Today's LA Times features an op-ed from John Hannah (former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and a senior fellow at the ultra-neocon right Foundation for Defense of Democracies) that excoriates Mr. Obama for the US's current "weakness" in the Middle East, where, says Hannah,
concerns run deep over the administration's lack of strategic vision, its instinct for retreat and its complicity in the unraveling of a benevolent imperium that has for decades underwritten the region's security.
In a November article, a senior Middle East correspondent for the New York Times referred matter-of-factly to an Arab world "where the United States is increasingly viewed as a power in decline." Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, no enemy of the president, has reported from Riyadh on a new activism in Saudi Arabia's policy born of "the diminished clout of the United States." Indeed, Ignatius concludes that the Saudis consider Obama "a relatively weak leader" and no longer view the United States as a guarantor of their security — a "striking" shift in the kingdom's security doctrine, which had stood for more than 60 years.
So acute is the crisis of confidence that America's closest allies now openly question Washington's reliability and mettle. Months after Obama's rapid embrace of an Egyptian revolution that toppled the United States' most important Arab partner, Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah II was asked whether the region's leaders could still depend on the U.S. With shocking candor, Abdullah responded: "I think everybody is wary of dealing with the West.... Looking at how quickly people turned their backs on Mubarak, I would say that most people are going to try and go their own way."
No less remarkable was the alarm over U.S. policy that Bahrain's foreign minister expressed in October. Clearly unnerved by a deepening sense of U.S. irresolution, the Bahraini minister implored Obama to at long last push back against Iran's repeated provocations, including an attempted plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington: "We're asking the U.S. to stand up for its interests and draw the red lines.... How many times have you lost lives, been subject to terrorist activities, and yet we haven't seen any proper response. This is really serious. It's coming to your shores now."
Isn't it obvious here that Hannah is emulating the same tone-deafness that characterized Dick Cheney's view of the Middle East? Cheney never evinced any real sympathy for the aspirations of Middle Eastern peoples as opposed to their heads of state. US Middle East policy was, in the Cheney/Hannah view, all about projecting American power, safeguarding American interests (oil and Israel), and preserving stability - and during a time (up to around 2004, at least) when the US military was roundly perceived as all-powerful and all-conquering and the US economy was robust and growing.
Now it's 2012. The assumptions about US military omnipotence are toast; the US economy has teetered on the brink, and though perhaps moving slowly toward recovery, has retreated only a few steps from that brink, toward which a new shock (say, a war against Iran?) might push it again. But most importantly, the events of the Arabs Spring/Awakening (and, for that matter, the Green Movement in Iran) have shown that the ever more informed peoples throughout the region are no longer willing to suffer and be stifled indefinitely under autocratic regimes.
Yet it is just such regimes that Hannah cites as America's now disappointed allies:
- the Saudi dynasty, which spends millions to perpetuate and disseminate an extremist version of Islam
- the Hashemite dynasty of Jordan, whose Harley-riding king has impressed so many of us with his "cool" yet remains steadfast in staving off democratization
- the Bahrain monarchy, where a Sunni rulership tortures and kills Shii citizens
- until not that many months ago, the Mubarak regime in Egypt
It's to Obama's discredit that he was so slow to disavow Mubarak, and has been reluctant to step away farther from the current leadership in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Bahrain. But Hannah's critique only affirms the worst, and ultimately most short-sighted aspects of US policy in the Middle East.