No President Is Omnipotent

During Barack Obama’s time in the White House, the mastermind of 9/11 was shot to death, three Middle Eastern dictators were overthrown, and a fourth was pushed to the edge of a cliff. And yet the dominant perception of Obama’s Middle Eastern policy, and not only among conservatives, is that the president has been weak, his policies have failed and the region is in an even worse state than before.

“The Arab Spring presented an opportunity to help millions of people from oppression to freedom,” Republican candidate Mitt Romney said in a recent op-ed. “But it also presented grave risks. We needed a strategy for success, but the president offered none.”

To put that critique in perspec-ive, think back to 2005.

The Bush administration had invaded Iraq two years earlier, promising a political earthquake would shake the whole region: as the people of the Middle East saw Iraqis take control of their country, they would demand the same at home. No longer would the United States prop up dictators. No longer would it trade liberty for stability. Democracy would flourish.

When Iraq descended into chaos, Bush was mocked. But in 2005, mass demonstrations in Lebanon forced Syria to withdraw its military forces, ending a decades-long occupation. This Cedar Revolution, along with unrest in Egypt and some Gulf states, suggested the earthquake had begun.

There was worldwide astonishment. “Could George W. Bush be right?” asked the German magazine Der Spiegel. In Le Monde, an editorial discussed “the merit of George W. Bush.”

After the debacle in Iraq. Bush’s supporters were suddenly giddy. Even triumphalist. It is an “Arab Spring,” wrote Charles Krauthammer, the dean of conservative hawks. “We do not yet know, however, whether this initial flourishing of democracy will succeed. The Syrian and Iraqi Baathists, their jihadist allies and the various regional autocrats are quite determined to suppress it.” But setbacks would only be temporary, Krauthammer insisted. At best, this would be like Europe 1989, at worst, 1848 – when liberal revolutions were defeated but marked “the coming of the liberal idea throughout Europe.”

The one certainty was that leftists and Europeans, and European leftists most of all, looked foolish. “Now that the real Arab street has risen to claim rights that the West takes for granted,” Krauthammer wrote, the left “is forced to acknowledge that those brutish Americans led by their simpleton cowboy might have been right. It has no choice. It is shamed.”

And all that was in response to the modest events of 2005.

But here is Charles Krauthammer summing up the current state of affairs in Middle Eastern countries: “Egypt, the largest and most influential, has experienced an Islamist sweep. The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t just win the presidency. It won nearly half the seats in Parliament, while more open radical Islamists won 25 per cent. … As for Syria, if and when Bashar Assad falls, the Brotherhood will almost certainly inherit power. Jordan could be next. … What does this mean? That the Arab Spring is a misnomer. This is an Islamist ascendancy, likely to dominate Arab politics for a generation.”

So the modest popular uprisings of 2005 that failed to threaten even one dictator were a triumph for democracy. Setbacks may come, but they would only be temporary. The human yearning for freedom cannot be denied. Let us therefore rejoice.

But the much bigger popular uprisings of 2011, that swept dictators aside, produced elections won by Islamists who are “likely to dominate Arab politics for a generation.” Let us despair.

It’s hard to see how these claims square with each other. But never mind. Mitt Romney did at least present an internally coherent argument when he said the Arab Spring was an opportunity, but Obama blew it because he didn’t offer “a strategy for success.”

But what is this “strategy for success”? Romney makes it sound like something consultants from McKinsey could have put together over a long weekend.

But he has never really explained what he would have done, or would do now, that Obama did not do and is not doing. Granted, he has said he would use tougher language, but if we generously assume that “use more tough language” is not Romney’s “strategy for success,” there is still a very large hole at the centre of his claim.

To be clear, I am not saying Bar-ack Obama should be given credit for the toppling of Middle Eastern tyrants (with the partial exception of the ouster of Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi). Nor is the contrast here simply about partisan politics and ideological blind spots.

Rather, I want to suggest that all of this – from the praise for Bush in 2005 to the criticism of Obama now – is based on the faulty premise that the president of the United States can and should control events in the Middle East.

Remember, in 2005, it wasn’t only conservatives throwing rose petals at George W. Bush. It was everyone who fell for the lazy logic of post hoc ergo propter hoc and the largely unspoken assumption that big change in the Middle East must come from the White House. Similarly, criticism of Obama isn’t only from conservatives. It’s from everyone who assumes Obama could have done something to guide the Arab Spring to a happier conclusion, without ever specifying what exactly that “something” is.

Romney is explicit about this. The United States has been left at “the mercy of events” thanks to Barack Obama, he said in a speech Sunday. The president must “shape events.”

One would think the last decade of American experience in the Middle East would have tempered that hubris, but it seems some people still think the world is a Risk board on a coffee table in the Oval Office.