Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Must read: What Obama doesn't get

Michael J. Totten has a must read interview with Jonathan Spyer, an Israeli who has sneaked into Syria twice and who gives a fantastic, must-read analysis of what is happening on the ground there.

It has more wisdom and real reporting in one article than you will find in the New York Times in weeks.

But at the end of the interview, Totten asks Spyer about US policies in the region, and his answers go to the crux of the problem of President Obama's Middle East policy - and, I would claim, his foreign policy altogether.

MJT: President Barack Obama repeatedly says he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Do you believe him? How many Israelis believe him? He’s letting Assad get away with murder, but he did go after Qaddafi and bin Laden.

Jonathan Spyer: I don’t want to interfere in the internal American discussion, but your question is nicely phrased so I can comment without doing that. Confidence in President Obama is very low in Israel. That is because his performance so far seems to suggest that he has little understanding of the Hobbesian world of Middle Eastern politics and the aspects required in order to build firm alliances and proxies here. From his Cairo speech and the abandonment of Mubarak to the vacillating and paralysis on Syria, he just seems to be singing from a different and wholly unsuitable songbook.

So I think very few Israelis have confidence that he will act effectively to prevent a nuclear Iran. No coherent red lines, including an outlining of the consequences of crossing them, means the Iranians will keep on moving ahead.

Obama wants out of the Middle East, as he himself has made clear. He’ll do counter-terrorism from the air against small, extreme jihadi groups. In Libya, I think it was the Europeans and specifically the French who got that rolling, with the US following on, though of course inevitably doing most of the heavy lifting in the end.

And frankly I think many Israelis also have the feeling, which we haven’t had for quite a few years, that the man in the White House right now isn’t a deep friend of our country, that he doesn’t understand or isn’t really interested in the story of Israel and the Jewish People, and consequently lacks a grasp of the deeper moorings which I think should underlie, and have in recent years underlain, the alliance between the US and Israel.

MJT: What is it specifically that President Obama does not understand? Surely he knows the Middle East is a much rougher neighborhood than Europe and North America. What else does he still need to grasp besides the obvious? What would you explain to him if you had his ear for a couple of minutes?

Jonathan Spyer: I would try to explain to him the dynamic of patron-client relationships in our neighborhood. I would explain to him that your clients don’t need to love you, don’t want you to bow to them, and don’t even really need to know that you respect them and empathize with them (though they will need you to at least go through the motions in this regard.)

What they need to know is that if they get into trouble (and they will) you will back them and help them to your utmost. If they think you won’t or can’t do that, they won’t want to be your client. They will prefer to be the client of another patron (probably your enemy or rival) who will be willing to do this. As a result, the value of your strategic coin will rapidly decline.

Right now, the net result of Obama’s losing Egypt/Tunisia/Yemen, and Iran/Russia/China’s non-losing of Syria, is that US credibility as a patron is low. Obama seems mainly dangerous to his friends, less so to his enemies, the killing of Bin-Laden notwithstanding. This is making allies nervous and enemies happy. This is not good. In particular, the most vulnerable allies (the Gulf monarchies) are very nervous indeed, and are seeking to organize themselves independently because of their impression that the US right now is not there. The trouble is that these countries are too weak for the job. As we see now in Syria, for example, they can’t deliver against Assad.

So the end result of Obama’s conceptual error is that the Iran-led alliance, which remains by far the most potent and dangerous enemy in the region, is holding up well, while what used to look like a US-led regional alliance no longer really exists. This, in my view, derives directly from the American President’s failure to grasp the basic rules for behavior as a patron in the Hobbesian space of the Middle East. So if I had a few minutes that’s what I’d tell him. But I’d tell him this without a great deal of enthusiasm, because I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t get it.
Spyer has perfectly encapsulated the flaws behind the president's foreign policy, and he briefly describes how it will affect the Middle East. But the same short-sightedness is leaving our allies in Europe also without a reliable ally, as Obama is not interested in asserting American power - something that must be done, no matter how distasteful it is.

Because the alternative is a world without a leader, and nothing good will enter that vacuum. It will take literally decades to undo the damage already done to the American reputation in less than four years, and this is more important than the economy or any other domestic issue.

This is the point I was trying to make in a video I posted recently, but Spyer does it much better.

The very future of the free world depends on US leadership. By abdicating that leadership, America is failing the world - and its own long-term interests.

(h/t Israel Muse)