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Change: The Establishment Cools Toward Obama’s Middle East Policy


As Syria burns and Egypt seethes, the biggest foreign policy story is unfolding right here at home. The establishment is rapidly losing patience with President Obama’s Middle East policy.

For some time, the left of the MSM has been attacking the White House over issues like drones and Guantanamo, but now much heavier fire is coming from the center. The Washington Post ran an opinion piece by Thomas Carothers and Nathan J. Brown arguing that the administration’s Egypt policy has been overtaken by events. And both Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker and Bill Keller in the New York Times have gone after the administration for dithering on Syria, especially in light of the mounting evidence that Assad has crossed the administration’s “red lines” on the use of chemical weapons. These are heavy hitters; throw in the David Sanger co-authored NYT weekender saying that the whole “red line” controversy in Syria was caused by a major presidential gaffe, and some of the biggest dogs in town are saying some very harsh things about presidential competence and judgment.

If we were sitting in the White House right now, we would be worried that the Benghazi hearings scheduled for later this week could be an important tipping point, accelerating the MSM turn away from a lame duck president whose Middle East policies, to put it mildly, face some unresolved issues.

President Obama faces a tough mix of domestic and foreign challenges in the Middle East. Abroad, the situation in Syria has steadily worsened while the Egyptian revolution he championed looks less attractive every day. The mullahs in Iran have not shown many signs that they fear his wrath, suggesting that a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue is not in the cards.

Meanwhile, domestically, the coalition that supports (or in some cases, that used to support) the President is torn. Many of his most fervent backers support the anti-war, peace with Islam, anti-Bush activist they thought they were electing. To please these people, President Obama needs to somehow close Guantanamo, conciliate Iran, cut way back on drone strikes, and make peace in the Middle East by making nice to everyone except Bibi Netanyahu.

But many in the foreign policy establishment (which includes a significant chunk of the MSM) are starting to have their doubts. In some cases, this is about humanitarian interventionists opposing the stay-at-home realists: a classic Wilson vs. Jefferson battle. Others worry on more realist grounds that Obama’s Syria policy threatens vital US interests—by weakening our hand with respect to Iran and Hezbollah, or by creating Somalia style chaos in the heart of the Levant, or both.

The foreign policy establishment has been consistently kind to President Obama. In part, it’s because the establishment was so thoroughly put off by his predecessor. Deeply alienated from the neoconservatives and appalled by the Tea Party and the Ron/Rand Paul combination, the establishment heavily preferred President Obama over a GOP return to the White House in 2012.

But the calculus is changing. The fear that our current course in the Middle East is failing now outweighs the fear that a Republican electoral win will make a bad situation worse. The Left will pull Obama harder and be less tolerant of what it perceives as his shortcomings; the centrists at the core of the establishment are going to be more willing to take on an administration which they see as failing abroad and term limited at home.

Making things worse for the White House, the Clinton influence in the Democratic Party stands ready to use establishment discontent with executive dithering to pave the way for a Clinton restoration in 2016. Attacking President Obama’s foreign policy will no longer look like an act of treason opening the gates to the neocons and the tea partiers outside; it will look like a way to cement the Democratic hold on the White House by promoting Secretary Clinton as a president in waiting.

The rising criticism of President Obama’s Middle East policy in the establishment press is more than a recognition that some of the President’s most important strategic choices aren’t working out well; it is also a sign that much of the Democratic Party is preparing itself for a post-Obama world.

[Obama speaks at Cairo University in 2009, courtesy Wikimedia]

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  • qet

    Is it conceivable that anyone outside HRC’s personal entourage would think that she can be presented as a better foreign policy alternative to Obama given not just the Benghazi debacle itself, but her “does it really matter” attitude afterwards? More generally–I know it is early, but do serious people really believe a viable HRC candidacy is a possibility?

  • USNK2

    Obama’s USA has no coherent foreign policy; just reacting to whatever CNN and the Gulf monarchies decide is an issue.
    The Democratic Party has no bench, just deluded into believing they can re-create the 1990’s job machine.

