The last American troops officially left Iraq before Christmas, mostly completing an American withdrawal by the end of 2011 which few thought possible when then-candidate Barack Obama promised it or even when then-President George Bush formally committed to it. Critics of the withdrawal have blasted Obama for putting politics over policy, risking the alleged gains of the "surge" in order to meet a campaign promise. Many of those who played a role in the desperate attempt to reverse Iraq's 2006 descent into civil war have entirely legitimate and justifiable fears for Iraq's future. But in fact, Obama's decision to complete the withdrawal from Iraq was probably better policy than it was politics -- and it was the right call both for America and for Iraq.
In many ways, it would have been safer politically for Obama to keep the residual force in Iraq which hawks demanded to insulate himself against charges of having "lost Iraq". But it would have been wrong on policy. It's not just that the U.S. was obligated by the SOFA to withdraw its forces, once it proved unable to negotiate the terms of an extended troop presence with the immunity provisions which the Pentagon demanded. It's that the remaining U.S. troops could do little for Iraqi security, had little positive effect on Iraqi politics, and would have soon become an active liability. This is the lesson of the last two years, when U.S. troops were reduced in number and largely withdrew to the bases under the terms of the SOFA. The American troop presence didn't prevent bombings and murders, didn't force political reconciliation, didn't usher in real democracy, and didn't significantly increase American diplomatic influence in the region. But nor did Iraq fall apart. Obama's gamble is that the same sequence will play out in 2012 and that he will have successfully left behind an Iraq which isn't perfect but which has avoided yet another catastrophe.
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
"I have seen no evidence yet in terms of hard changes on the ground that the Syrian government is willing to reform at anything like the speed demanded by the street protestors. If it doesn’t start moving with far greater alacrity, the street will wash them away."
That was the blunt verdict offered by U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford in a wide-ranging telephone interview with Foreign Policy today. Ford sharply criticized the Syrian government's continuing repression against peaceful protestors and called on President Bashar al-Assad to "take the hard decisions" to begin meaningful reforms before it is too late. Not, Ford stressed, because of American concerns but because of the impatience of the Syrian opposition itself. "This is not about Americans, it is about the way the Syrian government mistreats its own people," Ford stressed repeatedly. "This is really about Syrians interacting with other Syrians. I’m a marginal thing on the sidelines. I’m not that important."
Some might disagree. Last Thursday and Friday, Ford made a dramatic visit to the embattled city of Hama to demonstrate the United States' support for peaceful protests and its condemnation of the Syrian government's use of violence. His trip to Hama electrified supporters of the Syrian opposition, and marked a sharp escalation in U.S. efforts to deal with the difficult Syrian stalemate. It also sparked a vicious Syrian response, as government-backed mobs attacked the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, inflicting considerable damage. In a caustic note posted to his Facebook page, Ford called on the Syrian government to "stop beating and shooting peaceful demonstrators." Ford's sharp criticism of the Syrian government's violence against peaceful protestors and detailed outline of multilateral and American diplomatic efforts to pressure the Syrian regime suggest that the recent U.S. rhetorical escalation does mark a new stage in the ongoing crisis.
Like approximately 99 percent of the Arab world, and the U.S. government, I've been glued to Al Jazeera all morning watching the astonishing images of mass demonstrations and brutal security force repression across Egypt. I'm not going to even try to summarize the course of events thus far -- for now I just wanted to quickly note that the Obama administration needs to get out in front of this very, very soon. Its messaging has been good thus far, consistently and firmly been speaking out against Egyptian repression and in support of political freedoms. The message has been muddied by a few unfortunate exceptions such as Clinton's early comment about Egyptian stability, presumably before she had been fully briefed, and Biden's bizarre praise for Mubarak last night. Despite those false notes, it's been a strong message.... but one which is rapidly being overtaken by events.
The administration has to get out in the next few hours with a strong public statement by a senior official, such as Secretary of State Clinton, which clearly lays out that using violence against citizens is a U.S. red line and which goes beyond "urging" or "hoping" that the Egyptian government responds. It's really important that the United States be clearly and unambiguously on the right side of these events, and not wait and see too long for it to matter. The public message should be paired with blunt private messages to the Egyptian government that there's no going back to business as usual, regardless of whether Mubarak rides out this storm in the short run.
Flickr Creative Commons, January 27, 2011
Barely a month goes by without a Washington Post editorial bemoaning Egypt's authoritarian retrenchment and criticizing the Obama administration's alleged failure to promote Arab democracy. But now Tunisia has erupted as the story of the year for Arab reformers. The spiraling protests and the regime's heavy-handed, but thus far ineffective, repression have captured the imagination of Arab publics, governments, and political analysts. Despite Tunis's efforts to censor media coverage, images and video have made it out onto social media and up to Al Jazeera and other satellite TV. The "Tunisia scenario" is now the term of art for activist hopes and government fears of political instability and mass protests from Jordan to Egypt to the Gulf.
