On the Obama Doctrine.

The New York Times recently summarized some of President Obama’s thought as revealed in an important article in the Atlantic.[1]

President Obama believes that Asia and Latin America are far more important for America’s future than is the Middle East.  He believes that some of America’s allies try to draw the United States into Middle Eastern conflicts that have little relation to American national interests.  Then they don’t do anything to pull their share of the weight.  He believes that Saudi Arabia “need[s] to find an effective way share the neighborhood [its arch-enemy Iran] and institute some sort of cold peace.”  He sees parts of the Middle East as plagued by “the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity.”  He recognizes that Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the West, especially the United States.  The same will be true if it comes to a military confrontation.

It’s hard to quarrel with any of that as general principles.  The interest of the United States in the Middle East stems from Cold War efforts to keep the Soviet Union from expanding into a key area from which Europe drew its oil and which provided an important link in world communications and transportation.  An ill-considered, but still understandable American commitment to Israel got layered-on after the Six Days War of 1967.  Today, Middle Eastern oil is far less important; the Soviet Union is dead; and Israel does not face any formidable coalition of enemies.  ISIS poses no existential threat to the United States as did Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.  However, decades of engagement created of powerful traditions and institutions dedicated to dealing with the Middle East.  Inertia, rather than thought, carries on.

More troubling are some of the president’s specific reflections.

In the wake of the recent pair of articles in the New York Times on the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011, President Obama acknowledged that the intervention had been a “mistake.”  However, that mistake had been motivated in part by his belief that Britain and France would shoulder much of the burden.  “Free riders aggravate me.”  Well, they should.  However, it is up to the President and his senior officials to define what each country will do beforehand.  The president is a lawyer.  This should be second-nature to him.

British Prime Minister David Cameron became “distracted by other issues,” in the words of the New York Times, during the Libyan operation.  What were those other issues?  In August 2011, race relations boiled over as massive rioting swept across several major British cities, including London.  In early 2012 the Scottish nationalists won approval for a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.  These may have been distractions, but neither was a petty matter.

President Obama is “openly contemptuous of Washington’s foreign policy establishment,” which always ends up favoring “militarized responses.”  That may be true in some cases, but in the case of Libya, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, and the leaders of the intelligence agencies all were—apparently—opposed to intervention.  In the case of Egypt, all these and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were cautious about tossing overboard the dictator Hosni Mubarak.  Those initiatives were on the president.  What of Syria?  Was it the “foreign policy establishment” that persuaded the president to insist that Bashar al-Assad had to go as the part of any solution?  Then, the Russian intervention has shown that there is a “military solution” to the civil war.  It just isn’t the one that President Obama wanted.  As has been so often the case for the president.

[1] Mark Landler, “Obama Criticizes the ‘Free Riders’ Among America’s Allies, NYT, 10 March 2016.

Your mind is in the Qatar.

Qatar is about the size of Connecticut, but has a lot more going for it than insurance companies and casinos on Indian Reservations. Once an impoverished sandlot that lived from the pearl fisheries, Qatar now earns an immense amount of money from the sale of natural gas.

The ruling sheikh, Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani (1952- ,r. 1995-2013) set out to make Qatar “important” to other people. On the one hand, he wants Qatar to be important to Americans in case the neighbors–either Saudi Arabia or Iran—took it into their minds to do his country some nastiness. What Iraq had tried to do to Kuwait in 1990, some other power might do to Qatar. He got the Americans to build a local command center for Central Command (which runs American military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia) at Doha. He enhanced the importance of Qatar for the world energy market by building a huge natural gas condensing plant to facilitate exports and earnings.

On the other hand, the sheikh wanted to be a player in the Middle East. In 1996 he created the “Al Jazeera” news network to promote an Islamist message. Beginning in 2011, Qatar has been financing upheaval in the Middle East. It has funded both the “Arab Spring” uprisings (which Westerners like to think of as “liberal” and “modernizing”) and Islamist groups (which Westerners think of as “illiberal” and “anti-modern”). Money flowed to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, to Hamas, and to the Al Nusra Front fighting the Assad government in Syria.

Blaming Qatar for pursuing a two-faced policy by seeking close ties to America while funding Islamists groups misses the point. The Middle East is torn in its attitudes toward “modernization” and “Westernization.” Islamism is one face of that controversy. The rise of Islamism threatens the established order in the Middle East. People with an interest in history will note the radical difference between American policy in Europe after the Second World War and contemporary American policy. Then, the Americans had a better solution than its opponents and they were in favor of dramatic change to solve problems. Now, the United States doesn’t appear to have any positive alternative to offer and isn’t comfortable with change.

Qatar falls into a larger pattern. Qatar’s ruler may believe that you can’t get anywhere by pandering to the Americans. You’ll just end up living in Los Angeles and selling rugs at craft fairs. The military government in Egypt and the moderate Islamist government in Turkey also have both bridled at American policy of late. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates combined to bomb rebels in Libya without bothering to inform the United States first. Turkey refuses to have its army fight ISIS until the Americans agree to overthrow the Assad government in Syria.

Qatar also seeks to influence American opinion through “Al Jazeera America” and donations to the Brookings Institution. For American conservatives, this is an illegitimate international influence on American policy. For them, it falls into the same category as Islamist illegals entering the US through our porous border with Mexico. There is another way of looking at it, however. American journalism no longer invests many resources in foreign reporting. American journalists rarely have the language skills or the cultural competence to get outside of a restricted safe zone, either physically or intellectually. (It’s hard to understand the exaggerated importance assigned to the demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square otherwise.) Qatar seeks to enrich the information and perspectives offered to American to help them better understand events in the Middle East. Maybe people should spend more time watching an alternative news source? You don’t have to believe what you see and hear. It’s a free country.

“The tiny nation that roared,” The Week, 27 September 2013, p. 9.