The Middle East Is Unraveling—and Obama Offers Words

An accounting of the president’s actions and inactions

Anti-government protesters pray at Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Amr Dalsh / Reuters)

Jeffrey Goldberg has conducted the most extensive autopsy of President Obama’s foreign policy—and revealed that it is based on the doctrine that the best leader is the one who leads the least, and contemplates and talks the most.

Obama is an impressive wordsmith. The most important milestones in his political career, before and after he became president, have been well-crafted speeches. He has lived by words—eloquent, searing, soaring, contemplative words—to the point where he might equate words and concepts with what the ancient Greeks called praxis, or practical action. In Obama’s world, sharp words can be almost as effective as sharp swords.

Goldberg’s article delves into some of these pivotal speeches: the Cairo speech, the speeches on the Arab uprisings, addresses on combatting terrorism and the agony of Syria. Most of the pledges contained in these speeches ring hollow now; instead of ushering in a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, Obama’s relations with Pakistan, Turkey, and the Arab states are strained and characterized by mutual contempt. Obama told those Arabs struggling non-violently for basic rights such as free speech, gender equality, the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the right to choose their leaders that “our support for these principles is not a secondary interest.” But as I have written, when Obama “looked at the enormity of the challenges posed by the Arab uprisings, particularly when they became more violent, he simply flinched.” Obama did inherit a dysfunctional Arab state system and fraying civil societies, yet his own ill-conceived actions and inactions have contributed significantly to the great unraveling of the Middle East.

In these speeches, as in Goldberg’s article, Obama comes across as a scholar who oscillates between providing compelling analysis of the problems and trends he is confronting or anticipating, and a tireless sophist and procrastinator weaving elaborate excuses and justifications for dithering and hand-wringing. His explanation of his passivity regarding Russia’s rampaging in Ukraine and Syria is rooted in denial. Obama has convinced himself that President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria came “at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country.” He believes the Russians “are overextended. They’re bleeding.” Yes, Russia’s economy is contracting, and Putin is in charge of an autocratic oligarchy. And yet Russia has filled the vacuum Obama helped create in Syria when he failed to act on his promises and deliver on his threats. The Russia-Iran-Assad regime axis is the one determining the tempo of military operations and diplomatic maneuvering in the Syrian theater, not the United States and its allies. Putin has diabolically exploited the Syrian refugee challenge in Europe to weaken the institutions of the European Union and to divert Europe’s attention from his predations in Ukraine. Because of Obama’s dithering, Syria’s war has metastasized into a Middle Eastern and European crisis.

What is most jarring is Obama’s tendency to distort the views of his detractors to the point of dissembling by reframing their original positions. He perfected this formula on critics of his maddening approach to Syria, including senior members of his administration, by belittling their proposals for establishing no-fly zones, or protected safe havens in Syria, as “half-baked” ideas or “mumbo-jumbo” proposals. Obama told Goldberg that his critics say, “You called for Assad to go, but you didn’t force him to go. You did not invade.” But Mr. President, who asked you to invade Syria? Could you please name one serious critic who said so? Obama speaks expansively and derisively about the “Washington playbook” and what he describes as the foreign-policy establishment’s “credibility” fetish; the playbook, according to Obama, tends to prescribe militarized responses to different crises in order to maintain America’s credibility. But credibility, particularly for a great power, is the coin of the realm. And it need not be purchased by force every time.

Obama boasts that he is “very proud” of the moment, on August 30, 2013, when he retreated from his threat to punish the Assad regime militarily following its mass murder of more than 1,400 innocent Syrian civilians, many of them children, with chemical weapons. He may view that date as his day of liberation from promises he made to help people who have been at the receiving end of weapons of mass destruction. But for millions of Syrians, August 30, 2013 is a day that shall live in infamy.

Obama is right to be resentful of America’s Sunni Arab allies, who foment sectarianism and anti-Americanism and help radical jihadists who are wreaking havoc in Syria and Libya. His frustration with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt is well-known. Obama’s retrenchment from the Middle East reflects deep disillusionment with the region.

But it also reflects disdain for an Arab world that should be avoided. Obama ignores those states seeking tepidly to implement reforms and fight terrorism. He coldly and correctly diagnoses the ills of the majority of Arab states: predatory autocratic regimes, violent Islamist groups, diminishing civic traditions, rampant sectarianism and tribalism. But he does not see any ray of hope or promise in this bleak scene. It is as if the Arab world is inhabited only by angry Arab youths “thinking about how to kill Americans,” and totally bereft of decent Arab men and women, like those millions who marched and struggled against tyranny and called for freedom, empowerment, dignity, and modernity. He laments that if the U.S is not talking to the young people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America “because the only thing we’re doing is figuring out how to destroy or cordon off or control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity, then we’re missing the boat.” It is as if the president of the United States is declaring a whole generation of Arabs as the devil’s rejects; it is as if he wants to have large swaths of the Middle East quarantined indefinitely.