Obama in the Middle East.

Was President Obama wrong to avoid intervention in the Syrian Civil War?  Was he wrong to seek escape from Iraq and to hesitate to commit American forces to the war against ISIS?  These questions matter on several levels.  For one thing, there are an awful lot of dead people, no?  Could the huge death toll of the Syrian Civil War been avoided, to say nothing of the Western hostages butchered, and the Jordanian pilot burned to death, and the Yazidis murdered, and the Iraqi soldiers massacred after surrender?

For another thing, we’re in the death throes of an American presidential election.  The aspiring successors to President Obama both criticize his eight years of restraint.  Recently, a gaggle of American diplomats used the free-speech channel at the State Department to dissent from administration policies, and current-Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged their viewpoints.  Whoever wins the election in November 2016, the United States is likely to be blowing up things on a grand scale soon afterward.

Lonely voices defend the president.[1]  To the surprise of no one who has spent time studying the history of international relations, countries define for themselves and then pursue their individual interests.[2]  Sunni and Shi’a Islam are now engaged in a great civil war in the Middle East and elsewhere.  As a result, Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn.  Or perhaps it is the other way around.  Saudi Arabia and Iran are at daggers drawn, so there is a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.  It’s a tricky business.  In any event, Iran backs the Shi’ite majority in Iraq and the Alawite minority in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the Houthis in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia backs the Sunni rebels in Syria, and the government in Yemen, and does nothing very evident to oppose ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Neither country will bend before American will.

Then, Americans often believe that the course of events is determined by Americans.  For the Right this often means that the United States must just “stand firm” in a Viagraesque way.  For the Left, this means that the United States, usually at the behest of big business, picks the winners in foreign social conflicts.  Neither interpretation could be further from the truth.[3]  The domestic balance of forces determines the outcomes of conflicts.  The United States merely accommodates itself to the de facto government.  In the case of the “Arab Spring,” President Obama’s initial idealism soon got short-circuited by reality.  In similar fashion, his idealism, and the foolishness of Hillary Clinton, led to a disastrous intervention in Libya.  On the core issues, however—Syria, Iraq, Iran—President Obama has been reluctant to intervene in foreign civil wars.  Just as Britain and France hesitated to intervene in the American Civil War.

Most of all, the Middle East just isn’t that important to America at the dawn of a new century.  Fracking has reduced world dependence on Middle Eastern oil.  The Middle East has oil but no industry.  The Russo-American conflict is no longer about existential issues.  Even terrorism can’t destroy America or Western Europe.

Political scientist (and former Obama Administration advisor on the Middle East) Marc Lynch concludes that “America can be more or less directly involved, but it will ultimately prove unable to decide the outcome of the fundamental struggles by Arabs over their future.”  The voice of reason.

[1] Marc Lynch, The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy in the Middle East (Public Affairs, 2016).

[2] “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”—Thucydides.

[3] See, for example, Chiarella Esposito, America’s Feeble Weapon: Funding the Marshall Plan in France and Italy, 1948-1950 (Praeger, 1994).



Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933. Germany took over Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia in 1939. Jews, Marxists, and liberals high-tailed it out of those countries (if they could). Soon, France was awash in refugees desperate to get to anywhere else. Murray Burnett (1910-1997), an American playwright with Jewish relatives in Europe, went over in 1938 to help them out. He picked up a lot of material that he turned into a couple of plays with his fellow writer and wife, Joan Allison (1901-1992).

Then war broke out in Europe. Germany conquered Poland (September 1939), then France and the Low Countries (May-July 1940), then the Balkans (May 1941), and then attacked Russia (June 1941). France set up an authoritarian, right-wing dictatorship and collaborated with Germany. That government was headquartered in the resort-town of Vichy, so people talked about “Vichy France” when referring to the country and its empire. The Japanese, already at war with China, started leaning hard on the British and the Dutch in the Far East. America didn’t want any part of these fights, but could it stay out?

One of the Burnett-Allison plays, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” didn’t get produced, but Irene Diamond, a Warner Brothers story editor was visiting New York in 1941 and she read the script. She persuaded producer Hal Wallis (1898-1946) to buy the movie rights in January 1942.   Hollywood had been leery of making anti-Nazi films while America was neutral. Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war on the United States (both December 1941) solved that problem. Wallis drove a rapid writing of the screen-play by the Epstein twins, Julius and Philip; hired Michael Curtiz (1886-1962) to direct; signed-up Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982) to star; recruited a Who’s-Who of European refugee actors for the rest of the cast; and pushed through filming in June and July 1942, with an expected release day in May 1943. Then American troops invaded French North Africa and captured Casablanca. It was all over the news, so why waste the free advertising? The movie was rushed into theaters in November 1942. It turned into a slow-burning hit and won the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

What is the movie about? One way to see it is as a parable for America’s involvement with the world. The previous love affair in Paris of Rick and Ilsa stands for America’s war “to make the world safe for democracy” in 1917-1918. Ilsa’s mysterious betrayal of Rick stands for the many failings of the Versailles Treaty that ended that war—and set the stage for a new one. Rick playing the odds in his nightclub in Casablanca stands for American neutrality in a world on fire. Victor and Ilsa Lazlo, Captain Renault (the “poor corrupt policeman”), and “Major Strasser of the Third Reich” stand for a nuanced view of Europe: brave, passionate, amused and disabused, and brutally aggressive. Rick’s choice stands for America’s choice: to re-engage or remain disengaged. No choice comes without a cost.

Rick himself stands for a particular way that Americans used to think of themselves. Rick is an idealist who fought against the Italians in Ethiopia and the Nationalists in Spain. He’s also a tough guy and a worldly one. He’s practical and gets things done. He’s on the run from something in his past. Along the way, life has taught him a lot about the darker forms of human behavior. They don’t scare him. He can live in the world the way it is. Not a bad way to be.

The final scene takes place at an airport. The studio didn’t have any airliners available, so it had the props department build a model out of cardboard, then hired a bunch of midgets to play the ground-crew to make the plane look bigger. (I’m not making this up.)