Voice

How the Middle East Could Make Or Break Obama's Legacy

Congratulations, Mr. President. You've got four more years of dealing with the world's most dysfunctional region.

Congratulations, Barack Obama. You now join a small club of 16 two-term presidents. (Of those, only 13 actually served out their second four-year term -- William McKinley, Abraham Lincoln and Richard Nixon weren't so lucky.)

An eight-year run does count for something. There are no great one-termers. All consequential presidents require a bond with the public that the validation of a second term provides. Consider it a necessary but not sufficient condition for presidential greatness.

Governing this republic effectively is hard and sometimes, I think, borders on the impossible. To a certain extent, the founders willfully contributed to the problem by designing a system that the late constitutional scholar Edwin Corwin brilliantly described as an open invitation to struggle. They did so to make the accretion of too much power by an individual or branch of government very hard.

But they still reserved for the presidency the capacity -- depending on the president and his circumstances -- to lead energetically, in a way 535 elected legislators or 9 Supreme Court jurists cannot. The presidency is the only national office all Americans can vote for -- it stands for something special, and remains to this day, regardless of its flaws and tendency to disappoint, the repository of our hopes and aspirations.

John F. Kennedy once said that nobody should judge presidents -- not even poor James Buchanan -- because it's impossible to know what it's really like to be in the White House.

Fair enough. At the same time, we elected you -- myself included. And, not to put too fine a point on it, you work for us.

And so, having worked for several of your predecessors on Middle East policy -- and having watched Republican and Democratic administrations succeed and fail in foreign policy -- I don't have the slightest reservation in offering up a number of suggestions for your second term.

1. Don't look for transformation this time around.

I get the fact that in your first term you saw yourself as a transformative figure -- a leader with a mandate to save the nation through bold policies at home and abroad.

And maybe you thought the country wanted a savior. I know that Abraham Lincoln was very much on your mind. With the possible exception of George W. Bush, you owe your presidency to him more than any other man.

We got the point. You recreated part of Lincoln's train journey to Washington, were sworn in on his Bible, and all but reenacted his post-inaugural lunch -- right down to the sour cherry chutney served on Mary Todd Lincoln's china.

With all due respect, Mr. President, try to be a tad more humble and less narcissistic in your second term. I knew Abe Lincoln, and you're no Abe Lincoln. I know you already think you're entitled to be in the presidential hall of fame, but forget transforming the country at home. Americans don't want a polarizing transformer; they want a president who can fix what's broken -- this time with the support of Republicans so that change can be legitimate, authoritative, and successful.

Abroad, you also thought you would transform the world. You seemed to believe that, somehow, your own persona and the imperfections of your predecessor could combine to solve historic conflicts and convert adversaries into friends. But the world wasn't and isn't going to be transformed by you or anyone else. Look around at the 192 other nations represented in the United Nations. Do you see any transformative figures there, or international conflicts just waiting to be solved?

If the world is amenable to anything these days, it's transaction. Sports analogies are usually horrible, but in this case I think one works: Forget home runs; try small ball. Moderate progress, after all, can buy time to deal with the bigger issues like Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (more on that later).

2. Legacy cuts both ways: the hero or the goat

Having been elected to a second term, the only thing you're running against now is the reputations and accomplishments of your predecessors. Health care -- it's too soon to know for sure -- may be your domestic legacy. But the temptation to secure a foreign-policy spectacular will be great, too.

I saw the draw of legacy play out in a negative way during the final year of the Clinton administration. As Clinton saw his last days in the White House tick away, he grasped on to the idea of hosting an ill-timed, ill-prepared, and poorly thought-through summit with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat at Camp David in July 2000.The rush to the summit led to a collapse of the peace process from which Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have yet to recover. Arafat received much of the blame for Camp David's failure, much of it well-deserved but counter-productive nonetheless, leading to another spasm of violence.

As the sand passes through the hourglass of your second term, that's something to keep in mind. Yes, a dramatic success on a tough issue can add to the luster of your presidency. But failure also carries consequences that go well beyond your presidency and can have serious implications for your successor.

