Daniel Pipes: Insight into Obama's Middle East Policy?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Pipes (www.DanielPipes.org) is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.]

Two events earlier this month summed up differing views of George W. Bush's Middle East record.

In one, Bush himself offered a valedictory speech, declaring that"the Middle East in 2008 is a freer, more hopeful, and more promising place than it was in 2001." In the other, an Iraqi journalist, Muntadar al-Zaidi, expressed disrespect and rejection by hurling shoes at Bush as the U.S. president spoke in Baghdad, yelling at him,"This is a farewell kiss! Dog! Dog!"

Ironically, Zaidi's very impudence confirmed Bush's point about greater freedom; would he have dared to throw shoes at Saddam Hussein?

While I like and think well of Bush, I have criticized his response to radical Islam since 2001, his Arab-Israeli policy since 2002, his Iraq policy since 2003, and his democracy policy since 2005. In both 2007 and 2008, I critiqued the shortcomings of his overall Middle East efforts.

Today, I take issue with his claim that the Middle East is more hopeful and more promising than in 2001. Count some of the ways things have degenerated:

  • Iran has nearly built nuclear weapons and appears to be planning for a devastating electro-magnetic pulse attack on the United States.
  • Pakistan is on its way to becoming a nuclear-armed, Islamist rogue state.
  • The price of oil reached an all-time high, only to collapse due to a U.S.-led recession.
  • Turkey went from being a stalwart ally to the most anti-American country in the world.
  • Iraq remains an albatross (or a pair of shoes?) around the American neck, incurring expenses, fatalities, and with an immense potential for danger.
  • Rejection of Israel's existence as a Jewish state has become more widespread and virulent.
  • Russia has re-emerged as a hostile force in the region.
  • Democracy efforts have collapsed (Egypt), increased Islamist influence (Lebanon), or paved the way for Islamists to attain power (Gaza).
  • The doctrine of preemption has been discredited.

Bush's two successes, an Iraq without Saddam Hussein and a Libya without WMD, hardly balance out these failures.

Unsurprisingly, Bush's critics excoriate his Middle East record. Fine, but now that they are almost in the driver's seat; exactly how do they intend to fix America's Middle East policy?

"Restoring the Balance" offers defeatist policy recommendations.

One preview is on display in Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President, a major study issued jointly by two liberal lions, the Brookings Institution (founded 1916) and the Council on Foreign Relations (founded 1921). The culmination of an 18-month effort, Restoring the Balance involved 15 scholars, 2 co-editors (Richard Haass and Martin Indyk), a retreat at a Rockefeller conference center, multiple fact-finding trips, and a small army of organizers and managers.

This reader is struck by two major deficiencies. First, while the book covers six topics (the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, Iraq, counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation, and political and economic development), its specialists have almost nothing to say about Islamism, the most pressing ideological challenge of our time, nor about the Iranian nuclear buildup, the most urgent military danger of our time. They also manage to bypass such issues as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Arab rejectionism of Israel, the Russian danger, and the transfer of wealth to energy-exporting states.

Second, the study offers defeatist policy recommendations."Bring Hamas into the fold" advise Steven A. Cook and Shibley Telhami, arguing that the terrorist organization be included in a"Palestinian unity government" and be urged to accept the ill-fated Abdullah Plan of 2002. It is hard to imagine a single more counterproductive policy in the Arab-Israeli theater.

On the topic of Iran, Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh dismiss both a U.S. strike against the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and the policy of containment. Instead, in a far-fetched"paradigm change," they urge engagement with Tehran, the acknowledgment of" certain unpalatable realities" (such as growing Iranian power), and crafting"a framework for the regulation" of Iranian influence.

As these examples suggest, a spirit of weakness and appeasement permeates Restoring the Balance. What happened to the promised robust promotion of American interests?

If one hopes the Obama administration will ignore such despairing pablum, one also fears that the Brookings-CFR mindset will dominate the next years. Should that be the case, Bush's record, however inadequate it looks today, would shine in comparison to his successor's.

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Vernon Clayson - 12/27/2008

Mr. Wolberg, your attack plan on Iran sounds eerily like that which the experts expected in Iraq, a quick victory followed by a welcomed occupation - WRONG! That was over 5 years ago and we have barely sufficient forces to deal with the aftermath of our quick victory. Do you think that Iran will see the error of their ways and submit humbly?
WRONG! Right now there is a measure of order in their culture, much like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, but any foreign intervention will result in the same problems we have in Iraq, factions against factions, tribes against tribes, and all of them against occupiers. Today the world weeps for Palestine because Israel bombed them, the biased media shows Palestinian suffering while seldom, hardly ever, showing the damages and suffering of Israelis from Palestinian rocket attacks. We waffle while Israel acts, when it's time for Iranian nuclear facilities to be destroyed the Israelis will do it. The media will not show the damaged facilities, they will show Iranians weeping over casualties, especially when children are victims. It is sad but that is their world, and, even sadder, it's almost as dangerous as the ghettos in our own cities.

Donald Wolberg - 12/27/2008

Mr. Pipes makes a number of interesting points that are worth consideration. The Iranians (government) are "bad" guys--this is a clear fact. In a rational world, the wrath of retaliation ofr killing American troops swould have fallen from the sky by now--but this is not a rational world. The Iranians are close to that messy wepon, a nuclear bomb or some such device that might not work properly as in the case of North Korea, but would still discharge fallout and send a message we all know will come: they will use nuclear weapons. Iran is a deadly threat to Israel as well, and one can only be astonished that Israel has not already acted. No doubt a combination of U.S. pressure and the current "problems " of Israel's political leaders contibuted to the non-action by Israel.

I suspect that the new offense by the Hamas terror organization could be an Iranian move to further destabilize the region as we witdraw from Iraq and reinoforce in Afghanistan. The Iranians undertand that Mr. Obama has no expertise or record in foreign policy and has been all over the posture map with regard to American interests in the region and the world. In the region, a poorly defined policy and no credentials, military or political, are universally seen as weakness.

We need no nuclear strilke against Iran--conventional will work quite nicely and require perhaps a week of operations to dismantle virtually all the Iranian meager weapons arsenal. Gone too would be what passes for an Iranian naval force in perhaps 36 hours of operations. There is no real Iranian ground force in terms of armor or artillary, although there are likely germ and chemical capabilities.

By any evaluation, we are entering another difficult period in the region. As is usually the case, positions of strength matter in that world, much more so than notions of "reason." Despite Mr. Friedman's silly notions of a flat world (in whatever context), the world is richly "topographic" with many rises and falls and there is no straight line between any two points.

Vernon Clayson - 12/27/2008

If Obama has a plan in place for the Middle East he truly is the new Messiah his supporters believe Him to be. For those beknighted souls, His every word is not a command to the world, He will have to weigh the issues as they are now and how they evolve as time passeth day to day, forever and ever, Amen. He will, sooner or later, stepeth upon His dink in both small things and large things and come to the conclusion, as all before Him and concern Himself with the major issue for all such as He, perpetuating Himself in His High Office for a second term. His cup does not runneth over, neither shall He runneth much of anything without the contrivance of those in Congress, as the Devil is the Messiah's darkside counterpoint, forsooth, the Congress shall be his darkside counterpoint.

Michael Green - 12/26/2008

I suppose it is possible that Bush could have been worse. He could have done as Pipes would wish and simply dropped nuclear bombs on every Arab. Since that would have happened only within the borders of Arab countries, there would have been no other effects, of course.