But the Post's op-ed page has been strikingly silent about the Tunisian protests. Thus far, a month into the massive demonstrations rocking Tunisia, the Washington Post editorial page has published exactly zero editorials about Tunisia. For that matter, the Weekly Standard, another magazine which frequently claims the mantle of Arab democracy and attacks Obama for failing on it, has thus far published exactly zero articles about Tunisia (though, to his credit, frequent Standard contributor and ex-Bush administration official Elliott Abrams has weighed in on it at his new CFR blog). Why are the most prominent media voices on Arab democracy so entirely absent on the Arab reform story of the year?
President Barack Obama's well-crafted speech in Jakarta yesterday serves as a useful reminder of some of the early promise of his outreach to the Muslim communities of the world. Praise for his efforts has been rare ever since the crashing disappointment which followed the sky-high expectations raised by his Cairo speech. The litany of complaints is now familiar: failure to deliver on the Israeli-Palestinian peace or on Gaza, little visible follow-through in the months after the speech, the inability to close Guantanamo, escalating drone strikes, the impact of rampaging anti-Islam trends in U.S. domestic politics, and so on. I've made all those criticisms myself, and more. With public opinion surveys showing collapsing approval ratings for the United States in the Arab world and rampant media criticism of Obama's strategy, it's hard to find anyone willing to defend the administration's post-Cairo outreach.
But today it's worth stepping back and offering some praise. The administration has stuck with the president's clear commitment to restoring positive relations with the Muslims of the world despite all the setbacks, when it would have been really easy to give up or change course. And he has quietly made some real progress in many lower profile areas upon which the media doesn't focus. The president made clear yesterday that he understands -- perhaps better than his critics -- that "no single speech can eradicate years of mistrust." But, he went on: "I believed then, and I believe today, that we have a choice. We can choose to be defined by our differences, and give in to a future of suspicion and mistrust. Or we can choose to do the hard work of forging common ground." That quiet, long-term commitment may not be as exciting to the media as the peaks and valleys of high-stakes political battles, and isn't as revolutionary as the Cairo speech seemed to promise, but may ultimately be more important than today's headlines. If it works in terms of building robust and durable networks of interest with this rising generation of Muslims around the world, then we may wake up a decade from now extremely grateful for efforts which didn't seem noteworthy today.
Dan Drezner's going to bed early tonight because he doesn't think the outcome of Congressional elections matters much for foreign policy. But at least on Middle East issues, that's crazy. If the GOP takes Congress, it might overwhelmingly approve an Iran sanctions bill which ties the hands of President Barack Obama's administration and undermines its efforts to construct an effective negotiation strategy. Or it might irresponsibly fail to confirm ambassadors to Syria and Turkey, two key players in the region, for no good reason. I could even see it slashing funding for the civilian mission in Iraq, forcing the administration to scramble to deliver on its promise of a long-term civilian and political commitment. Oh wait…
Seriously -- and with apologies to some of the good eggs in Congress who have played a constructive role the last few years, such as Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and Dick Lugar (R-IN) at the SFRC -- there are real reasons to worry about the effects of a GOP-controlled Congress for Middle East policy, even beyond the… odd… views of some of the likely new members and committee chairs. Foreign leaders and publics may take the outcome of the election as a signal about what to expect from Obama in the next two years and craft their strategies accordingly. A GOP victory might embolden Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue stonewalling Obama and to stoke partisan opposition to his policies, for instance. Iran may conclude that it's pointless to do a deal with Obama if they think he can't deliver on his end. But those perception effects will matter mostly at the margins, I'd say, since the political struggles have been going on for such a long time that the election is already factored into their calculus.
That doesn't mean that a changeover would be irrelevant. I'm not looking forward to clownshow hearings with lunatics denouncing creeping sharia and whipping up anti-Islamic hysteria, which could undermine Obama's public diplomacy and counterterrorism strategies and do some real long term damage. I'm gritting my teeth in anticipation of the next Congress becoming a platform for Iran war hawks, hyping the issue even further in anticipation of the 2012 elections… look for another round of sanctions and some kind of Iranian Liberation Act on the horizon, regardless of how things are actually going for U.S. diplomatic efforts. A GOP-controlled Congress may not go for the big $60 billion arms sale to the Saudis, what with that whole "sharia" thing. Endless harassing subpoenas and investigations and the inevitable impeachment attempt may be a wee bit distracting. But overall I think the effects are more likely to be domestic than on foreign policy or the Middle East.
And who knows -- maybe the polls are wrong. I don't think I know anyone who actually answers a home phone showing an unknown number on Caller ID, but I also know that I'm not the least bit normal, and far be it from me to question the geniuses over in the polling bureaus. Guess we'll find out tonight. And what would be the effect of a surprising Democratic performance and relative Republican failure after all this buildup? Beats me. But unlike Drezner, I don't think I'll be going to bed early tonight.
David Broder has raised some eyebrows with his bizarre Washington Post column arguing "with strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, [Obama] can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve." It should only be surprising to those who haven't been paying attention, though. Leaving aside the truly odd ideas about the economy, Broder is actually offering a warmed over, mainstream version of the argument coined in August by former Bush Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams that "the Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one." Since then, each time the argument pops up I've tagged it on Twitter with "this idea was stupid enough when Elliott Abrams wrote it in August."
