SHADI HAMID: Obama and the Limits of ‘Fact-Based’ Foreign Policy. “How America’s best and brightest once again steered the country to failure.”
There’s a lot wrong with this article, but a couple gems, too.
The problem, well before negotiations even started, was the initial decision to treat Iran’s nuclear program as the top U.S. priority in the Middle East. On Syria, opponents of intervention against the Assad regime would often claim that various military options were prohibitively difficult to implement, and that those who claimed otherwise weren’t military experts. Of course, Obama himself is not a military expert either. Either way, the claim was disingenuous: Senior military officials had readied a military response to Assad’s violation of the “red line” drawn over the use of chemical weapons in August 2013, and with no notable dissent. Ultimately, the divide over Syria was about deeper questions of moral responsibility, America’s role in the world, and whether an intervention would be “worth” the cost (something which, of course, can’t actually be measured). As Steven A. Cook wrote in early 2012 when only around 7,000 people had been killed in Syria: “Is it a morally superior position to sit by as people are being killed rather than take action that will kill people, but nevertheless may end up saving lives as well?”
It was Obama, at the 11th hour, who, coming to his own very personal answer, abruptly reversed course. This, like the decision to prioritize the Iran deal over all else, was no accident of history. There are, in fact, a set of basic, overarching ideas that appear to animate Obama and his most loyal aides, which come through in any number of interviews and profiles. They include what Nina Hachigian and David Shorr call the “responsibility doctrine”—the idea that stepping back allows others to step in and take responsibility for their own region. In the Middle East, though, the success of such an approach depends on having allies that share American interests or American values, when, in reality, most share little of either.
President Obama also disparaged Arab “tribalism,” a catch-all word that captured not just his impatience with tribalism, narrowly understood, but the uncontrolled passions of ideology, identity, and religious fervor. The Atlantic reported that Obama was known to say to aides: “If only everyone could be like the Scandinavians, this would all be easy.”
For all the praise for Obama’s “cool rationality,” there isn’t a less-informed or grounded basis for foreign policy than “if only.”
Perhaps the best that could be said about Obama’s Middle East foreign policy is that maybe he was hoping to help create a Sunni/Shi’ite balance of power by promoting Iran without cutting support for the Saudis, and maybe he was hoping to encourage risk-taking for peace on the part of Palestinians by showing daylight between us and Israel.
But what must be said is: What the hell was he thinking?