Not every foreign-policy problem can be solved. Many, at best, can only be managed. The more plausible goal for American policy is often to avoid the worst, rather than to achieve the ideal.
Voters don’t often hear such admissions from presidential candidates. Yet these stubborn realities shadow the volleys between President Obama and Mitt Romney about the Middle East since the recent attack that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Obama and Romney each insist that their approach will bend the region more to our design. Yet history suggests that this turbulent, intransigent part of the world is far more likely to frustrate than reward either man.
From the chastened tone of Obama’s Middle East-centered United Nations speech this week, it was clear the region has already frustrated him. When he took office, Obama harbored grand hopes of resetting U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Certainly at that point there was nowhere to go but up after George W. Bush’s bellicose two terms, symbolized by the invasion of Iraq, had left the American image at low ebb even in countries traditionally considered allies, such as Egypt and Jordan.
Obama unfurled his vision in his soaring June 2009 address in Cairo, when he called for “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world ... based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” The president’s U.N. speech on Tuesday offered a sober bookend to that ringing declaration. Gone was the tone of fresh beginnings. This week was more about managing difficult relationships, affirming our core values (particularly over free speech), and accepting an unavoidable level of disagreement. “He’s moved from [trying to be] a transformational political figure in the region to a transactional one,” said Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, who advised six secretaries of State on the Middle East.
Obama can point to some gains. He is winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He organized a global coalition to impose tough economic sanctions on Iran and worked with European allies to overthrow Muammar el-Qaddafi. Another success is measured by a dog that didn’t bark: During the Arab Spring uprisings, retreating autocrats weren’t able to marginalize protesters as tools of America, partly because the U.S. no longer seemed as threatening to the Arab street. Obama’s pursuit of al-Qaida has debilitated the organization and killed Osama bin Laden.
And yet in terms of our broader interests across the region, Obama’s more conciliatory approach hasn’t produced results much more satisfying than Bush’s confrontational strategy. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq is developing a stable, sustainable society. Iran, though more isolated and economically strained, continues its march toward nuclear weapons. There isn’t even the semblance of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
Most broadly, America’s standing across the Muslim world is no better now, and in some cases is worse, than during the Bush years—as underscored by the recent wave of violence and protest that followed the appearance of the crude video disparaging Muhammad. Polling last spring by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project found that fewer adults hold favorable views toward the U.S. today than under Bush in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan. Although Obama still generates more personal confidence than Bush did in those countries, Obama’s ratings have skidded since 2009.
These findings are a reminder that beyond the cultural conflicts with the West stand irreducible policy disagreements: Obama, as any American president would, has pursued policies on issues such as Israel and drone strikes that most Arabs oppose. That means the ongoing Arab unrest has presented Obama with two imperfect options: further alienating Arab publics by supporting unpopular dictators, or accepting governments that will more accurately reflect the public will by resisting more of our priorities. “Dealing with Arab autocrats promised a false stability,” Miller noted. “But over the near term, no one can say it’s going to be easier to protect American interests in this region.”
Obama’s disappointments frame Romney’s critique. Since the Libya attacks, both Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have charged that Obama has emboldened the forces hostile to America: “If you show weakness,” Ryan insists, “then ... adventurism among our adversaries will increase.” Romney and his advisers argue that he can shoulder Arab countries more into line by displaying more resolve. He has talked about pressuring the Egyptian government by conditioning foreign aid on continued cooperation, and his aides insist that Iran will be quicker to abandon its nuclear program without a military attack if a President Romney shows more willingness than Obama to launch one.
Maybe. But Bush also hoped the Iraq invasion would dissuade Tehran, and that didn’t work any better than Obama’s two-step of outreach followed by sanctions. If the years since 9/11 have demonstrated anything, it’s the limits of America’s ability to achieve its largest goals in the region at a price it can accept. Hope is the currency of campaigns, but, in office, either Romney or Obama would likely find most of his Middle East aspirations slipping away like sand through his fingers.
This article appears in the September 29, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.