Broder's column is an interesting study in how really dumb ideas bounce around Washington D.C. Fortunately, it's not an idea that seems to have any support at all in the Obama White House. Unlike Abrams (who it's fair to assume does not wish Obama well in November 2012) and Broder (who... well, it's anyone's guess), the Obama team can see perfectly clearly that the American people have no appetite for a third major war in the Middle East and that launching a war with massive strategic consequences for short-term political gain would be epically irresponsible. They find this argument ridiculous. Even if they were primarily interested in their electoral fortunes in designing Iran policy, they would quickly see that such an Abrams-approved stratagem would wipe out their support on the left and gain absolutely zero votes on the right.
Now, I'm very worried that Obama's Iran strategy will lock the U.S. into ever more hawkish rhetoric which ties their hands and paves the way to future military confrontations. I think that serious people disagree about the likely effectiveness of sanctions or of diplomacy, and that all are struggling to find meaningful off-ramps in the glide towards ever more stringent and militarized regional containment. I worry about a lot on Iran policy. But this isn't one of the things that I worry about. I don't think that anyone in the Obama White House takes remotely seriously the epically bad Abrams-Broder advice to pursue military showdown with Iran for political advantage. This may offer an intriguing window into how Abrams thought about foreign policy in the Bush White House, and a depressing case study in the circulation of ideas in Washington, but it tells us nothing at all about how the Obama administration is thinking about Iran.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
This morning, at a small meeting with various Washington-based analysts and European diplomats, I was asked to speculate on the future of Iran policy. While it's of course impossible to predict, I don't expect to see military action by the U.S. or by Israel. Nor do I expect to see any serious progress towards a political bargain, either a narrow one about the Iranian nuclear program nor an expansive one about Iran's place in the Middle East. Nor do I expect Iran to test a nuclear weapon.
More likely than either is a relentless slide towards a replay of the Iraq saga of the 1990's: a steady ratcheting-up of sanctions, which increasingly impact the Iranian people but fail to compel change in the regime's political behavior; episodic and frequent diplomatic crises which consume the world's diplomatic attention and resources; the growing militarization and polarization of the Gulf; ongoing uncertainty about Iranian intentions and capabilities. Eventually, as with Iraq, the choices may well narrow sufficiently and the perception of impending threat mount so that a President -- maybe Obama, maybe Palin, maybe anyone else -- finds him or herself faced with "no choice" but to move towards war. "Keeping Tehran in a Box" is not a pretty scenario, nor one which I think anyone especially wants, but it seems the most likely path unless better "off-ramps" are developed to avert it. And such "off-ramps" are the most glaring absence in the current Iran policy debate.
One year ago today, President Obama delivered a much anticipated speech in Cairo, Egypt in which he pledged "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect." That new beginning seemed a long time ago this week, as Muslims expressed outrage over America's seeming support for Israel's naval commando attack on an aid convoy headed towards Gaza. It is no accident that the anniversary of Obama's speech has gone virtually unremarked in the Arab media this week, except for a few comments about unmet promises and some juxtaposition of that glorious moment with America's anemic response to Gaza.
The President's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, told a press conference that he did not believe that the American position would have a great impact on Obama's relations with the Muslim communities of the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the Obama administration does not change its cautious approach quickly and forcefully address the blockade of Gaza which is the real heart of this week's scandal, it will confirm the crystallizing narrative of a President which either can not deliver on its promises or did not mean what he said. This would be a sad epitaph for the President's carefully nurtured outreach to the Muslim world.
What does last night's victory on health care reform say about President Obama's Middle East strategy? A lot of people have already pointed out how it could strengthen his hand abroad by showing domestic strength, free up bandwidth to engage more vigorously on foreign policy, or reduce his need to cater to Congress on key issues. All of those may be true, but I had a slightly different reaction. For most of the last year, I've been torn between two general views of Obama's Middle East policy. One says that he's got no strategy, that his team is making things up as it goes, reacting to events, and has no clear idea of how to achieve his lofty goals. The other says that he's been playing a long game, keeping his eye on the long-term objective while others get lost in the tactics and the public theatrics. I've gone back and forth, hoping it's the latter while seeing way too many signs of the former. I still don't know which is right, but last night's passage of health care reform suggests that maybe, just maybe, his administration really does know how to play a long game... in the Middle East as well as on domestic priorities.
The heavy focus on al Qaeda in the new AfPak strategy could complicate America's broader strategy of strategic public engagement with the Muslim world. The politics of the focus make perfect domestic sense, as Obama -- quite effectively, in a disappointingly Bush-like way -- tried to recapture the mantle of the "good war" and to focus American public attention on 9/11. And to the extent that this represents a limiting of American objectives, then I'm all for it. But the heavy focus on al Qaeda risks rescuing it from the position of marginality in Arab and Muslim politics to which it has largely been relegated over the last year --- and could end up strengthening the strategic threat of violent extremism even if it weakens al Qaeda Central.
