Successful at doing nothing.
Is he a disciple?
In order to formulate an American policy that is relevant to what is going on in the Middle East today, it helps to go back to China in the 6th century B.C. There were two works written during that time that still have great influence today. One was Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the other Lao Tzu’s The Tao Te Ching. The former is a concise military strategy handbook on how to deal with your enemy and conduct wars in the most efficient manner. Military masters like Douglas MacArthur, Mao and Vietnamese general Giap were devotees. In the latter, Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism, opines that Wu Wei—letting events unfold and not using force—could often bring about the desired results. Less is often more. Taosim has many followers. President Obama wisely may be one of them.
The pages of the neocon bible, The Wall Street Journal, and specifically the formerly rational Fouad Ajami and Brett Stephens, plus others like the Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer and the Commentary Magazine bunch would have you believe that Obama has surrendered America’s role in the Middle East. That is, his policy of retreat has made our “allies” there fearful and confused.
The Wall Street Journal even brought in the Elvis of Saudi policy, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, to lecture America about its fecklessness. In their relentless, scathing attacks on Obama’s policies these neocons want American intervention to, as best as I can tell: put the “right” government in Egypt, bring Iran to its knees, install a pro-American/Saudi government in Syria, stop the religious civil war in Iraq, get Turkey back in the fold, push Hezbollah out of Lebanon, disarm the Libyan militias, and in most of the aforementioned cases, get lots of oil flowing. Oh and of course, while America’s at it, why not topple Hamas, get Fatah and the Palestinians to live in a rump state alongside the expanding Israeli settlements and perhaps make sure the beaches of Tunis are safe for bikini-wearers?
Anything less is a sure sign of American retreat!
Here lies the con. As Patrick Tyler has made abundantly clear in his brilliant book about American foreign policy in the Middle East, “A World of Trouble”, we have not done much right in that region since the end of WWII. We toppled an elected president in Iran and installed a hated Shah and thus set the stage for the evil Khomeini regime and the hostage crisis. We put troops in Lebanon to stop the bleeding in their civil war and 241 Marines lost their lives for nothing—and then we beat a hasty retreat. In doing so, we demonstrated to all that we have no will to be bloodied and die. We put troops on the ground in Saudi Arabia and they were blown to bits in the Khobar Towers attack. America is still waiting for an expression of remorse from the House of Saud for that act of terror.
The Middle East, as the Israelis say, is a rough neighborhood. The endless tribal factions, the primitivism of the peoples, the ancient hatreds, and the religious devotions create a world that is impenetrable to the Western mind. However, in the past there was one seminal unifying theme across the Middle East: hatred of America. From the Sunni extremism of Osama bin Laden to the Shia clerics of Iran and the street fighters of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, they all came together to hate America. In every street interview in the Middle East over the last 60 years all of their local, national and regional problems were caused by either Israel or American support of Israel. If you want to know what a scholarly local thinks of the Arab world’s last 60 years, read Rami Khouri’s recent article, “Resist the Arab Merchants of Darkness.” It says a lot about who we should engage.
A glorious gift created via Obama’s policies is what I see in the Middle East. All the miserable infighting and total failure to govern that was suppressed by the “engagement” of America is staring the Arabs, Turks and Persians in their faces. The Saudis hate the Iranians, and the Turks, when they are not worried about newscaster cleavage, are in open hostilities with the Egyptians. The Syrians are far from being a threat to Israel and America: they are a threat to themselves. Shiite Hezbollah is at war against a myriad of Sunni jihadist forces; with no U.S. Marines to blow up, they just blow up… themselves. Hamas is literally wading waist deep in the raw sewage they created by their self-defeating policy of “resistance” to Israel. It is isolated, alone and on the run, in addition to being threatened from within by even more fundamentalist Arabs. Egypt closed the smuggling tunnels, not Israel. The Tunisians have come to their senses, and the Islamists look like they do not want the responsibility of governing. The Gulf emirates are worried about internal issues and do not seem overly concerned with liberating Jerusalem.
In short, Lao Tzu was right: do nothing and let the internal contradictions, the basic false premises of your enemies, cause them to self-destruct. Obama only has to look at the total failure of President George W. Bush, who put Karzai in Afghanistan’s presidential palace, to see what the results of the neocon policy look like. Ditto for Iraq’s Maliki.
Could America have done worse?
American Middle East policy was a glass dome that kept the scorpions fighting to get out. With the do-less policy of Obama the dome is lifted, the scorpions are out, and as scorpions do, are attacking each other. It was inevitable.
What good can come from this? The answer can be seen all over the Muslim world: responsibility. From the brave Libyan citizens sick of the militias to the humblest Egyptian villager to the cosmopolitan Turkish student to the would-be female Saudi driver, there is a profound awakening in the Muslim and Arab world that they are on their own. The reflection they see in the mirror is theirs and theirs alone.
It is not the Zionist regime or the Iranian depiction of America as the Great Satan or bin Laden’s America as the “far enemy.” What is killing, starving, bombing and gassing their children in Syria, what is causing the severed heads and limbs as they shop for food in Baghdad, is not imported from abroad. It is from within. The death, destruction, ignorance, and poverty are self-generated. What all the neocon interventions did was delay this day of self-awareness.
In his own way, Obama will do more for the Middle East than any other figure since Suleiman guided the Ottoman Empire to its greatest victories in the 15th and 16th centuries.