By Barry Rubin
Virtually since the day President Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, I’ve been reporting in great detail on his disastrous Middle East policy. I believe nobody in the world has written more thoroughly documented words and provided more factually based analysis explaining why this policy is so bad than me.
And so I am often asked whether I believe this situation is caused by a deliberate, conscious effort to destroy U.S. interests, subvert Israel’s existence, and promote anti-American Islamists on the part of the president and his closest colleagues.
No, I answer, it is the result of ignorance, incompetence, and a ridiculous ideological approach that has nothing to do with reality. But, I add, it certainly says something that the policy is so bad that it makes people think that deliberate treason is a credible explanation.
Recently, an expert I respect who likes my work asked me the following:
“At what point do “oblivious,” clueless,” or “misguided” no longer describe what is going on here?
“At what point do we say that the top levels of the U.S. government and our national security leadership are wittingly complicit in supporting a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of large parts of the Middle East? As you lay out these events and facts, there is simply no other conclusion to be drawn: this is deliberate.
“When does it become treasonous or at the very least an abrogation of Constitutional oaths of office and dereliction of duty?”
I believe the first and last paragraphs are wrong but the second one is partly right. They don’t fear the Muslim Brotherhood getting into office because they think it won’t happen or can be turned into a good thing. This is horrible but not consciously evil.
How can we explain Obama’s behavior on the Middle East? I’m not the least bit surprised or baffled. I do not think the fact that this isn’t “treasonous” is a mitigating circumstance. Beyond a certain point, gross incompetence and systematic stupidity are inexcusable sins in politics even if not crimes. The sentence should be voting them out of office as soon as possible.
The great French diplomatist (and thoroughly evil human being) Charles de Talleyrand put it this way: “This is worse than a crime, it’s a blunder.” You can some respect for an evil genius cleverly following his plan but none at all for a fool putting his country’s interests and the lives of millions of people at risk, refusing to change course even when his strategy is obviously failing.
You just have to sit at dinner with a State Department guy, for example, who tells you in great detail how the battle went within the bureaucracy over accepting Islamism as something good for the United States or watch how the CIA generated studies fixed to exclude truth in arguing Islamism isn’t a threat. It’s only mysterious if you don’t see it up close.
Here is what we should see:
First, Obama thinks he’s very knowledgeable about Islam, based on very limited personal contacts. Aside from his profound misunderstandings, his experiences come from Indonesia, the place where mainstream Islam was more moderate than in any other Muslim-majority country. And even that predates the infusion of Wahhabi and al-Qaida thinking even in that country.
In my opinion, the worst single blunder of Obama in the Middle East was his Cairo speech telling people in the region that they should perceive their primary identity as Muslim rather than in national terms. The idea that political Islam could be some asset for the United States–rather than an enemy being held back largely by nationalism–was like putting a big bomb next to a fragile dam. Yet Obama thought it was some act of far-sighted genius on his part because he could tame political Islam.
Second, Obama is a narrow-minded and arrogant man who understands little about international affairs or the profound differences of other cultures. He neither listens to ideas outside his own conception nor heeds proof that he has failed. A clever evil genius adjusts himself to circumstances, determined he will always look good. Obama is merely wrong and incompetent, openly displaying ignorance.
Third, his conception of the United States and its role in the world should render him unfit to be president. He views the United States as evil and aggressive historically while also rejecting the most basic concepts of U.S. interests and the conduct of international affairs.
He deliberately refuses to show leadership; doesn’t think American diplomacy should reward friends and punish enemies; believes concessions and apologies can win over enemies; and really doesn’t understand the importance of credibility, deterrence, and leverage to frighten and constrain enemies. He is obsessed with popularity, that least important factor in international affairs. In his mind, there is a sneaking suspicion that the enemies are the good guys.
In these ideas, Obama is similar to the far left in America and Europe. The problem, of course, is that none of those clueless impractical intellectuals is commander-in-chief of the world’s greatest power.
