Spiraling Catastrophes

Is It Just Me or Is the World Exploding? So Why Isn’t Obama Doing More?

The broader Middle East is always in crisis. But not like this. We could be on the edge of cataclysm. And what are we doing? Retrenching.


We are always cautioned not to overdramatize, because if the worst doesn’t happen, we can look silly. Maybe so. But I look around the world right now and think: Let’s not under-dramatize, either. We see a set of crises coming to a head all at once that could well plunge the world into war and chaos for some time to come. And we the United States—not President Obama, not John Kerry, not the Republicans; the whole United States—aren’t doing nearly enough to try to help the region’s democrats and promote our purported values.

Americans have long since learned to live with more or less permanent crisis in the larger Middle East. The Israel-Palestine situation is always a disaster. Iran is a disaster. Syria—not usually the unspeakable disaster it is now, but never good. Lebanon, always on the edge of (and sometimes past the edge of) calamity, but too complicated for most people to figure out. Iraq, always a catastrophe of one kind (crypto-fascist Ba’athism) or another (the maelstrom engulfing it today). We take note of it, that tiny percentage of Americans who bother to care in the first place, and we mourn it for a moment or two, and then we let it all wash away.

But: Am I the only one to whom things right now feel a little…different? By which I of course mean worse. This Israel-Hamas war feels different, neither turtle nor scorpion even pretending anymore about seeking peace. What’s happening in Syria, where hundreds die every week now with almost no notice in Washington, is certainly different. Lebanon teems with Palestinian and now Syrian refugees—imagine if you lived in a country of 4.5 million people that was being asked to house a number of refugees that equaled 20 percent of your population—and every effort at normalization is pulverized by the thugs of Hezbollah, which in effect governs the country and which is helping Bashar al-Assad murder civilians while limning Hamas’ glorious contributions to “the resistance,” as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah did in a bellicose speech Friday.

And the most different thing of all, obviously, is the rise of the Islamic State, as the group formerly known as ISIS now calls itself, imposing extreme sharia law in its Petri dish of Mosul, the testing ground of the caliphate it has declared in the parts of Iraq and Syria it controls, which it hopes to expand deeper into those countries and perhaps into Lebanon and Jordan, as well. Reports that circulated last week that the Islamic State had ordered female genital mutilation in the parts of Iraq it controls were apparently not true, thankfully. But based on what the Islamic State imposed in areas of Syria where it gained control, we know all we need to know about what’s taking shape in Mosul: no basic freedoms, women covered from head to toe, amputations for theft, and worse.

And yesterday, the Times reported that the Taliban is making gains, and fast, in Afghanistan. And we might as well throw in Putin there. Ukraine is a different problem, but Russia is clearly a big force in the Middle East, as Putin continues to back his kindred spirit Assad.

This is way beyond the usual. And considering the dramatis personae, I wouldn’t bet a dinar on “negotiated settlements.” There aren’t any good answers. But there is one country that could still be doing a lot more to promote civil society and democratic aspiration and equality and freedom—things that might give the good guys at least a sliver of a chance—than it’s doing.

This column isn’t chiefly about whom to blame. I will say that obviously, I blame Bush and Cheney more than I do Obama. The Iraq War, among its other shattering emanations, unleashed the Islamic State (or its precursor, more precisely). The Bush administration’s disastrous “Hey, let’s have elections in Gaza! Oops!” policy helped create the tragic death spiral there. I could go on, and on, but that’s not the point today. Obama has to take blame here, too. His inaction in Syria helped the Islamic State grow and muscle out the more legitimate opposition forces to Assad. He’s finally okayed $500 million for those forces, but even while doing that, he in essence told CBS News last week that, well, he’s never thought deep down it could amount to much: “When you get farmers, dentists, and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad, the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy. I think it is very important for the American people—but maybe more importantly, Washington and the press corps—to understand that.” That may well be true, but imagine being a citizen in Syria who dreams of a free country and hearing the president of the United States say those words. They’re hardly destined to ring down the ages alongside “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Without much enthusiasm, I’ll take Obama’s quasi-Socratic, do-no-extra-harm doctrine over the neocons’ make-huge-omelet-break-millions-of-eggs world view. But the United States has to do better than this. In the face of all these tragedies, we aren’t even trying to do more but indeed are retrenching: The State Department and USAID budget for 2014, at $47.8 billion, is some $3 billion less than it was two years ago. Look through that PDF I just linked to and feast on the meager amounts earmarked for democracy and assistance programs. In those years, the National Endowment for Democracy went from $117 million (which wasn’t enough in the first place) to $103 million. Nonproliferation and anti-terrorism programs went from $711 million to $616 million. The Democracy Fund, which promotes democratic institutions abroad, went from $114 million to zero. And on and on.

Yes, I’m talking foreign aid now. The taxpayers loathe it. But they’re also contemptibly ignorant about it. In most polls, when people are asked what percentage of its budget the United States spends on foreign aid, they say 25. The truth is 1 percent. Actually, less than 1 percent, or around $30 billion. We should be spending five times that.

Impossible? It’s not. People have no idea what we spend on foreign aid because no one ever tells them. In certain surveys, when people are informed that it’s 1 percent, many (not a majority, to be sure, but many) say hey, that’s actually too little. If we had a president who was willing to take the small political risk involved in explaining to the American people that the United States, with Europe, has to do much more on the front end to try to stabilize these countries and help the people desperate for our help; that by not helping those people we’re only strengthening the extremists; that the extremists will start a fire that we might eventually have to extinguish at far greater cost; well, then, minds would start to change.

But this is not just a question of foreign aid. And God knows it isn’t a question of military muscle. The hubris of that position did so much to create and compound these problems. It’s a question of having leaders in this country—not just in politics, but across society—who care about the idea that the United States has long-term interests in the world that don’t boil down to profit or naked self-interest but are bound up in the ideals we purport to stand for. We need such leaders in the corporate world, where all they seem to think about these days is whose flesh they can rip to get their next million; and we need them in the huge but often overlooked nonprofit and civic sector, where the timidity on fundamental questions can be appalling. This was once a country where, for all its ills and all the bad it did in the world from Tehran to Saigon to Santiago and in between, we could occasionally muster that consensus. We can’t now, and we and the world will pay for this failure in ways that we can’t today comprehend.