Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Obama and the Middle East

There is an emerging meme in the media that Obama "is a weak president." It's getting to the point where the parrots in the news cycle have repeated it so often that this has become the starting point for any discussion of Obama's foreign policy in particular. I think this is not only unfair but a serious misunderstanding of the American position with regard to the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.

In the Libya the US is supporting an allied effort to prevent Qaddafi from wiping out a nascent revolution with heavy weapons. Critics (like Senators McCain and Lieberman) argue that the US should engage more directly and more forcefully. I give them points for consistency, but I really think repeating the Bush strategy from Iraq in Libya would be a disaster waiting to happen. It's much better to let the British, French and Italians take the public lead (by sending advisors - we all know where that can lead) while remaining dependent on US power to actually accomplish anything. The recent introduction of low flying pilotless drones into the Libyan mix will give NATO the ability to counter Qaddafi's latest tactic of deploying his forces in small units that are difficult to identify from high altitude. Most importantly in this, Qaddafi is very unpopular in the Middle East and the rebels are asking for our help - loudly.

In Bahrain, the US largely stayed out but when the local government cracked down (with Saudi help) made strong critical statements against the crackdown - albeit without actually doing anything about it. In Yemen, the US is staying out of the issue as well.

Now, Syria which is turning out to be rather key. The demonstrators in Syria are showing a willingness to continue hitting the streets despite repeated bloody crackdowns by the Syrian government. That government is now getting major support from Iran. And Secretary Clinton and then President Obama announced that Iran was backing these violent crackdowns and condemned that assistance strongly.

Here is why what Obama's been doing makes sense. If we had been following a Neo-con approach like that advocated by McCain and Lieberman, we would have supported Mubarak in Egypt. If that had succeeded in propping Mubarak up, there likely who not have been rebellions in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya or Syria. At the same time, we might have found ourselves backing, like Iran is now, an increasingly bloody minded dictatorship. But if Mubarak had fallen anyway, which may well have happened, the US would be in a horribly undermined diplomatic position in the region. If the rebellion in Libya had taken place anyway, the neo-cons would have had us invading Libya to support that even while Mubarak was shooting people in the streets with US support. Under those circumstances, any criticisms we would level at Iran at that point would be completely transparent.

Instead, the US picked the correct side in Egypt and Libya. This makes our criticism of Iran have real force, not only with Europe but with people in the Middle East. The center piece of the Obama foreign policy has been to isolate Iran by behaving reasonably in the region. That strategy has been far more successful than the Bush/Neo-con strategy of isolating Iran through constant and often military confrontation.

The Middle East is at a crossroads now. It is still unclear which way things will go. Egypt and Tunisia may transition to democracies or not. Libya may get rid of Qaddafi quickly or settle into a prolonged stalemate. Syria's Assad has been revealed as a bloody tyrant and may be overthrown or not. Regardless of the turn events take, the US is in a position to be a constructive force for positive change. Or if you prefer a more 'realpolitk' frame - in a position to end up on the winning side. In contrast, Iran is clearly on the side of bloody crackdowns and the status quo. No matter what happens, this cannot be good for Iranian influence in the region. It is true that Iran seems to be behind some of the nastier factions in Iraq but that is the one country where we've dug ourselves into the deepest whole, thanks the reckless policies of the same people criticizing Obama for being weak. And even there, I suspect that the popularity of any politician with close ties to Iran will be trying to spin what their constituents are watching on Al Jazera. If the US had backed a crackdown in Egypt and/or then invaded Libya that explaining would be laughably easy for them to pull off.

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