If you follow the commentary on U.S. foreign policy toward Egypt and the broader Middle East today, several themes stand out: People in the region argue: “Whatever went wrong, the United States is to blame.” Foreign policy experts argue: “Whatever President Obama did, he got it wrong.” And the American public is saying: “We’re totally fed up with that part of the world and can’t wait for the start of the NFL season. How do you like those 49ers?”
There is actually a logic to all three positions.
It starts with the huge difference between Cold War and post-Cold War foreign policy. During the Cold War, U.S. foreign policy “was all about how we affect the external behavior of states,” said Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign affairs expert. We were ready to overlook the internal behavior of states, both because we needed them as allies in the Cold War and because, with the Russians poised on the other side, any intervention could escalate into a superpower confrontation.
Post-Cold War foreign policy today is largely about “affecting the internal composition and governance of states,” added Mandelbaum, many of which in the Middle East are failing and threaten us more by their collapse into ungoverned regions — not by their strength or ability to project power.
But what we’ve learned in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Egypt and Syria is that it is very hard to change another country’s internal behavior — especially at a cost and in a time frame that the American public will tolerate — because it requires changing a country’s political culture and getting age-old adversaries to reconcile.
The primary foreign policy tools that served us so well in the Cold War, said Mandelbaum, “guns, money and rhetoric — simply don’t work for these new tasks. It is like trying to open a can with a sponge.”
To help another country change internally requires a mix of refereeing, policing, coaching, incentivizing, arm-twisting and modeling — but even all of that cannot accomplish the task and make a country’s transformation self-sustaining, unless the people themselves want to take charge of the process.
In Iraq, George W. Bush removed Saddam Hussein, who had been governing that country vertically, from the top-down, with an iron fist. Bush tried to create the conditions through which Iraqis could govern themselves horizontally, by having the different communities write their own social contract on how to live together. It worked, albeit imperfectly, as long as U.S. troops were there to referee. But once we left, no coterie of Iraqi leaders emerged to assume ownership of that process in an inclusive manner and thereby make it self-sustaining.
Ditto Libya, where President Barack Obama removed Moammar Gadhafi’s top-down, iron-fisted regime, but he declined to put U.S. troops on the ground to midwife a new social contract. The result: Libya today is no more stable, or self-sustainingly democratic, than Iraq. It just cost us less to fail there. In both cases, we created an opening for change, but the local peoples have not made it sustainable.
Hence the three reactions I cited above. People of the region often blame us, because they either will not or cannot accept their own responsibility for putting things right. Or, if they do, they don’t see a way to forge the necessary societal compromises, because their rival factions take the view either that “I am weak, how can I compromise?” or “I am strong, why should I compromise?”
As for blaming Obama — for leaving Iraq too soon or not going more deeply into Libya or Syria — it grows out of the same problem. Some liberals want to “do something” in places like Libya and Syria; they just don’t want to do what is necessary, which would be a long-term occupation to remake the culture and politics of both places. And conservative hawks who want to intervene just don’t understand how hard it is to remake the culture and politics in such places, where freedom, equality and justice for all are not universal priorities, because some people want to be “free” to be more Islamist or more sectarian.
“With the traditional tools of foreign policy, we can stop some bad things from happening, but we cannot make good things happen,” noted Mandelbaum.
For instance, if it is proved that Syria has used chemical weapons, U.S. officials are rightly considering using cruise missiles to punish Syria. But we have no hope of making Syria united, democratic and inclusive without a much bigger involvement and without the will of a majority of Syrians.
And too often we forget that the people in these countries are not just objects. They are subjects; they have agency. South Africa had a moderate post-apartheid experience because of Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk. Japan rebuilt itself as a modern nation in the late 19th century because its leaders recognized that their country was lagging behind the West and asked themselves, “What’s wrong with us?” Outsiders can amplify such positive trends, but the local people have to want to own it.
As that reality has sunk in, so has another reality, which the American public intuits: Our rising energy efficiency, renewable energy, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are making us much less dependent on the Middle East for oil and gas. The Middle East has gone from an addiction to a distraction.
Imagine that five years ago someone had said to you: “In 2013, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and Iraq will all be in varying states of political turmoil or outright civil war; what do you think the price of crude will be?” You’d surely have answered, “At least $200 a barrel.”
But it’s half that — for a reason: “We now use 60 percent less energy per unit of GDP than we did in 1973,” explained the energy economist Philip Verleger. “If the trend continues, we will use half the energy per unit of GDP in 2020 that we used in 2012. To make matters better, a large part of the energy used will be renewable. Then there is the increase in oil and gas production.” In 2006, the United States depended on foreign oil for 60 percent of its consumption. Today it’s about 36 percent. True, oil is a global market, so what happens in the Middle East can still impact us and our allies. But the urgency is gone. “The Middle East is China’s problem,” added Verleger.
Obama knows all of this. He just can’t say it. But it does explain why his foreign policy is mostly “nudging” and whispering. It is not very satisfying, not very much fun and won’t make much history, but it’s probably the best we can do or afford right now. And it’s certainly all that most Americans want.