  • wigwag

    It’s not just the establishment media which is having second thoughts about the Obama record on the Middle East; former members of the Obama Administration are going public with their disgust as well. Perhaps the best example of this is Vali Nasr, a former deputy to the late Richard Holbrooke, who recently penned a book absolutely excoriating the Administration’s foreign policy. Even the title of Nasr’s 2013 book is damning; it’s called, “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.” I would not be surprised if Nasr’s book has something to do with the decision of main stream media elites to reconsider Obama’s record. Nasr is now the Dean of the Fletcher School at Johns Hopkins.

    Another well respected former Obama Administration official to publicize her second thoughts about the Obama foreign policy apparatus is Anne-Marie Slaughter. From 2009-2011 Slaughter was Director of Policy Planning, at the State Department (unless I am mistaken, a job made famous when it was held by George Kennan).

    Slaughter, now safely ensconsed back at Princeton (from which she took a sabbatical to serve Obama) fell all over herself to praise Nasr’s harsh critique of Obama. In blurbing Nasr’s book she called it an “important wake-up call by a thoughtful, astute and deeply knowledgeable scholar and policymaker. Anyone interested in the Middle East, China, or the future of American power should read it immediately and think hard about its message.”

    When former Administation officials like Nasr, Slaughter and Samantha Powers (who Via Meadia referred to in an earlier post) all feel obliged to publically lambast the Administration, it isn’t surprising that establishment types begin to take notice.

    Yes, we have a really dumb and decadent elite in this country, but even they must realize that with the Obama White House, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel steering foreign policy and national security, things aren’t exactly in capable hands.

    • rheddles

      Did Hopkins acquire Tufts?

      • wigwag

        Hopkins acquired Tufts in a leveraged buy out in partnership with Bain Capital; hadn’t you heard?

        Just kidding. Nasr is at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Sorry for the mistake.

  • roc scssrs

    I don’t see how Hilary Clinton escapes criticism for a good deal of Obama’s foreign policy–wasn’t she, like, Secretary of State?

  • Andrew Allison

    With all due respect, the suggestion that the blatantly partisan WaPo, New Yorker and NYT are of the center is ludicrous.

  • Frankly, this is good news. This is the very same set of wound-up interests that have wrecked U.S. foreign policy since 1991. I hope that they are even more uncomfortable for the remainder of his term and that they loath his successor even more. Whatever establishments feel, the population does not want another Middle Eastern war, and that will mean a certain quietening of criticism by 2016.

  • Lorenz Gude

    “this is about humanitarian interventionists opposing the stay-at-home realists: a classic Wilson vs. Jefferson battle.”

    Using this vocabulary I think I am better able to distinguish between Obama’s humanitarian interventionism and Bush’s classic liberal interventionism. Duty to protect versus spreading democracy. But both seem to me essentially Wilsonian and interventionist. Again in your terms I can see Obama as Jeffersonian but not at all Jacksonian, while I would see Bush as a combination of Wilsonian and Jacksonian.

    What I have difficulty seeing is the Jeffersonians being stay at home realists so I am probably missing something.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I view Hilary as to the right of Obama and don’t think she would have had the same foreign policy as Obama had she been president. I also have always thought – rightly or wrongly – that she was to the left of her husband and therefore had little enthusiasm for her. I think she will run in 2016 and have to be beaten by a better candidate unless Obama manages to ruin the Democratic brand. Without some significant progress by the Republicans in the area of foreign policy I think Hillary can convince a lot of voters that she is the safer candidate. Same if the economy is not hurting people too much. In any case when it comes to foreign policy, we need someone who can unsentimentally learn from the many mistakes of both the current president and his predecessor.

  • RealHarshTruth

    Jimmy Carter must be pleased that he may wind up only the SECOND WORST foreign policy President if Obama continues bumbling along in fiascos like the backfired “Arab Spring”, failed Afghanistan policy, ineffectual Iran and North Korea anti-proliferation policies, and general loss of American clout and diplomatic power under the “Amateur” in the the White House and Mrs., Clinton. The “reset buttons” have all failed and shown the naivete and frank stupidity of the Obama/Clinton/Kerry foreign policy approaches.

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