I am not talking here about the much-discussed point that al Qaeda does not seem to actually be present in any significant way in Afghanistan. The argument here rests on claims that the goal is to prevent al Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan and that al Qaeda is so deeply interwoven with the various Talibans as to make the distinction meaningless. Both arguments are problematic -– but since both have been discussed elsewhere at some length, I won't dwell on them.
I am more concerned with an issue more in the areas where I focus: the relationship between al Qaeda Central and the broader network of affiliated movements (AQAM, in the lingo) and like-minded individuals (which me might call AQN, the al Qaeda Network). A key part of the Obama administration's strategy has been a very successful reorientation of America's relationship with the Muslim world, downplaying al Qaeda and refusing to allow that extremist fringe to hijack or monopolize those vital relationships. But the new focus on al Qaeda in the AfPak strategy threatens to reverse that vital achievement ... and even to revive al Qaeda's flagging fortunes in the wider Muslim world.
In part, this refects a debate which has been raging for years over the importance of AQC to the wider network of salafi-jihadist groups and individuals. The Obama administration's Afghanistan strategy seems to have taken one side in that debate –- but whether that is because it is correct, or because it is useful to justify an Afghan military strategy chosen for other reasons, is hugely important.
For Bruce Hoffmann and other "Centralists," al Qaeda Central continues to play an extremely important role in guiding, shaping, arming, and directing the seemingly inchoate network of jihadists. They point to evidence of contacts between the perpetrators of well-known cases and AQC affiliated people in Pakistan or elsewhere. They point to the deluge of AQ propaganda still pouring out of al-Sahab and other jihadist media outlets. On the other side, Marc Sageman and other "bunch of guys" analysts see the threat as primarily one of a very loosely affiliated network of like-minded individuals and organizations who neither need nor want direction from AQC. If AQC was needed as a spark to light the fire, it is no longer needed to keep the fires burning or new fires from breaking out when local conditions come together.
In reality both approaches likely have some degree of merit. AQC does still exist, does put out its propaganda, does try to shape and guide the jihad. But individuals and local organizations carry out their own analysis and planning, explode into action for their own private reasons, seek out and network with other like-minded people without being told to do so. A healthy strategy pays attention to both dimensions.
Clearly, the Obama administration does not intend to ignore the other areas of concern -– countering violent extremism across the spectrum and around the world. But the AfPak strategy puts a tremendous amount of resources into one side of the equation -– al Qaeda Central. This could only be justified if it were the case that AQC is in fact vitally important to the survival and efficacy of the broader jihadist challenge (AQAM and/or the AQN). The case here remains fairly weak, though. Even granted that they try to make a difference, it seems likely that were bin Laden and Zawahiri to be killed or brought to justice -– inshallah –- it is unlikely that this would materially affect the ideologically motivated actions of the pockets of salafi-jihadist mobilization around the world.
And all other things are not equal. The AfPak escalation may well increase the pressure on AQC –- especially if the Pakistanis can be brought more fully on board. But at the same time, it may well galvanize and strengthen the affiliated movements and like-minded individuals around the world. Affiliated movements may benefit from personnel or resources leaving the Afghan theater or Pakistani safe havens, and strengthen the capabilities of insurgencies in Yemen, North Africa, Somalia, Iraq or elsewhere.
And to the extent that the escalation angers Arab and Muslim public opinion, it could create a point of entry into mainstream attitudes which al Qaeda has largely lacked in recent years. It could reinforce the growing notion that Obama is no different from Bush, that the U.S. is waging a war against Islam, that moderation does not pay. This would resonate dangerously with the breakdown of Obama's efforts to push Israel towards a settlement freeze (especially if the Israeli-Palestinian front collapses into violence comparable to the 2000 al-Aqsa Intifada) or if tensions with Iran spike into military confrontation.
It is therefore absolutely vital that the Obama administration coordinate its AfPak strategy with its wider Middle East foreign policy and with its efforts at strategic public engagement with Arab and Muslim audiences. It needs to be sharply attuned to signs suggesting that its escalation in Afghanistan is restoring the ability of al Qaeda to appeal to the generalized "resistance" discourse which retains great sway with Arab public opinion. If it doesn't do that, then even a successful campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan against AQC may end up actually strengthening the wider challenge of violent extremism which it is ostensibly meant to defeat.
MANPREET ROMANA/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan is in Washington, D.C. for meetings with American officials and a number of public and private appearances along the DC circuit. Unfortunately I'm too snowed under with work to actually go to any of them -- but I wish I could, because there's probably no more interesting figure in Middle East diplomacy these days. Erdogan has been charting a new course for Turkish foreign policy which has sparked noisy popular acclaim with Arab publics, wary observation from Arab leaders, and jittery anxiety among many Israelis. Turkey's shifting Middle Eastern role is one of those factors which really could shake up long-standing patterns in a number of ways.
