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Up Front

Obama’s Middle East Policy in Perspective

Michael E. O’Hanlon

The partisan furor over President Obama’s Middle East policy strikes me as misplaced. While there is plenty to debate in foreign policy, and even more to debate on economic matters – which are themselves central to America’s future global role – the allegations of supposed Obama apologies do not hold water.

I say this as someone who was dubious about Mr. Obama’s big promises during his 2007/2008 campaign. The talk of reconciling with dictators, stemming climate change, making a big dent against global poverty, working towards a nuclear-free world, achieving Middle East peace, and healing the broader breach with the Islamic world was unrealistic and, for me at least, overdone.

In fairness, the big vision did help Obama get elected, and did excite the world at large about his presidency. But that also set up false expectations around the world about what he could really do. And that has led to disappointment, especially in the broader Middle East (in Europe, Obama is still popular; in much of Asia, President Bush was never so unpopular or the U.S. stock so low prior to Obama’s inauguration). Throughout the Islamic world, the president’s and Obama’s standing as measured by public opinion polls is similar to George W. Bush’s. That is surely a disappointment.

However, even for those of us who shared in the critiques of Obama the candidate the first time around, the way he has conducted his presidency has been anything but apologetic. He kept Bob Gates as defense secretary. He took twice as long to leave Iraq as he had promised, giving that country a greater chance at stability. He doubled and then tripled down his bets, and U.S. forces, in Afghanistan even as some tactical mistakes complicated relations with President Karzai. He pushed for big new efforts in Pakistan – both in hard power terms, with strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas, and in softer power terms with an enhanced aid package.

And in relation to the matter immediately at hand, the supposedly apologetic tone of Obama’s presidency, I do not see the basis for a major complaint. True, he held out too much hope for improved relations with Iran (as well as North Korea). But when the hard-line regime stole the June 12, 2009 election there, Obama pivoted, and orchestrated a tightening of international sanctions that has inflicted high cost on Teheran even if it has not yet led to a resolution of the nuclear crisis. (Obama also pivoted to a harder line in North Korea after that country’s missile and nuclear tests in the spring of 2009.) Obama wisely avoided pursuing his promise of detente with dictators too far in regard to Chavez in Venezuela or Castro in Cuba, or Assad in Syria (more on that latter issue in a moment).

As for the big Cairo speech in June of 2009, the cornerstone of Obama’s effort as president to recast U.S. relations with the Islamic world, it is certainly fair to argue that again, the grand expectations raised by the president have not been realized. And there is real harm in raising false hopes. But in reading and rereading that speech, I do not detect a tone of apology. It is an effort to build mutual understanding while remaining firmly committed to American ideals, interests, and allies. It is fair enough to criticize how Obama has handled Israel or Middle East peace talks, where I believe there have been ample errors. But this does not reflect some un-American or repentant worldview.

As for the film that contributed to the uproar this week, it was disgusting, shoddy, and inconsistent with American values of tolerance and respect for religion. Has anyone who defended it actually seen it? I put this kind of garbage in the category of Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazi propaganda. More Americans should be speaking out against it, not defending it as somehow almost virtuous proof of our ongoing national commitment to free speech.

Finally, on Syria. Here I believe Governor Romney is right to want to do more. Whether U.S. arming of the rebels is the right next step or not, they do need more lethal support from somewhere. My general view that Obama’s approach to the region has been reasonable and unapologetic does not exonerate him of the need to improve this particular policy. Nor does it permit too much premature celebration of a great victory in Libya. Qaddafi is gone and that is a good thing, but our work there as in much of the rest of the region has just begun. So let’s get on with it, in a serious way, and leave behind the invective and hyperbole.

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