Obama plays the fox in the Middle East

Business Times - 24 May 2011

Obama plays the fox in Middle-East

He recognises that what is happening in the region is complex and requires an accommodating response from Washington


DELIVERING his much anticipated address on the Middle East in Washington, US President Barack Obama proved once again that he wasn't an ideologue but a thinker inspired by the very American philosophical tradition of pragmatism with its emphasis on empiricism, incrementalism, and scepticism towards grand theories.

Indeed, friends and adversaries were confused by what they saw was his disjointed response to the recent upheaval in the Arab World - grudgingly supporting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt; unenthusiastically backing limited military action in Libya; projecting a nuanced attitude to the unrest in Bahrain.

His supporters had hoped that Mr Obama would lay out a new US grand strategy for the Middle East - the so-called Obama Doctrine - during his speech. These wishful thinkers were bound to be disappointed.

If one applies the late British philosopher Isaiah Berlin's prototypes of styles of thinking - the 'fox' vs the 'hedgehog' - there is very little doubt that Mr Obama would be classified as a fox. He is the thinker who knows many little things, draws from an eclectic array of traditions, and is better able to improvise in response to changing events by making effective political judgment. For the pragmatic fox, a theory or a doctrine is an abstraction from direct experience and must inform experience. It should be grounded in reality.

But sometimes the reality is too complex and unsettling that it resists any coherent theoretical explanation and cannot be dealt with through any grand strategy. Hence, there was Obama the fox who recognised that what is happening in the Middle East may follow neither the model of Iran in 1979 (radical Islam) nor the outline of Eastern Europe in 1989 (liberal democracy) - but could instead generate a mishmash of changes that don't fit into a linear and coherent pattern and will therefore require an ad-hocish and accommodating response from Washington.

That approach was very different from the one embraced by his predecessor, President George W Bush, the ultimate hedgehog, who according to Berlin, knows one big thing, toils devotedly within one tradition, and imposes formulaic solutions on ill-defined problems. Hence, the single-minded determination required to prevail in ideological combat that characterised this thinking process. President Bush saw the world through the prism of a Great Idea - the struggle between Good and Evil - and tried to impose it on the complex reality of Iraq where the ethnic and religious identities took precedence over notions of democracy and liberalism. Mr Bush did have a doctrine. But look where that got him, and by extension, the rest of us.

In a way, the current political upheaval in the Middle East is just the latest and most dramatic in a series of changes that have been transforming the region since the end of the Cold War and that are making it more difficult for any US President to articulate a set principles that could guide policy in an area of the world which has been drawing in more US military and economic resources.

During the Cold War, US presidents were able to enunciate a series of US 'doctrines' to help mobilise support at home and abroad for American policy in the Middle East. It reflected a reality in which Washington - driven the pressure of the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict - was advancing a set of core strategic goals that seemed to be aligned with US interests and values.

The 'good guys' deserving US protection and support were the 'moderate' Arab regimes that were supporting American (and Western) interests, providing access to the region's oil resources, and seeking some form of co-existence with Israel.

But what is currently driving US policy in the Middle East has less to do with clear strategic vision and more with policy and institutional inertia. Mr Obama has concluded that he does not have any other choice but to continue muddling through in the Middle East from which the US will not be able to extricate itself anytime soon.

So, Mr Obama's speech only helped to demonstrate the failure on the part of the President and other officials and lawmakers to provide a clear rationale for US intervention in the Middle East. Hence, Mr Obama was trying to draw the outline of a revisionist narrative in which the goals of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia were aligned with US interests and values - despite the fact that the demonstrators there ended up ousting from power staunch pro-American allies.

And while most Americans would probably applaud Mr Obama's call for protecting individual rights, freedom of religion, the emancipation of women, and promotion of free markets in Egypt and other Arab countries, there are no indications that the majority of the people who are driving the change support these principles.

If anything, considering the findings of several opinion polls conducted in the Middle East, Arab governments which will be more responsive to their people's aspirations are probably going to be less inclined to move in the direction set by Mr Obama and to embrace policies that will be less favourable to the interests of the US and Israel.

Reiterating - as Mr Obama did in his speech - that the collapse of the authoritarian regimes in the region doesn't have to lead to civil wars between religious and ethnic groups sounds nice. But the experience of Iraq - not to mention Lebanon - suggests otherwise, especially as the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites seems to be spilling over into Bahrain and the rest of the Persian Gulf.

And while in Iraq, US policies are helping to put in place a Shiite-led government with ties to Iran, in Bahrain Washington is backing the Saudis in their effort to suppress a Shiite revolt backed by Iran.

In fact, the alliance between the US and the Saudi Arabian theocracy - less democratic than Syria, more corrupt than Libya, the purveyor of radical Islamic values, where women and non-Muslims have no political or other rights - makes a mockery of much of what Mr Obama was saying.

Moreover, Mr Obama's address also highlighted what could be construed as a paradox. The more American military and financial commitments in the Middle East keep rising, the more is the US becoming marginalised in the process.

Indeed, contrary to the hopes articulated by some Arabs and Israelis, Mr Obama's speech did not amount to the kind of 'game changer' that could bring back to life the dormant Palestinian-Israeli peace process. There is very little that the Obama Administration could do to change the status-quo in Israel/Palestine.

So Mr Obama doesn't have a doctrine. And at some point, the costs of his ad-hocish and accommodating responses to the developments in the region could prove too high to sustain, But then that is not too bad if you consider that his predecessor in office had a doctrine.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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