Erdogan, of course, heads the government of the mildly Islamist AKP. The electoral success and governing style of the AKP has proven absolutely fascinating to many in the Arab world. I've had many conversations with, and read hundreds of papers and op-eds by, Muslim Brotherhood members keen to figure out the lessons of the AKP's success. As a model of workable political Islam, the AKP offers an important model -- if a dual-edged one. Many Turkish secularists continue to sound the alarm bells of creeping Islamism, complaining that even if the AKP is committed to democracy it is using its governing power to radically reshape Turkish political culture and governing principles. These strike me as healthy debates and normal politics, though, not the stuff of political apocalypse.
Erdogan burst into a new level of Arab popularity with his much publicized outburst at Davos, when he stormed off a panel with Shimon Peres in protest over Gaza as Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa sat by bemusedly. This demonstration captivated Arab audiences and become the talk of Arab politics for weeks. Turkish diplomacy has built effectively on Erdogan's sudden personal popularity by seeking a more active and independent diplomatic role. Its diplomacy in many ways resembles that of Qatar, also an important American ally which has found considerable popularity with Arab public opinion. Like Qatar, Turkey explicitly and determinedly talks to both sides of the great Arab political divide, maintaining relations with Israel and the United States while also engaging regularly with Syria and Iran. It isn't for nothing that Turkey was well-positioned to mediate the secret Syrian-Israeli talks last year.
If this reorientation has earned Erdogan and Turkey applause in the Arab world, it has naturally provoked some serious criticism among Israelis and those committed to the Israeli-Turkish alliance (especially after its cancelation of a scheduled war game with Israel in October). I've seen an endless deluge of opeds filled with ominous warnings of Turkey's dangerous new path, rising anti-Americanism, the AKP's creeping Islamism, its alleged turn to a radical Islamist foreign policy. And don't think that Arab regimes, suspicious and fearful of their own Islamist movements, aren't fearful of the AKP's example and worried about the intrusion of a new, unpredictable diplomatic player into their turf.
I find this all overblown. Turkey's turn to a more active Middle East role was driven, I'd guess, as much by the effective closing of the door to European Union membership as it was by Erdogan's Islamism (the AKP was a strong advocate of EU membership when that was a viable option, hardly the marker of a radical Islamist agenda). It has played a more constructive role in Iraq, after tensions spiked over Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq because of alleged PKK safe havens there. Its distancing from Israel is, from what I can tell from a distance, broadly popular with Turkish public opinion -- especially after the Gaza war. And it appears that Turkey and Israel have rebuilt their working relationship over the last few weeks.
Turkey's cultivation of good relations across the spectrum makes perfect sense for a player on the periphery without a direct stake in old battle lines which wants to maximize its diplomatic clout. And it is potentially extremely useful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Turkey is exactly the sort of player which the Obama foreign policy needs: one able to talk to both sides of deeply rooted conflicts, while maintaining its credibility and protecting its own interests. Turkey can mediate Syrian-Israeli talks in a way which no Arab country could (I heard a rumor a few weeks back, which I couldn't confirm, that Syria was actually urging Turkey to rebuild its ties with Israel so that it could resume an effective mediation role). Turkey can bridge the gap with Iran in ways which few Arab states could -- and without the vulnerabilities of, say, a Qatar.
So I regret not having time to see Erdogan while he's in town. Turkish foreign policy is one of those wild cards which really could shake things up, bridge old divides, and introduce new possibilities. Obama's diplomacy should be creative and subtle enough to take advantage of those opportunities, and to maintain a strong alliance in new conditions.
U.S. Department of State
By Marc Lynch
I thought Obama's speech on Iraq this afternoon was outstanding.It laid out a powerful rationale for the new policy, sent a very clear signal to Iraqis about American intentions, placed American policy firmly within the context of the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with the Iraqi government, and embedded the policy effectively into its wider regional context. I know that some on the left are worried about the 50,000 figure for the residual force and about the timeline, but I think those concerns are overblown.The plan Obama laid out today is entirely consistent with his campaign promises and -- more important -- is the right strategy for today's Iraq.
Here's what I liked:
So to the Iraqi people, let me be clear about America’s intentions. The United States pursues no claim on your territory or your resources. We respect your sovereignty and the tremendous sacrifices you have made for your country. We seek a full transition to Iraqi responsibility for the security of your country. And going forward, we can build a lasting relationship founded upon mutual interests and mutual respect as Iraq takes its rightful place in the community of nations."
No plan is perfect. I would like to have heard more about the pace of troop withdrawals, particularly in the early going. The role of the residual force could have been better explained. But I must say that I am far less concerned about the size of the residual forces than are others on the Left. Such a residual force was always a part of Obama's campaign platform, and -- more importantly -- is perfectly consistent with the Status of Forces Agreement, which does not require U.S. troops to leave until the end of 2011. Their mission will change, and they will play an important role in training and support for the Iraqi government and security forces. Nor am I at all bothered by the two month difference between the campaign promise and the timeline in the speech -- and can't imagine that anybody else is either.
