Way back when before the 2008 presidential elections, some Democratic Party foreign policy operatives put together a series of seminars near Jacksonville, Florida at a place called White Oak Plantation. From what I understand, the idea was to bring some folks together to work through the difficult and complex issues facing the United States in the post–George W. Bush world. A few friends who work on Asia, Europe, and international economic issues took part in what sounded like a series of interesting weekends. To my knowledge, the people behind the White Oak meetings never organized a discussion on the Middle East because—according to a buddy of mine who attended one of the sessions—they did not feel the need to; they said they could just read about the region in the papers. I remember feeling the professional slight on behalf of all my Middle East expert colleagues everywhere and a little surprised. Although there were exceptions, the Bush team as a group did not distinguish themselves with a firm grasp of the history, politics, and culture of the region. Surely, I thought, the people preparing and hoping to lead the country for the next eight years—at least—would want to avoid making similar mistakes. Then again, there is the widely held perception that for all that Middle East analysts know about the region, policy recommendations are not their strong suit. So why not rely on what foreign correspondents and columnists have to say? Their record cannot be any worse, right? All of this came to mind on Sunday morning when I cast my gaze upon Ross Douthat’s Sunday column in the New York Times, “The Method to Obama’s Middle East Mess.”
It is worse. A lot worse.
Let me start by stipulating that the Middle East is, indeed, a mess. Actually, I am not sure “mess” quite captures the maelstrom of violence, hate, cynicism, and hypocrisy that prevails in the region, but it is serviceable enough for the title of a column. Let’s also acknowledge that the ad hoc quality of the Obama administration’s approach to the interrelated problems of the region has hardly helped. I could go on, but there is enough criticism of the White House on the Middle East from virtually every quarter that there is no reason to pile on. Some of these critiques are smart, others less so. Unfortunately for Douthat, his commentary falls into the latter category. It is, as I tweeted after reading it twice, full of “weirdness.”
Douthat builds his argument on a distinction between a “Pax Americana system” that he clearly favors, which implies a robust American presence in the region and the use or threat of military force to influence events, versus the “offshore balancing system” that the Obama administration allegedly prefers. This would entail a significantly lighter American footprint in which Washington would influence the region and ensure a favorable political order from the outside, only intervening against terrorists and nuclear proliferators. Let me reiterate that I do not believe the White House wants the United States to be an offshore balancer; it is more likely they do not know what they want. They seem to be merely trying to keep up with events. That said, given Washington’s tragic encounter with the Middle East over the last decade and a bit, Douthat’s idea of a Pax Americana is, well, odd.
I don’t know Douthat and I don’t know where he has been, but he seems to forget that even during the era of undisputed American dominance of the Middle East—from March 1991 until March 2003—it was often difficult for Washington to drive events in the region. The United States failed to make peace between Palestinians and Israelis, failed to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear technology or Syria from supporting terrorist organizations, and failed to transform Hosni Mubarak into a democrat. The fantasy of Douthat’s Pax Americana is the idea that people in the Middle East do not have the ability to calculate their own interests and pursue their own politics even in the face of Washington’s “overwhelming military might.” His imaginary Middle East is even stranger given the invasion of Iraq, which sapped American power, destroyed a major Middle Eastern state, and handed the country over to Washington’s archenemy in the region, Tehran. Debates about whether he could have gotten a Status of Forces Agreement aside, Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq was likely too hasty, but the truth of the matter is Iraq was broken (irreparably) and American influence in the region was on the wane when President Obama was still State Senator Obama.
It gets even stranger when Douthat places Iraq in his discussion of Pax Americana. Here are the passages that really shook the crud out of my eyes:
Since the Cold War, and especially since 1991, the Pax Americana idea has predominated in our foreign policy thinking. But in the Middle East, there has been no real evolution toward democracy among our network of allies; instead, their persistent corruption has fed terrorism and contributed to Al Qaeda’s rise.
Hence the Bush administration’s post-9/11 decision to try to start afresh, by transforming a rogue state into a regional model, a foundation for a new American-led order that would be less morally compromised than the old.
Hmmm. Well. Ummm. Where to start with these paragraphs? I was not aware that Pax Americana hinged on the “evolution of democracy” in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and elsewhere in the Arab world. One could make an argument that American influence with the leaders of these countries was more consequential before the Bush administration launched its “forward strategy of freedom” in the Middle East. Also, I was not aware that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were good governance types who sent terrorists to attack the United States on September 11, 2001, because Hosni Mubarak and the House of Saud were/are corrupt. Then there is the way that Douthat characterizes the invasion of Iraq as a way of “start[ing] fresh” to align American foreign policy with American morals. That’s why the United States went to war in 2003? To start fresh? Because corruption causes terrorism? To get right with our morals? In all of the twisted logic I have heard about Operation Iraqi Freedom, this the most convoluted. I hope Douthat wasn’t invited to the meetings at White Oak Plantation. Let’s be clear: The way in which the invasion was ginned up, executed, and botched, along with the 4,425 dead Americans, the 31,949 injured Americans, and an untold number of Iraqi casualties, did more to compromise Washington’s claims to the moral high ground than throwing America’s chips in with Hosni Mubarak and other regional strongmen no matter how distasteful.
Maybe I am being too harsh. Douthat acknowledges the problems with Operation Iraqi Freedom, though he uses them to tag the Obama administration (again) for its alleged desire to be an offshore balancer, which he says will not work because Washington is too entangled in the region. His answer then is what else? Leadership. The United States cannot leave its “allies in the lurch.” Douthat does not say it, but he infers his preferred course of action: In order to preserve Pax Americana, the United States should bomb Iran, bring down the Assad regime in Syria, and, I guess, fight the Houthis in Yemen as well.
I’ll admit that Douthat’s implied prescription does have the benefit of clarity. At least we would know exactly how the United States got further entangled in the Middle East, resulting in yet more military commitments in the region, further undermining American strength and influence, and in the process putting America’s global interests at stake. That’s some Pax Americana. So much for getting our Middle East wisdom from the papers.