Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Pundits Whiff on the Middle East

by Micah Zenko
September 18, 2012

The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is seen in flames during a protest on September 11, 2012 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters). The U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is seen in flames during a protest on September 11, 2012 (Esam Al-Fetori/Courtesy Reuters).

Like the mythical cold fusion, the Middle East is a self-sustaining source of energy, providing limitless material for U.S. policymakers and pundits. While the Obama administration may have announced a rhetorical pivot to the Asia Pacific—carefully rebranded later as “rebalancing”—the focus of U.S. foreign policy remains always and forever trained on the Middle East.

With the demonstrations and attacks against U.S. embassies and consulates, Americans are once again asking, “Why do they hate us?” Today, the Washington Post published three op-eds that attempt to answer this question by decrying the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. Consistent with the general approach of the Post’s opinion page, none of the op-eds are written by individuals with Middle East policymaking experience or expertise in the region. Moreover, it is worth mentioning that not one contains a single actionable policy recommendation for the Obama administration.

The single unifying theme underscoring the op-eds is an assumption that every negative outcome in the Middle East (in that it harms U.S. interests) is the result of U.S. foreign policy decisions, and that the situation can be corrected by changing policy—usually, this requires less “fecklessness” by moving additional military forces into the region. Or, if the entire Middle East region were simply given a little more high-level attention by the White House, or provided with incrementally more foreign aid, the situation will improve.

Michael Gerson writes: “The largest failure of Obama’s approach to the Middle East is its apparent geopolitical randomness…In the absence of an organizing principle, flexibility becomes ambiguity.”

What would be helpful for readers is if Gerson identified and described that organizing principle, which of course he does not. If that is too challenging, he could simply highlight examples of where a president pursued a uniform approach to any global region. Gerson served in the George W. Bush administration, and should be able to draw parallels from its approach to the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Like other “regions,” the Middle East comprises many politically, socioeconomically, culturally, and religiously diverse countries, each with distinct interests and strategies. A bumper sticker slogan or one-size-fits-some approach to the Middle East would be the opposite of attentive and thoughtful policymaking.

Richard Cohen claims that the current situation in Libya resulted from the unwillingness of intervening countries to extend its military operations: “NATO’s warplanes have returned to base and Libya, a tribal society, was left to fend for itself, it has not fended all that well.” Exactly what military mission would Cohen seek for NATO warplanes today? How precisely would have stand-off airpower overcome this inherent tribalism he speaks of? Last week, militiamen closed down the Benghazi airport while firing at U.S. Predator drones circling above. Presumably, they would have been less appreciative of Cohen’s warplanes performing social engineering from 15,000 feet.

Cohen also argues, “Assad remains in power because the United States will not impose a no-fly zone—and really no one else can do so.” This faith in airpower is dubious. Just as a no-fly zone was never implemented above Libya, and did not play a role in the fall of Qaddafi, it would not prevent Assad from deploying the artillery, rocket, sniper, and ground forces that have kept him in power. Furthermore, non-U.S. warplanes could impose a no-fly zone over Syria tomorrow, but it would be a more difficult military mission that places their aircraft at greater risk. Those countries are unwilling to accept such a level of risk because it is not commensurate with their interests in the outcome in Syria.

Marc Thiessen’s commentary recycles many Republican talking points about “a perception of American weakness” that led to the current situation in the Middle East. Blaming Obama for what is unfolding throughout the region, he makes the extraordinary claim that “Obama didn’t support the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi.” This is patently untrue. The United States tried killing Qaddafi specifically (and his family members) with missile barrages more than a dozen times. Moreover, NATO members never enforced the arms embargo mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 1970 in order to ensure the rebels were well-armed. Finally, CIA operatives were rushed to Libya to provide satellite and signals intelligence, and coordinate the rebel troop movements that led to the fall of Tripoli.

There is a larger, more dangerous undertone to these comments on the intervention in Libya. Just one year after U.S. involvement ended, pundits have begun to completely rewrite history in order to serve whatever current policy agenda they wish to defend or decry. Usually, it takes Washington a few years to mythologize U.S. military interventions. If pundits have such short memories, we should be similarly skeptical when they issue sweeping criticisms of regional policies. It is a cowardly and misleading play for these op-eds to deride Obama administration policies and propose nothing in their place.

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