Obama's speech today was all that I had hoped, especially after yesterday's conflicting reports. It very closely follows his campaign commitments.It maintains a clear timeline for withdrawal, and sends the clear, unambiguous signal that Iraqis and the region needed to hear while re-emphasizing America's commitment to engagement with the region. It puts Iraqis first and defines a normal, positive future relationship between governments and peoples. And it does this with a frank recognition of Iraq's continuing fragility and plethora of unresolved political fissures, and the tough road ahead. And most remarkable of all, he may even succeed in commanding a bipartisan and inter-agency consensus in support of this policy at home.
This speech is something for which I and many, many others have been waiting -- and working -- for a long, long time. There's much hard work to come, but the die is cast and the signal is clear.
Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
George Mitchell was appointed to bring about Middle East peace, but he has returned from the region empty-handed -- no peace in the Middle East. His mission is clearly a total failure. The Obama administration has been humiliated! There's obviously no difference between Obama and Bush! His failure will embolden America's enemies, making it imperative to stop the stimulus package! It's time to... um, ahem, sorry. Thought I was writing for a newspaper op-ed page for a minute there. Let's try again.
Middle East envoy George Mitchell's maiden trip to the region was an important first step, but it also contained some troubling signals. It was extremely important for the Obama administration to demonstrate immediate, high-level engagement with the issue after Bush's near-total disengagement. It was also a good step to announce that Mitchell will be returning to the region before the end of the month and will spearhead a sustained, ongoing and high level engagement. A listening tour was appropriate, both because of Obama's repeated stressing of the importance of listening and because the half-staffed administration isn't ready to put forward its own initiatives yet.
But there were some ominous signals too. Mitchell's itinerary apparently only included meetings with one side of the great Arab divide: the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Fatah. Little surprise, then, if he heard few new ideas. What's more, in his comments with Secretary Clinton on his return he signaled no new thinking on the Hamas question. Her remarks about Hamas -- "Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth" -- could have been delivered by Condoleeza Rice. The Arab "moderate" camp followed his trip with a gathering in Abu Dhabi which could have been held in the Bush years: demonizing Iran, bashing Hamas, and promoting the schism between the "moderate" and "rejection" camps.
Iconic image of the Arab faux-reconciliation at the Kuwait meeting
Mitchell is not going to be able to break through this stalemate with the old playbook. He needs to engage both sides of the great Arab divide, and he needs to take the lead in bridging rather than exacerbating those divisions. Obama's approach to the Middle East during the campaign was built upon serious dialogue with adversaries and upon a holistic regional conception which captured the relationships among the various issues. But Clinton and Mitchell's first moves instead run the risk of reverting to the Bush style of sharpening regional divisions.
That has to change if Mitchell hopes to find new paths through this mess. The intensity of the intra-Arab divisions will only make this harder, and it doesn't make sense to encourage them either intentionally or unintentionally. The wounds of last month's dueling summits have not healed, and the official Arab order appears to be even more disconnected from popular opinion than normal. The leaders Mitchell went with are caught up in nasty political and personal arguments. They are hunkering down into their mutually hostile bunkers, and are likely in no mood to advocate an American outreach to the other camp.
But a strong signal from Washington that the time has come to bridge regional divides rather than stoke the divisions could change that in a hurry. I think that much of the Arab public is hungry for such a move, and so are a lot of the Arab "fence-sitters" who fear getting caught up in the diplomatic cross-fire. My strong sense is that Mitchell understands this, and sees his mission as part of Obama's conception of a wider regional restructuring. But he needs to avoid getting trapped by the business-as-usual instincts that others bring to the table.
So what should he do?
First, go to Doha. If Mitchell isn't going to talk to Hamas, he should at least talk to the only close American ally which does. Talking to Sarkozy, who talked to the Qataris, is good but doesn't have quite the same impact because it doesn't send the same signal. If he doesn't go to Qatar, then he implicitly validates the current lines of division and sends a strong but possibly unintended signal endorsing the Arab lines of division.
Second, pay attention to the whole Arab public. Mitchell needs to recognize that the leaders he's meeting represent only one side in a sharply divided region, are out of touch with broad swathes of public opinion, and have only limited ability to shape public attitudes. There's a reason that al-Jazeera dominated the Arab coverage of Gaza and not al-Arabiya -- and Washington needs to understand the reasons for that.. and the implications for successful diplomacy. If he doesn't see what al-Jazeera viewers see out of Gaza, he's just not going to understand why they feel the way they do right now -- so watch.
Third, be open to a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. If the attempts (in Cairo or elsewhere) to broker a Palestinian national unity government succeed, the U.S. shouldn't veto it or work to destroy it as the Bush administration did. This doesn't look likely right now, with acrimony running high and Hamas leaders talking about the formation of an alternative to the PLO. It's even less likely if regional actors think that the U.S. will reject it. But if regional players thought that the U.S. might be supportive of such a unity government, their calculations could quickly change.Finally, don't give in to the status quo. There's going to be strong pressure on the Obama administration from inside and outside to revert to standard practice on all of these issues. Doing so is a recipe for failure. I don't think that's why George Mitchell took on this assignment. Making progress will require a long, hard slog but at this stage at least let's hope that he's slogging in the right direction.
