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Have President Obama's Policies in the Muslim World Failed?

Updated on September 25, 2012

It's Easy to be a Critic

The widespread protest triggered by an anti-Muslim video, along with the death of the American ambassador to Libya, are strong evidence, according to some, that President Obama’s policies in the Muslim world have failed. They may be right. But if anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world is the direct result of American policies, then we need to look far beyond the Obama administration. The United States, after all, has been heavily involved in this region for decades, and violent expressions of anger against our country have been common for almost as long. The presidential election, however, is right around the corner, so it should not be surprising that the latest chaotic incidents in the Muslim world have been politicized by opponents of President Obama. And given most Americans’ utter lack of historical perspective, many will buy into the idea that these events are unprecedented examples of presidential weakness, political chaos, and rampant anti-Americanism.

But to be fair to Obama’s critics, the last couple of years have been a bit crazier than normal. Longstanding governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have fallen, and a nasty civil war still rages in Syria. In Egypt and Libya, as recent events have demonstrated, a bit of a power vacuum has been created, giving extremist groups the opportunity to gain political power or just to create chaos. And President Obama, who as a candidate continually attacked President Bush for his policies in the Muslim world, promised that he would be different. Recent polls, however, indicate that the United States is even less popular in the Muslim world today than under Bush. That obnoxious video, therefore, may have just been the spark to ignite a long simmering fuse made even worse by President Obama’s empty promises. By claiming that he would usher in a new era of relations between the United States and the Muslim world, he helped make the region even more disillusioned than before, with each American drone strike causing his promises to seem less sincere. In an attempt to be conciliatory in some cases and aggressive in others, he has both failed to deter our enemies and to improve our standing in the Muslim world.

So outside of pointing out that our problems in the Muslim world developed from policies and circumstances that can be traced back for decades, how might the Obama people defend themselves? In my view, it comes down to a simple question: what specifically should he have done differently? It is easy to criticize, particularly when discussing a part of the world that is such a mess. It is much more difficult, however, to propose concrete, alternative policies.

For instance, many people are particularly horrified by what has happened in Egypt. For thirty years, Mubarak was a loyal ally, and he honored the terms of the historic peace agreement made with Israel by his predecessor. Now, Egyptian elections have brought a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency, and Israel, understandably, is feeling a bit nervous (putting further strain on American / Israeli relations). The situation, clearly, is less than ideal, but what other options did President Obama have? He could have thrown his support behind Mubarak, freeing the dictator up to crack down on the protestors. This would have had three possible results. Mubarak and his security forces could have successfully put down the protests by arresting, torturing, and shooting people. Then, when the crackdown was complete, he would agree to some token, meaningless reforms in an attempt to stop future unrest. Second, you might end up with a situation similar to Syria, with the United States in the unenviable position of supporting a dictator in a civil war. Or third, the Egyptian military may have decided, in spite of the American position, that Mubarak was too much of a liability, and they would then kick him out of power in order to appease the masses. They would then tolerate democratic elections while retaining most of the political power behind the scenes. In other words, you could end up with a situation similar to now, only with the United States publicly on record as a nation opposed to a democratic revolution. Needless to say, all three of these possibilities would be bad, and the United States would have reinforced its position as a nation that talks about promoting democracy but consistently supports America-friendly dictators. President Obama, like his predecessors, would be just one more hypocrite.

Obama critics, however, could still propose one other course of action. The President could have called for Mubarak to step aside and then taken a more active role in shaping the makeup of the new government. The threat of an Islamist government taking over could have been reduced, order could be restored, and Egypt would remain an American ally committed to retaining peaceful relations with Israel. This sounds nice, but I am not sure how the President could pull this off. Democratic elections, if they are legitimate, are inherently unpredictable. And given the fact that the United States supported the previous dictatorship for decades, it is not surprising that many Egyptians have anti-American feelings. So do we find another dictator to support? Do we send American troops or CIA agents to protect our interests in the country? Or do we allow elections to proceed and help the Egyptian military – as quietly as possible – to maintain control over foreign policy and national security? I suspect that the last of these three options is what is happening, although the President would be a fool to advertise this too much. And tolerating a certain amount of anti-American protests can be a good way for the new Egyptian government to create the impression that it is not merely doing the bidding of the United States.

In Libya, however, you had a different situation. In this uprising, the dictator was not an American ally. Sure, some steps were taken in recent years to normalize relations with Libya, but Gadaffi was still a tyrant with a past history of openly promoting terrorist attacks. So when he announced that his troops were going to march into Benghazi and slaughter every rebel in sight, the President could either step back and watch the slaughter, send in American troops and air power to topple Gadaffi, or select a middle ground of providing the air power for a NATO-run “no fly zone.” Obama, of course, chose the last option, and this played a significant role in the ultimate collapse of the Gadaffi regime. Many have argued that this is a good thing, but critics have pointed out that Libya, a country that essentially has no functioning political institutions, has an enormous power vacuum that might be filled by religious radicals and anti-American extremists, with the recent attack on the American embassy reinforcing this criticism. So like in Egypt, they argue that Obama should have played a more active role in both the military operations and in the shaping of a post-war government. But once again, I would respond with the questions that I rose regarding the post-war situation in Egypt. And given the fact that nation-building has not gone as well as we hoped in Iraq and Afghanistan, do Obama critics really believe that the American people have any desire to give it another try?