3. Empower your secretary of state

I would have thought, given the huge domestic crisis you faced in 2008, that you would have been only too happy to delegate significant responsibility to your diplomat-in-chief. And why not? Hillary Clinton is talented and knowledgeable. And while certainly not a great secretary of state in the mold of Henry Kissinger or James Baker, she has done an immense amount to improve America's image by pursuing an agenda of global humanism -- emphasizing the role of women, the environment, technology, and social media.

But when it came to the big issues such as Iran, Afghanistan, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you withheld far more than you gave. All power on these issues flowed to and from the White House. Clinton owned not a one of them.

No matter whom you choose as your next secretary of state, you ought to be more generous in delegating authority over some of these big issues.

Yes, this may conflict with your desire to forge your own legacy. But presidents can't be everywhere and do everything. Smart and empowered secretaries of state can set up all kinds of opportunities through the tireless and tedious diplomacy that you may not have the time to join. Baker worked for nine months to set up the Madrid peace conference for Bush 41. Madeleine Albright labored for a year and a half to set up the Wye River Summit and prevented a great deal of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the process. Give your secretary of state a few big issues -- he or she can actually make you look good, and serve American national interests too.

4. Come clean on Benghazi

You have a real credibility problem on this one from almost every conceivable angle. You've prided yourself on competence in foreign policy, and yet the fatal attack on the diplomatic mission in eastern Libya raises serious questions about your administration's judgment and performance.

Over the past two months, the questions have piled up higher and higher: Why weren't adequate preparations taken months before the attack to deal with what was clearly a higher threat level to Western and U.S. interests in Libya? What was the CIA's role in responding to the crisis, and the Pentagon's too? And what about the confused and misleading messages that came from your administration as you responded to the crisis?

Neither a congressional nor a State Department investigation will be credible enough to answer these questions. Some independent panel should be created -- one with the mandate to go after the White House, too -- to determine what transpired. In a turbulent Middle East, the threats to America's diplomats will continue. We need to figure out a better way to minimize the risks.

5. The Middle East is a choice between root canals or migraines. Pick your poison.

No region of the world is going to be more dangerous for the United States than the Middle East. Challenges abound -- but at the moment there don't appear to be a great many opportunities. Disengagement, sadly, is not an option.

Again, think transaction, not transformation. On Iran, explore the hell out of diplomacy before you seriously consider military action -- let alone war. Getting out of these conflicts is always more difficult than it seems, and the risk-to-reward ratio on Iran is inherently skewed toward the risk end. Once a nation acquires the knowledge and capacity to construct a nuclear weapon, it can't just be bombed out of its collective consciousness. Military actions will at best delay, not prevent, Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Unless you can change the mullahcracy in Tehran, your best bet would be an outcome that would keep Iran years away from actually making a nuclear weapon. Given the depth of animosity and mistrust between the United States and Iran over the last half-century, the odds of a grand bargain are pretty low.

But here's how to give it your best shot: Start with an interim arrangement that deals with the issue of enrichment, and forestalls Iran from acquiring enough highly enriched uranium to construct a nuke. To get such a deal, by the way, you can't just come to the party with sticks. Carrots will be required too -- not only some sanctions relief on the enrichment question, but developing Iran's enrichment capacity on the civilian side. None of this may work -- but a good-faith, sustained effort is critical to your credibility and to any follow-on military attack.

On Israeli-Palestinian peace, think interim agreements and managing the conflict. Barring some profound change in the politics of Israel or Palestine, no conflict-ending solution that addresses borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security is likely.

Also, prepare to deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for some time to come. If you're looking to get even with him for stiffing you on settlements, sit quietly until the urge passes. Israeli elections in January will likely return Bibi to power, and if his coalition expands it will be for the purpose of stability and maybe war with Iran -- not for bold moves toward the Palestinians.

Let's face it: You don't have much credibility with Netanyahu. If you want any progress, you're going to have to figure out a way to create a relationship with him. In any event, think small for now. Do what you can to keep the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty afloat. Push international donors to keep the Palestinian Authority in the black. Press hard on keeping Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation up and running. Push the Israelis to end restrictions on movement and economy opportunities for Palestinians. And, if there's a way to encourage quiet discussion on the least contentious final-status issues like territory and security, try that too.

If you truly can't help yourself and need to lay out a U.S. plan on all of the big issues, go ahead. Chances are they'll still be out there when your successor takes the inaugural oath. But don't delude yourself with visions of being the man to solve this thing once and for all.

