in the fantasies that still linger from the elysian period of 1989 – 2001. If we haven’t learned from the last decade and a half that our assumption of that control is a self-defeating chimera, then we’re incapable of learning anything.
Even with unlimited resources, a decade of effort and death and suffering on a vast scale, we were unable to change the reality of Iraq: a divided traumatized, sectarian mess, where the Sunnis believe they have a right to rule, the Shia have somehow regained power, and the Kurds could give a shit about either. Maybe it should have occurred to us that there has not been majority Shiite rule in Iraq for so long for a reason. Maybe Maliki’s dictatorial impulses were not some wanton decision to destroy Iraq, but a rational move if you are actually trying to govern Iraq as it is, just as Saddam’s despotism was. What amazes me about critics such as Mead is that they have learned no deeper lessons from this; they still, rather pathetically, cite the surge as a success, when it clearly did nothing but bribe a phony peace into temporary existence in order for us to leave … and the old order of things return. And they still cling to a worldview in which everything is run from Washington.
But it isn’t. Our long-term goal is the emergence of a peaceful, democratic Middle East that does not export terror and medieval fanaticism across the globe. And we’ve seen the first spasms of that process: the ousting of tyrants, the failures of revolutions (with one notable success in Tunisia, one place where we haven’t intervened), and the ructions of a youth movement in Iran. But we have barely seen the next phase – and it will surprise us, I’m sure. The great religious wars in Europe burned (literally for some) for a couple of centuries. And it was only the bitter, collective experience of those endless, brutal, bloody wars that persuaded the majority that they weren’t worth fighting any more. At some point we have to ask: why are we spending lives and treasure and attention to prevent that outcome from coming sooner rather than later?
(Photo: Barack Obama yesterday by Chip Somodevilla/Getty.)