Obama's Middle East Head Spin: His Missing Strategy on Syria, Libya, More

The president’s ineffectual statement on Friday’s massacre in Syria is the latest act in a White House drama that begin in 2009, starring a brilliant intellect who is nonetheless confounded by events. Christopher Dickey and John Barry on Obama’s flailing foreign policy—which appears headed for unmitigated disaster.

President Barack Obama and the protests in Syria. (Photo Credit: AP Photo)

The president’s ineffectual statement on Friday’s massacre in Syria is the latest act in a White House drama that began in 2009, starring a brilliant intellect who is nonetheless confounded by events. Christopher Dickey and John Barry on Obama’s flailing foreign policy—which appears headed for unmitigated disaster.

From Washington’s vantage, every Friday is becoming Black Friday in the Middle East. Muslim prayers turn to protests that keep building toward full-scale uprisings faster than anyone had predicted, and with potentially cataclysmic consequences nobody dares imagine. This Friday, the shock came in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad runs one of the Middle East’s most repressive regimes. Across the country, protesters have grown ever more emboldened in recent weeks, and on Friday they poured into the streets by the tens of thousands to face the deadly fusillades of Assad’s security forces. More than 70 died. What did the White House have to say? From Air Force One: “We call on all sides to cease and desist from the use of violence.”

Photos: Faces of the Mideast Revolutions

Surely President Obama can do better than that. Or perhaps not. The drama—the tragedy—increasingly apparent at the White House is of a brilliant intellect who is nonetheless confounded by events, a strategist whose strategies are thwarted and who is left with almost no strategy at all, a persuasive politician and diplomat who gets others to crawl out on limbs, has them take big risks to break through to a new future, and then turns around and walks away from them when the political winds in the United States threaten to shift. It’s not enough to say the Cabinet is divided about what to do. Maybe the simplest and in many ways the most disturbing explanation for all the flailing is offered by veteran journalist and diplomat Leslie H. Gelb: “There is one man in this administration who debates himself.” President Obama.

These patterns of behavior and their consequences have been on horrifying display in the blood-drenched streets of Misrata, Libya, where the population has begged for more support from NATO and the United States. But they did not begin with Libya, or with the surprise uprising in Tunisia in January or the stunning fall of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak in February. They were evident from Year 1 of the Obama presidency in his excruciating deliberations over the Afghan surge, in the hand extended ineffectually to Iran, and the lines drawn in the sand, then rubbed out and moved back, and further back, in the dismal, failed efforts to build a Palestinian peace process. But in Libya the crisis of American tentativeness has grown worse almost by the day. Muammar Gaddafi holds on, despite Obama’s demand for him to leave, and the civilians that the Americans, their allies, and the United Nations vowed to protect are being slaughtered.

At the Pentagon, which bears the brunt of much of this hesitation and vacillation, the mood is one of not-so-quiet desperation. Said one longtime friend of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “They think it [the Libyan operation] is just nuts. We are destroying our credibility with this situation, and there is really no answer to it.”

In Libya, the crisis of American tentativeness has grown worse almost by the day.

Early in the debate over establishing a no-fly zone in Libya, Gates went on the record saying what a bad idea he thought that was. “It’s an open secret Bob Gates didn’t like it, and Mullen didn’t like it, because they know what happens when you do this no-fly zone,” says Gelb, who writes a column for The Daily Beast. “If you think your interests justify the full monty, that’s one thing, but if you don’t, what the hell are you doing there in the first place?”

The essential debate in Washington, and very likely in Obama’s head, has been framed as a matter of humanitarian interests on the one hand and security interests on the other. In Obama’s March 28 speech explaining why he had committed American air power to the Libyan operations nine days before, he played up the moral issues. “If we waited one more day,” he said, “Benghazi [a Libyan city of 700,000] could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” But in that same speech the president passed leadership of the operation on to NATO, and he himself has been backing away from the problem ever since. Americans have shown little popular support or even interest in this war; many on Capitol Hill are questioning the cost, and Obama’s priority is clearly his budget battles with the Republican-controlled Congress.

