President Barack Obama predicated his foreign policy on a simple idea: that he would pursue alliances and friendships based on “mutual respect and mutual interests.” Turning away from George W. Bush’s ideologically driven Freedom Agenda was a natural pivot for Obama. Bush’s agenda was ideological. Obama’s was practical.
But Obama’s approach to the region was not quite free from an ideology. He had an ideological confidence in his own gifts, both biographical and intellectual. He anticipated that he would transform America’s relationship with the region through his own speeches, his own engagement and his own efforts.
Recall, that his first diplomatic offensives were aimed squarely at the Arab world. He took on the challenge of forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians right from the outset. One of his first major speeches as president was delivered in Cairo, where his practiced Arabic phrases were aimed at presenting American leadership in a new light, and with a new sound. One cannot say that Obama has ignored his promise to attend to America’s status in the Arab and Muslim world. Attention was paid. Energy was expended. Presidential capital was spent.
How fares this approach?
Across the crescent of states stretching from North Africa through Central Asia, America’s friends are fewer, its influence smaller, its strategic position weakened. America has lost its reliable ally in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, now ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood. It has lost the respect of people in Syria, who in rebellion against a dictator see American support as toothless and empty. Iran, America’s most implacable enemy in the world, squashed a popular uprising without fearing American action — and now moves into the void we left behind in Iraq.
And this week, our ambassador in Libya, together with three other diplomatic officials, was murdered in a planned operation while a mob in Egypt scaled the fences of our embassy, burned the American flag and raised the flag of al-Qaeda. All on September 11 — a day when anti-Americans are feeling particularly nostalgic. With these kinds of results, and in the middle of a presidential election, it’s easy to slip into blame-shifting mode. Obama’s allies do not want to accept that all these actions are his fault, and that besides, Iraq was such a colossal error that nothing on Obama’s watch compares.
For the sake of argument, let’s accept that Iraq was a greater foreign policy error than anything that Obama has committed. I do not accept the argument, but would rather focus merely on Obama and his policies. Let’s stipulate that Obama’s struggles in the region stand on their own, and are no worse or better than those of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan or Carter.