It's impossible to exaggerate the symbolic importance of Barack Obama choosing an Arabic satellite television station for his first formal interview as President -- and of taking that opportunity to talk frankly about a new relationship with the Muslim world based on mutual respect and emphasizing listening rather than dictating. His interview promises a genuinely fresh start in the way the United States interacts with the Arab world and a new dedication to public diplomacy.
Obama on al-Arabiya (screen capture)
In his conversation with the estimable Hisham Milhem (a good choice for an interlocutor), Obama reached out directly to the Arab public via the Saudi TV station al-Arabiya (which shrewdly posted the transcript immediately). It signals the importance of the Middle East to the new President, his commitment to engaging on Arab-Israeli peace, his genuinely fresh thinking and new start with the Muslim world, and his recognition of the importance of genuine public diplomacy.
I admit that I'm a little biased here. How can I not be thrilled that Obama has adopted the policy advice I've been offering since the publication of "Taking Arabs Seriously" in Foreign Affairs back in 2003? And in his first interview anywhere, less than a week into job, no less. I have to admit it feels a bit odd to see an administration doing things right after all these years. But that said, credit should go where credit is due. I do think that this is an extremely significant gambit which signals his commitment to real public diplomacy, his engagement with Middle East issues (repudiating all the pundits expecting him to neglect foreign policy), and his ability to speak in a genuinely new way to the Muslim world.
His remarks hit the sweet spot again and again. He repeatedly emphasized his intention of moving past the iron walls of the 'war on terror' and 'clash of civilizations' which so dominated the Bush era. "My job is to communicate to the Muslim world that the United States is not your enemy," Obama said, emphasizing as in his inaugural address that he is "ready to initiate a new partnership [with the Muslim world] based on mutual respect and mutual interest." And where so much of the Bush administration's 'public diplomacy' was about manipulating and lecturing, Obama begins -- as he should -- with listening: "what I told [Mitchell] is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating..so let's listen."
He clearly understands that this won't be easy, that there are real conflicts and obstacles and enemies. He obviously recognizes that the Gaza crisis and eight years of the Bush administration have left a heavy toll on America's reputation and credibility. He stressed the importance of engaging on Israeli-Arab issues right away, the need for new ideas and approaches, and the interrelationships among the region's issues that I've always seen as the key to his Middle East policy ("I do think that it is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and not think in terms of what's happening with Syria or Iran or Lebanon or Afghanistan and Pakistan. These things are interrelated.")
And above all, he understands that words are only the beginning, and that ultimately deeds and policy will determine Arab views of the United States. Public diplomacy is not about marketing a lousy policy -- it's about engaging honestly, publicly, and directly with foreign publics about those policies, explaining and listening and adjusting where appropriate. Obama gets it:
"But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration's actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I'm not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what's on a television station in the Arab world -- but I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I'm speaking to them, as well."
I couldn't have written this script better myself.
Arabs are both impressed and skeptical. As one prominent Jordanian blogger commented,
" I agree that, generally, Americans are not the enemy of the Muslim world. However, I’m just not sure how to classify those Americans who have big guns, big tanks and big jets that occupy a neighboring country and have a habit of killing a lot of its people. Or, at least, the Americans who sell those big guns, big tanks and big jets to other people that occupy another neighboring country and have a habit of killing a lot of its people."
I will update with additional Arab reaction as it begins to pour in (it's a day too soon for editorials, for the most part there are only a few straightforward news reports like this one in Jordan's al-Ghad).
Three other important points which have thus far been missed in the general commentary:
More to come, no doubt. This is only a start and won't solve anything on it's own, but this is simply an outstanding way to start transforming the American engagement with the Arab world. Well done.
UPDATE: in light of its relevance to Obama's outreach to Arab television, Foreign Affairs has made the full text of my 2003 article available online for free. Thanks!
Official Washington is abuzz with word that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is poised to tap a longtime friend and Democratic mega-donor as her undersecretary for public diplomacy. Judith A. McHale, one of the area's most prominent female executives, who stepped down in 2006 as president of Discovery Communications, may take a job that has been especially difficult given Washington's reputation abroad.
Her résumé doesn't reflect an excess of diplomatic experience, but we're reminded that this is a job that involves selling a message.
This would be a terrible, terrible selection. I don't know Judith McHale at all, and obviously have nothing against her personally. But the position of Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs should go to someone with experience in and a vision for public diplomacy, and who will be in a position to effectively integrate public diplomacy concerns into the policy-making process. Appointing someone with no experience in public diplomacy but with a resume which "involves selling a message" has already been tried: the first post-9/11 Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Charlotte Beers, whose tenure lasted only 17 months (October 2001-March 2003), focused on "branding" America through television advertising showing happy Muslim-Americans, and is generally considered to be an utter failure.