So Vice President Joe Biden has been left to handle the file, and he’s seemed none too happy about it. In an interview with the Financial Times, he argued that America’s real strategic interests were elsewhere, notably in helping to stabilize Egypt, while continuing to try to deal with Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Korea. “We can’t do it all,” said Biden. NATO and the Europeans should do more, he insisted. But NATO is run by consensus, and when its most powerful member refuses to lead, hard decisions are hard to come by. France and Britain, for their part, have taken the initiative in Libya from the beginning and crossed a new threshold last week by announcing publicly that they would send military advisers into Libya to help the rebels organize. (One firm decision by the U.S.: It will not put its troops on the ground in Libya under any circumstances.)

With Obama still missing in action on these issues, Gates decided to clarify the administration’s position on his own terms at a Pentagon press conference scheduled with short notice. The take-away headline was about the deployment of a couple of unmanned Predator drones to blast away at Gaddafi forces by remote control. But Gates clearly wanted to lay out the reasons as he saw them for the administration deciding to intervene at all, given that the intervention has been so limited and has fallen so short of its previously expressed aims.

The United States got involved “because of the worry that Gaddafi could destabilize the fledgling revolutions in both Tunisia and Egypt, with Egypt being central to the future of the region; and, second, to prevent a humanitarian disaster.” Then the clincher: “A third reason was that, while it was not a vital interest for us, our allies considered it a vital interest. And just as they have helped us in Afghanistan, we thought it was important, the president thought it was important, to help them in Libya.”

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Washington’s self-involved view is often curious, but this is curiouser still: As if in today’s world, where we’ve just seen revolutions spread across the vast Arab map faster than a viral video, you could somehow isolate the Libyan problem; as if you could trade participation for one war for participation in another.

The world doesn’t work that way anymore, if it ever did. There is no question, for instance, that what happens in Syria is of vital interest to Israel, which is America’s strategic partner; nor is there any question that Assad is watching Gaddafi’s brutal tactics for precedents that will serve the Syrian’s own savage regime. The same holds true for Ali Abdullah Saleh, holding out against his people and against the odds in Yemen, whose lawless territory harbors some of the most dangerous members of al Qaeda.

The fundamentally important American alliance with Saudi Arabia, which holds the keys to the global oil market, was shaken badly by what King Abdullah saw as Obama’s betrayal of Hosni Mubarak. Add to that the king’s bitter disappointment with American course corrections, and reversals, on the Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. A European envoy who met with Abdullah in early March described him as “incandescent” with rage at Obama. Yet the Saudis backed the intervention in Libya—only to see the Americans fumble their leadership once again.

As for Iran, ever since the regime there confronted and crushed huge pro-democracy protests in 2009, nothing threatens it more than successful revolutions in the Arab world. And nothing gratifies Iran’s leaders more than to see the United States dithering about whether Arab democracy is in American interests. The ripple effects are felt even in East Asia, where a former U.S. ambassador says he’s heard that the North Koreans are telling the Chinese “if this is the best the Americans can do in Libya, we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

On the ground in strategically vital Egypt, meanwhile, the situation in Libya, which is right next door, is vitally linked to the stability of whatever new government takes shape in Cairo. Since the fall of Mubarak in February, it’s been apparent that Egypt would face a massive crisis this summer, when the economy is likely to flatline and an extra million people may be added to the ranks of the unemployed. Now, precisely because of the civil war in Libya, hundreds of millions of dollars of desperately needed remittances from Egyptian workers there have been cut off, and the workers themselves are flooding back into their homeland by the hundreds of thousands, adding a volatile new element to an already explosive mix.

So, yes, many voices in Washington argue that Libya should be someone else’s problem, that the Europeans should shoulder more of the burden, or that they should have spent more on defense in the past so they could, hypothetically, take on more of the military operations now. But a protracted stalemate in Libya, which is where NATO’s noncommittal commitment appears to be headed, will be an unmitigated disaster, precisely, for American interests. Next time Obama debates these issues with himself, he may want to take that into account.

Christopher Dickey is the Paris bureau chief and Middle East editor for Newsweek Magazine and The Daily Beast. He is the author of six books, including Summer of Deliverance, and most recently Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD.

John Barry is the national security correspondent for Newsweek magazine and The Daily Beast. Since the 1980s he has led award-winning investigations and reported extensively on U.S. involvement with Iran, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and the Middle East peace process.