Washington's Mideast Follies

Washington's Mideast Follies

It's time for U.S. policy makers to acknowledge the genuine horrors that have resulted, even inadvertently, from their actions.

President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton honor the victims of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya. An American ambassador murdered. A consulate ransacked. Multiple embassies under siege. A U.S. school looted. Protests in “liberated” Afghanistan and Iraq. Americans again wondering: Why do they hate us?

Yet some Washington policy makers never learn. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said the latest attacks on Americans resulted from a lack of U.S. “leadership.” GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan blamed administration weakness and Pentagon spending cuts. The cause, according to the last Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, was President Obama’s “weakness” and “feckless foreign policy,” most notably Washington’s failure to impose its will on the Muslim world—by intervening in Syria, coercing Egypt, continuing to occupy Iraq and more.

Although the administration reacted more responsibly, it sent drones, ships and Marines to Libya in an attempt to track down the Benghazi killers. It’s a worthwhile objective, but striking back blindly would be worse than doing nothing. Extensive drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen have inflamed anti-American sentiments. In fact, the Benghazi airport was closed after hostile militias fired missiles at U.S. drones.

The GOP attack on the Obama administration’s foreign policy reeked of desperation. Republicans offered no plan of their own. Nevertheless, Romney aide Rich Williamson claimed: “There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation.” Yes, the situation likely would have been worse.

In practice, there is very little difference between the Bush and Obama administrations on foreign policy. Both engaged in routine political interference, promiscuous military intervention, and continuous warfare in the Middle East and around the world. And this policy has turned out badly irrespective of the party in control. The invasion of Iraq was merely the most spectacular recent failure in American foreign policy, highlighted by the death of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

Moreover, despite the Sturm und Drang of the presidential campaign, there are few substantive differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney. The latter just promises more, and perhaps a lot more, of the same. In his opinion, Washington does not intervene enough. If only the United States—apparently an international shrinking violet in Romney’s view despite its ubiquitous presence around the globe—told Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and everyone else what to do, abashed foreigners would instantly genuflect toward Washington. Evil would disappear from the earth, the lion would lie down with the lamb and world peace would blossom.

In the Bush-Obama-Romney view, the president need merely pronounce his will to a waiting world. When that approach fails, it is deemed the fault of the administration, not the policy. It’s an appealing vision but one utterly at odds with reality. Even when Washington intervenes on the side of the good guys (sometimes, but not always), the result usually is counterproductive. Blowing up other societies typically results in unpredictable blowback.

Iraq was a painful lesson for many people. So should be the Afghan war, which continues in its eleventh year even though it no longer bears any connection to the initial triggering event of September 11. However, Barack Obama twice doubled down on the Bush policy. Romney talks of victory even as he refuses to take a clear position. And McCain complains that neither presidential contender will commit to keep American troops in Afghanistan forever.

The Obama administration’s “splendid little war” in Libya promoted regime change on the cheap in the name of humanitarianism. U.S. intervention was supposed to save Benghazi from the depredations of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Yet residents of Benghazi showed their gratitude by storming the U.S. consulate and murdering the ambassador and three other Americans.

Of course, the mob may not reflect majority sentiments. And radical jihadists of one stripe or another may have taken advantage of popular anger. However, the details are irrelevant: it was Western intervention in Libya’s civil war which made this latest round of violence possible.

Another consequence of the conflict was widespread looting of the old regime’s military arsenals. One of the Americans killed in Libya was tasked with tracking down weapons that had fallen into the wrong hands.

As for the Arab Spring, Washington policy makers seem congenitally unable to admit that Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, Syrians and others have wills of their own. The readiness of some on the “Arab Street”—and many Muslims elsewhere—to resort to murderous violence in response to a perceived insult to Islam betrays a culture ill prepared for self-government.

Indeed, protests such as those in Benghazi, Cairo and Sana actually do more than anything else to justify the most virulent critiques of Islam. Yet much more is at stake. For instance, the U.S. government spent four decades underwriting autocracy in Egypt in the name of stability. Americans held abstract discussions of policy in Washington while Egyptians suffered in Cairo under a dictator embraced by Washington. That record, along with the Obama administration’s very public reluctance to abandon Hosni Mubarak, tainted America in the eyes of even liberal-minded Egyptians. Today Washington can ill afford to array itself against democracy. The only thing worse than working with a president from the Muslim Brotherhood would be backing another military junta.