This is a vital time for public diplomacy. The last few years have seen an emerging consensus on the centrality of public diplomacy and strategic communications. The military has gotten into the "war of ideas" in a big way, while State Department and other civilian efforts have struggled with inadequate budgets or personnel -- prompting Defense Secretary Robert Gates and many others to recommend ramping up the State Department's budget and involvement. Whoever is appointed as Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy needs to be in a position to quickly assert authority over an inter-agency balance currently sharply skewed towards the Pentagon. And that's not even getting into the enormous challenges facing U.S. public diplomacy out there in the real world.
During the Presidential campaign, Obama talked often and effectively about global engagement and public diplomacy. But during the primary I had noted Clinton's inattention to public diplomacy:
Her Foreign Affairs essay says not a single word about public diplomacy or the war of ideas, or even hints at the notion that there might be a vast, complicated Muslim world out there beyond al-Qaeda impatient for real dialogue with a post-Bush America. When she talks about engagement, she seems to mean either talking to friendly leaders or working within institutions. I searched her campaign web site in vain for her ideas on the subject: the term "public diplomacy" turns up only one, unrelated hit on her campaign site, "war of ideas" none, "dialogue and Islam" none. Even her big foreign policy address last week... began by proposing to restore America's moral authority but never offered a single word about public diplomacy or international dialogue or the internal debates in the Muslim world. Even when the address closed by reciting all the "tools" which she would use, public diplomacy didn't make the laundry list.
Clinton's answers on public diplomacy to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee mirrored Obama's campaign positions, for the most part. But appointing her "long-time friend and Democratic mega-donor" to this crucial position would validate those earlier fears. And that could undermine Obama's promise and cripple America's ability to revamp its engagement with the world at exactly the time that it is needed most. Thus far, "official Washington" has gotten a lot of these rumors wrong... let's hope this is another of them.
A reported two million people watched Barack Obama's inauguration today. I, unfortunately, wasn't one of them. If you don't care why, and just want foreign policy blogging, skip the rest of this post and come back tomorrow.
See, I went to the show with a few friends who received excellent Purple tickets as a reward for untold hours volunteering as foreign policy advisers for the Obama campaign. We got down to the security checkpoint for the Purple section bright and early (I left home at 4 AM), and were guided into a long tunnel which had been closed to traffic. We waited in line for nearly four hours, in a claustrophobic tunnel with no porta-potties, no food or drink, and not a single official or volunteer in sight. Finally, we got within sight of the Purple Gate -- only to find that it had been closed. Thousands of people in front of us hadn't gotten in (not that anyone bothered to tell the people languishing in the tunnel that the gate had been closed, mind you). Thousands of purple ticket holders were behind us. It's remarkable that there wasn't a riot. I rode the metro home with a lot of people who had been turned away, including an elderly African-American woman muttering over and over to herself that it had been one of the worst experiences of her life.
Searching for a foreign policy angle so that it isn't just my own bitter rant (and can be justified on FP.com)...
Maybe it's a metaphor for how foreign policy advisers to the Obama campaign feel -- thrown out into the cold, shunted into a dismal and dank tunnel, abandoned without any communication, and ultimately locked out of the show.
Or maybe the Israelis could study the experience to learn how to stop the Gaza tunnels -- give every Hamas member a Purple ticket.
Either way, I just hope that Obama runs his foreign policy more effectively than the inaugural committee ran the ticketed sections today. What a dismal way to begin the new era. Bleah. I hope it was a great speech.
UPDATE: okay, enough whining (though I see I'm not the only one)... looks like it was indeed a great speech. I liked this part:
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
UPDATE 2: join the Facebook page "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom" here.. I didn't start it, I swear! Maybe if it gets big enough we can get someone to explain how they managed to give out thousands more tickets than they had room for, why they had absolutely no crowd control or support, and why they didn't have a backup plan. Not the biggest issue in the world, I know, but first had to take care of the world I know...
THE UPDATE THAT WON'T END (sort of like the tunnel):
Inside the tunnel: note the absence of any officials or order, and imagine a stampede.
The Facebook group is already over
100 150 strong, with comments pointing out the unbelievable security risks posed by putting thousands of unscreened people into a tunnel... with no security, no paramedics, no officials with walkie-talkies. With Gaza in ruins it seems absurd to continue complaining, but still... someone's got some explaining to do. People traveled from far away, many at great expense, because they thought they had guaranteed tickets. And there were an awful lot of Obama campaign staffers and volunteers in that section. The police chief lied bald-faced to the Washington Post ("There's nobody that didn't get to see the inauguration today who had a ticket") and had to reverse himself. They and we are all incredibly lucky there wasn't a stampede.
REALLY LAST ONE: over 1650 members of the Facebook group now, and some media attention... but no real satisfaction (though this apology is a start). For the record, the Obama foreign policy adviser analogy was just an analogy, not for serious!
The editorial team here has asked its bloggers to weigh in on what should happen and what will likely happen once the inauguration festivities end and reality sets in. My immediate plans will likely include thawing out my hands and trying to hitch a ride out of the District, since I'm planning to head downtown at the crack of dawn for the swearing-in. But for the Obama administration, here are four suggestions for the first weeks in office:
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.