Fourth, he has two sets of people eager to misadvise him. One is the ideologues he has brought into government, especially in the National Security Council and several other appointees (David Axelrod and Ram Emanuel are of little or no importance on these foreign policy decision-making issues.) The other is a significant portion of the CIA.
Large elements in the State and Defense departments are horrified by Obama’s Middle East policy. The Defense Department is burdened with new commitments and handed impossible missions by a man its officials know looks down on them, has little sympathy for their problems, and no appreciation of their professional culture.
State gasps as Obama dismantles a Middle East policy it has spent decades building and nurturing. Briefly, that policy was alliance with relatively moderate states—Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—to fight radical regimes and movements. They dislikeed Israel because they thought it got in the way of links to Arab powers. But they certainly don’t want their pet regimes overthrow, systematically insulted, while the president cares more for the very radical Islamists they were fighting to keep out of power!
What is the alternative, now dominant view? This interpretation considers the virtually sole danger to be al-Qaida and its terrorist attacks against America. In order to ensure Islamists aren’t radicalized to behave that way, they want to coopt radical Islamists they consider far less threatening. They insist that such Islamists are far less extreme than people like me say and that holding power will moderate them.
This travesty is born of Western ignorance about Islam and Islamism; discounting the power of ideology and the nature of these societies; assuming that everyone thinks alike in wanting more material goods; putting all their effort on stopping another September 11 (even at the expense of massive strategic losses); presuming moderation is inevitable, etc.
These people believe that the “Turkish model” is just fine and dandy rather than seeing it as an extremely dangerous way for radical Islamists to seize and hold power to carry out anti-American and aggressive goals. This misunderstanding is key to their failure to understand Arab politics or Islamism, as is the idea that Facebook kid community organizer yuppies are any match for Jihadists.
We’ve seen this before many times. Major General William Elphinstone, commander of the British army in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1842, was no traitor. He simply believed the Afghan rulers who promised him safe passage back to India. Of 12,000 soldiers and civilians, only about 12 survived the subsequent massacre.
Other examples include pre-World War Two appeasement and the post-World War Two view that Third World Communists could be coopted, or those portraying Fidel Castro as a misunderstood moderate and Mao Zedong as an agrarian reformer. Another case was the idea that Yasir Arafat could be turned into a pragmatic moderate by giving him power and meeting most of his demands.
Then there are the current European domestic policies of funding and backing to radical Islamists in order to “defeat” Jihadists. When Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said last February that the Muslim Brotherhood was a harmless reformist group, he meant it. That’s what his CIA briefers told him. The only administration correction was that it isn’t a “secular” group. All the really damaging misconceptions were fully accepted by the Obama Administration.
So the administration is either helping Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood to get into power or risking this happening (wrongly thinking they won’t win elections) not because it wants to hurt America but because it is stupid and ignorant enough to think that will ultimately help America. Islamists will be moderated by power and the “need” to be pragmatic; or won’t win because the people want smart phones instead of suicide bombers; or they will love a U.S. government that is so nice to them.
Similarly, this administration doesn’t hate Israel so much as think that country is foolish for not following policies that in fact would risk its existence. If only Israel realized how easy it would be to have a stable peace with a Palestinian state next door based on the 1967 borders, the Obama Administration thinks, the Israelis, too, would join the party and be much better off. Why are they such a stiff-necked people?
This is all wrong and disastrous. But as George Orwell—who understood these things—once said, some ideas are so stupid that only an intellectual will believe them.
None of these points makes the current leadership and policy more acceptable or good. Having Gomer Pyle and Forrest Gump in power (without those innocent nice-guy fool’s humility and moral compass) is not better than having a James Bond villain or Dr. Evil running things.
How much does this matter? Not a great deal. The motive for having terrible policies is far less important than the fact that the policies are terrible. Moreover, one can prove what’s happening is a disaster but can never irrefutably prove why it is happening.
A fool is worse than a traitor if only because more people will vote for him.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com