But if Obama intervened in Libya, then why has he kept our nation on the sidelines in Syria? This is a fair question. But it is also fair to point out the inconsistency of some of Obama’s critics. If Obama’s efforts, according to critics, to topple Gadaffi contributed to potential instability in Libya, then why would he want to make the same mistake in Syria? No one knows, after all, what a post-war situation in Syria would look like. It might even resemble the post-war situation of its neighbor Iraq. There were also some basic, practical problems at the beginning of the uprising. There was no single group of rebels to support. Unlike Libya, there was no equivalent of Benghazi where the rebellion was centered. Also, Syria has retained strong support from Russia and China, and the United States is not thrilled with the prospects of a major conflict with them. Still, as this conflict has transitioned from street protests to outright civil war, it is hard to imagine the United States sticking merely to economic sanctions forever. The upcoming election, in fact, may play a significant role in our future policy. But at the moment, the President has apparently concluded that the costs of American intervention currently outweigh the benefits. And based on past experience, he may be right. Apparently, Assad has a stronger hold on power than Gadaffi, and most Americans are unwilling to pay the costs necessary to finish him off. As with Libya and Egypt, years of wars, military occupations, and not so successful attempts at nation building have left Americans with little appetite for investing heavily into the Middle East.

This brings me to Iraq and Afghanistan, the places where I find the criticism of Obama to be particularly annoying. In Iraq, President Obama inherited both the post-war mess and the plan for withdrawal from President Bush, and short of a military occupation with no end in sight, I’m not sure what else could be done. Most Americans want out, and the President ran on the promise that he would fulfill their wishes. The best that we can hope for, in my view, is that Iraq does not degenerate into complete chaos.

In Afghanistan, however, President Obama has actually been more aggressive than Bush. He not only increased the troop presence with an Iraq-style surge. He also stepped up the program which employed drone aircraft to conduct targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists, greatly expanding the number of attacks in Pakistan and extending these operations into Yemen. But in spite of these efforts, some conservative critics have described him as soft on terrorism. If these actions are soft, then I would hate to see what they define as “tough.” If anything, Obama’s policies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen should be criticized by those on the left, not his typical critics on the right. You could make a good case, after all, that the anger resulting from “collateral damage” has created more potential terrorists than the drones have destroyed. But many people accept without question the notion that all “liberal” Democrats are soft, and when it comes to politics, people rarely allow facts to interfere with ideology.

Hopefully, there are enough rational people out there who realize that the President of the United States is not an omnipotent being. On some level, people must know that neither he nor any other political figure on earth can be held responsible for all that is going wrong in the world. Sometimes, outbursts of anger and violence are random and completely senseless, particularly in the Muslim world. But even those who recognize a President’s limitations are often guilty of a more serious fallacy: they expect him to fulfill contradictory goals. He must promote real human rights and democracy while ensuring that America-friendly politicians come to power. He must capture or kill terrorists while improving our standing in the places where these anti-terrorist operations occur. He must shape the events in foreign countries while not paying too high of a cost in terms of American money or human lives. And he must be able predict with perfect accuracy the consequences of his actions in a world where no one knows the future. It is no wonder that Obama, like his Presidential predecessors over the past several decades, seems to have no coherent strategy in the Muslim world. When trying to fulfill goals on opposite ends of a spectrum, you tend to float around somewhere in the middle.

Of course, if Romney wins in November, the Democrats and Republicans will reverse roles, with Democrats becoming the critics and Republicans the people defending decisions (and making excuses). And Romney will quickly find that it was easier to be a critic than a formulator of policy. Talking tough and describing ideal outcomes does not cut it in the real world, and since I believe that Romney still has a decent chance of winning, the sooner he realizes this, the better.

As I said at the beginning of this little essay, the Muslim world has been a mess for some time. And if real reform is to come out of the Arab Spring, it is going to be a painful process. The region is torn by ethnic, tribal, economic, sectarian, and ideological conflicts, with many traumatized by years of dictatorship, economic hardship, and war. So when in doubt, the United States should play as little a role as possible. If the goal is to defend the American people from threats, then it is in our interest to let people in the Muslim world unleash their frustrations on one another. In the end, the people of these nations need to fight their own battles and hopefully make their own compromises. Most of the groups that we label as “terrorists,” after all, care far more about the circumstances in the Muslim world than about the United States. And the real terrorists are doomed to failure because their repeated attacks on their fellow Muslims will alienate everyone who does not share their crazed ideology.


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