Obama is getting it from all sides.
It’s so easy to criticize, and it seems that the overturning of Mubarak has made it the perfect week for all the assembled pundits to call it Obama’s fault and his failure. Writing in Newsweek, Niall Ferguson puts most of the blame on white House national Security advisor James Jones, who comes off badly in Ferguson’s comparison with Kissinger because Jones developed no “grand Strategic Design”. That kind of design belongs to the Imperial past, and it seems to me that Ferguson doesn’t seem to understand that the world had already changed even before the failure of the Bush era policies.
He’s pretty harsh:
Grand strategy is all about the necessity of choice. Today, it means choosing between a daunting list of objectives: to resist the spread of radical Islam, to limit Iran’s ambition to become dominant in the Middle East, to contain the rise of China as an economic rival, to guard against a Russian “reconquista” of Eastern Europe—and so on. The defining characteristic of Obama’s foreign policy has been not just a failure to prioritize, but also a failure to recognize the need to do so. A succession of speeches saying, in essence, “I am not George W. Bush” is no substitute for a strategy.
The problem with this kind of thinking is that it doesn’t recognize that what got us into trouble in the Middle East and radical Islam is exactly the “grand strategy” that Ferguson is so keen to bring back. The Age of Empire is over, at least the way that Bismark and Kissinger, so admired by Ferguson and others, envisioned it. Since the end of the Second World War, America has tried hard to replace all the controllers of colonial empires with itself driving a devil’s bargain between our promises to ourselves and our ways of behaving in the world beyond our shores. In the name of “safety” we have propped up too many unsavory dictators to count. We made fearful boogie men out of communists or any other leftists who just might want to threaten us, whether they did in reality or not. We overturned democratically elected governments all over the world in the name of safety from the “boogieman”. It made us as hated by the oppressed as the rulers of the former colonies and showed us to be hypocritical seekers of world domination. Now we have substituted al-Qaeda, Hamas, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood as the bogiemen of the 21st century. We are no more correct now in our estimation of so-called threats than we were about the “Communist Menace”. Our politicians have played on our fears for so long that the paranoia has become deeply ingrained even in places like the State Department as seen by Clinton’s instinct to follow the same old line with Israel and the other Middle Eastern autocrats by sending Frank Wisner as a special representative, and hiring thugs like Raymond A. Davis to play deadly off-the-books contractor spy games in Pakistan and elsewhere.
When liberals like Juan Cole see Obama’s reaction to events in Egypt as weak and indecisive, there’s something wrong with American perceptions of reality. What could Obama have done about a popular revolt against a brutal autocrat? What would a Grand Strategy have done but resort once more to force making the situation worse. It’s time for the elites of the world to begin listening to what their people are really saying, and what they are saying all over the Arab-speaking parts of the world is that they want freedoms long denied them by their leaders and by us. It’s long past the time for the “yankee” to “go home”. We can deal and trade with the rest of the world, but we need to do so fairly and without the implicit condescension that has been so apparent. Israel may have to learn to survive on its own, or not. They are no longer victims of anyone’s oppression, but oppressors themselves of those who do not belong to their exclusive religious club. They too, will stand or fall by their respect (or lack of it) for the humanity of others.