Monday, May 19, 2014

Fred Hiatt Thinks Obama Not Warwhooping Enough

In today's Washington Post, editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, has a column under his own name entitled, "A critique of Obama catches on."  The critique amounts to Obama being "too passive" in foreign policy, with this supposedly punctuated by the recent events in Ukraine, although there is not a shred of evidence that any action or lack thereof by Obama in the Middle East (Hiatt's main focus) would have deterred Putin from annexing Crimea and engaging in further games in Russia's near neighbors. Even having a couple of more ships in the Black Sea, which I would not have minded seeing and which Hiatt never mentioned, would not have made any difference on that, frankly.

So, anyway, Hiatt gets to join a general bashing of Obama and completely botches it, making a total fool of himself.  What is his case?  He argues that Obama missed his chance to play like George H.W. Bush at the fall of the Berlin Wall, with "the most heartbreaking being the missed opportunity of the Arab Spring," even as Hiatt notes that he still has troops in Afghanistan and has droned after al Qaeda and the Taliban in Yemen and Pakistan and elsewhere, with many thinking there has been way too much of the latter.

Hiatt pinpoints as where Obama should have done something two places: Iraq and Syria.  For the former, he makes the absurd argument that the US should have kept troops in Iraq.  This fails to notice that al-Maliki wanted us out totally and had been making this demand of Bush, Jr. prior to Obama becoming president.  Was Obama supposed to insist on keeping our troops there over the virulent objection of the leader we supported to put in place there?  In any case, while it is true that things have deteriorated in Iraq recently, the situation there has nothing to do with the Arab Spring.  That did not remotely happen there, and the problems there reflect political mismanagement by al-Maliki, particularly his removal of any influence by Sunnis and outright repression of them.  That this has now resulted in Sunnis in the western provinces becoming militarily active and supporting their fellow Sunnis in Syria is not at all surprising.  But this has very little to do with either Obama or the Arab Spring.

Of course, Hiatt can argue that this does relate to Syria and he has long argued that Obama bungled by not supporting the moderate opposition more strongly when he was asked earlier.  Of course, he is supporting that opposition, but those who are unhappy claim he should have done more, provided lots of military equipment.  Well, maybe, but there were mighty good reasons not to. The main problem was that even back then it was clear that the radical Sunni opposition was strong, quite likely stronger in the long run than the rather wimpy moderates who wanted help, and the memory of Islamist radicals in Afghanistan using US weapons against us was very vivid and real.  It was reasonably felt that the Islamist radicals would get their hands on these weapons as well.  That danger only seems greater as time goes on, and although I dislike the Assad regime and he has clearly been bloodthirsty and thuggish, he looks better than the Sunni opposition.  And, while there may have been some violations, it looks like the process of getting Assad's chemical weapons destroyed is on track, although Hiatt does not mention this.

So, arguably the uprising in Syria began as part of the Arab Spring and is now stalled out, but the events in Iraq have nothing to do with it.  What about the rest of the Arab world and nearby countries?

Well, the Arab Spring began in Tunisia.  After some hiccups, that is one nation where the hopes initiated with it look to maybe actually coming to pass.  A more democratic and open regime is now in place.  The US role there has been to stay on the sidelines and provide quiet support.  Looks like a success, pretty much, although Hiatt has nothing to say about that.

There are only a few other nations where the Arab Spring took off, unless you want to count non-Arab Turkey, a US ally, where the uprisings have been crushed.  There were several places where uprisings were either crushed quickly or bought off, notably in some of the wealthy Gulf oil states such as Bahrain.  There are really only three other places where it seriously took off

One of those is Yemen.  The former regime was in fact replaced by a new one, although apparently not much different from the old one.  As Hiatt notes, there is an ongoing drone war there with al-Qaeda.  What exactly was Obama supposed to do there that he did not?  Hiatt does not say, and, again, many think he is doing too much right now with the drones.

The other biggies are Egypt and Libya.  Egypt has certainly turned out to be a central disappointment, but it is not at all clear what the US could have done to improve things there, particularly given the deep alliance the US has with Israel, who did not want too much upsetting of the established order there.  Mubarak was overthrown and the US supported democratic elections, which, as forecast by many for years, led to a victory by the Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood.  Now, they had a chance to play fair and make things go right, and the US was providing support for them, despite unease on the part of many.  But they stepped too far and repressed too many, which led to a military coup supported by many who had supported overthrowing Mubarak.  So, we are back to Square One there, although now with a younger military dictator than previously.  Yes, very disappointing, but I have to say I do not see Hiatt mentioning anything that Obama could have done to bring about a better outcome, and I can think of nothing.

There is also Libya, which I discussed in a post yesterday.  I shall go further than I did then and say that I think Obama handled that very well with his middle of the road "lead from behind" strategy.  Unfortunately, although those officially in charge there are very pro-US, the situation is completely disorganized and chaotic, with the Benghazi! situation completely dominating all discussions in the US to the point of absurdity.  But, looking past that and recognizing that the place is very much a mess, in some ways it is a success of the Arab Spring, with a dictatorship overthrown, even if the government that has followed has not been able to establish its authority.  What is there is in fact fairly democratic.  Not as bad as most think, really.

Finally, there is the matter of Israel-Palestine.  I do not want to get into a broader discussion of this, and Hiatt does not mention it all.  Indeed, the current view is that this is a big failure of Obama's and Kerry's.  There they went, trying to bring about a peace accord against the advice of all the hawks and many others., shame on them.  And they failed, just as all these wise pundits predicted.  Hot stuff.  But Hiatt's complaint is that Obama was not doing anything and only making minimal "hitting singles" moves.  Offhand, I would say that this failed effort was exactly not that, if not related directly related to the Arab Spring.  They went for a final settlement, a very ambitious goal, in the face of long odds.  Their effort failed, but it was not for want of trying.  Sneering at this effort while whining that Obama has not been trying anything daring strikes me as the height of hypocrisy.  But then, Fred Hiatt has never been exactly fully consistent in his arguments.

Barkley Rosser

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