This New Yorker article is over two weeks old - close to an eternity in Internet time. After rereading it before President Barack Obama’s remarks on the Arab Spring, we have decided to post now for those who may have missed it. Titled, “How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy,” the expose into his personal history twists the concept of realism into an unrecognizable beast.
Background information in The New Yorker’s piece will be incorporated into a detailed analysis of the contradictions in Obama’s Thursday address. However several items stand alone, starting with his closeness to Zbigniew Brzezinski. That Brzezinski distances himself from U.S. policy-making during the Arab Spring is most amusing, as if he doesn’t actively support of the status quo. A “realist” in Washington’s head more than reality, Brzezinski nevertheless surmised Obama with succinct accuracy.
“I greatly admire his insights and understanding,” he says of Obama. “I don’t think he really has a policy that’s implementing those insights and understandings. The rhetoric is always terribly imperative and categorical: ‘You must do this,’ ‘He must do that,’ ‘This is unacceptable...’ He doesn’t strategize. He sermonizes.”
That description certainly fits today’s speech: a shallow revision of his administration’s response to revolution in the Middle East and Africa.
The second aspect that jumps out to us is Obama’s supposed plan to reform the Middle East before the revolution caught fire. On August 12, 2010, Obama sent a five-page memorandum titled “Political Reform in the Middle East and North Africa” to Vice-President Joseph Biden, Clinton, Gates, Donilon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the other senior members of his foreign-policy team. “Obama’s analysis showed a desire to balance interests and ideals,” writes The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, while “the goals of reform and democracy were couched in the language of U.S. interests rather than the sharp moral language that statesmen often use in public.”
“Increased repression could threaten the political and economic stability of some of our allies, leave us with fewer capable, credible partners who can support our regional priorities, and further alienate citizens in the region,” Obama wrote. “Moreover, our regional and international credibility will be undermined if we are seen or perceived to be backing repressive regimes and ignoring the rights and aspirations of citizens.”
After instructing his staff to come up with “tailored,” “country by country” strategies, Obama's fear still manifested in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere in the region. Rather than buoy his reputation, this alleged pre-planning raises further questions of why Obama's administration was caught so flat-footed. His memo also feeds into the hard intel on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, supposedly produced in August 2010. While a higher quality of strategy could be expected with so much time to prepare for the Arab Spring, this hasn't been the case in Washington.
Thus after “challenging the traditional idea that stability in the Middle East always served U.S. interests,” Obama’s administration has upheld this idea rather than overturn it. The memo makes clear that reform, not regime change, is the desired end of U.S. foreign policy in the region. Reality is yielding this outcome.
The New Yorker’s piece and Obama’s speech compliment each other perfectly in explaining the haphazard state of U.S. foreign policy. Judging by Thursday’s address, Obama and his national security team remain lost in policy and the definition of realism. We use Yemen as an example because it stands out so vividly; supporting President Ali Abdullah Saleh is still considered “realism,” even though the pro-democracy movement provides a more stable and responsive partner.
Anyone can label themselves a realist. Few talk or act like one.