On Syria, don't be lulled into believing that some notional post-election flexibility is going to expand your options there. As long as the rebels are so inchoate, the regime so militarily powerful, and the Russians so supportive of President Bashar al-Assad, the chances for dramatic change are pretty low.

That doesn't mean you should be idle on the Syrian front. Do what you can to ease the humanitarian and refugee crisis. Support Jordan, continue to work with the Turks, and support efforts to encourage a credible Syrian opposition. But be wary of a more proactive policy on the military side, particularly when it comes to providing sophisticated weaponry to a divided rebel movement whose interests may not necessarily be yours and which is acquiring its own record of war crimes.

6. Fix America's house even as you persist in trying to fix others.

Here's the bad news: Your credibility will begin to diminish the first day after your inauguration, and your status as a lame duck will grow ever closer as 2016 nears.

It's not that you can't chew gum and walk at the same time. The United States has to be involved in the rest of the world even while its domestic house is in a state of disarray. The major priority, though, must be on fixing our broken house and addressing the Five Deadly D's that sap American strength: debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, decaying infrastructure, and dependence on hydrocarbons. If you bet on risky adventures abroad and lose, your credibility and political stock will fall when, in fact, it's badly needed to deal with pressing domestic matters, particularly the economy.

Governing is about choosing. The best thing you can do both for America and its position in the world is to address the sources of domestic weakness. If you succeed on that front, you will be strengthening the foundation on which our foreign policy rests. And in the process, who knows? You might actually become what you aspire to be -- a truly consequential American president.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

Take Cover

Gale force winds in the Middle East.

Regardless of who gets to enjoy the White House movie theater for the next four years, the first film Barack Obama or Mitt Romney ought to watch is Wolfgang Petersen's 2000 disaster classic, "The Perfect Storm."

Like the doomed, intrepid crew of the Andrea Gail in author Sebastian Junger's tale of the powerful 1991 Nor'easter, the United States is caught up in its own perfect storm in a Middle East it can neither fix nor flee.

The looming crisis with Iran, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Syria's implosion would be trouble enough. But an Obama or Romney administration will also face an Arab world at sea.

It would be wrong to predict the worst from the Arab revolutions. Newly empowered Islamists and nationalists will need the West for many things, causing them to moderate their more revolutionary goals --- for now. Hope and progress will mix uneasily with violence and political and economic dysfunction. Donald Rumsfeld was right: Democratization  -- if that's what's actually in train -- is indeed a messy process.

What distinguishes this particular storm, however, is its chronic and durable character. If the storm hit, broke hard, and passed that would be one thing. But unlike Junger's meteorological event, this political storm will ebb and flow for some time to come.

I can already hear the critics in the background: This is all too dismal, democratization takes time, there's been real progress -- in Egypt, for example, where the country's first civilian government shares power with the military. My fellow FP columnist, Marc Lynch, wrote a terrific piece analyzing why the recent outburst of Muslim rage isn't nearly as significant as annoyingly negative worriers believe.

I concede much of that. And it would be wrong to be guided too much by our fears - just as we were guided too much by our hopes in the initial bloom of the Arab Spring.  Nor can we rush to judgment or evaluate political change in this region by our own history and standards. After all, even in the case of the United States, it took a century and a half, including a bloody civil war, to reconcile the promise of equality contained in the Declaration of Independence with the legitimization of slavery contained in the Constitution. And of course, we're still far from perfect when it comes to attitudes about racial equality.

What's important is not the end state. We hardly know what that will be. The relevant question is: Are the trend lines running in the right direction? Unfortunately, they may not be.

When the Arab Spring initially broke in late 2010, few could have predicted its character, arc or direction. Whatever hopes there were for easy transitions, inclusive institutions, enlightened leaders, and stable democracies were quickly overtaken by harsher realities.

Secular forces quickly lost their pride of place to Islamists of various strains, particularly in Egypt. These groups were much more determined, cohesive and better organized. Military elites also jockeyed and competed to preserve their power. The repressive powers of the state in places like Syria, Bahrain, and tribal rivalries in Yemen and Libya asserted themselves even while historic elections, transitional leaderships, and new parliaments held out some hope for positive change. And throughout these historic events, the United States figured only marginally in the narratives, grievances and tropes of those Arabs in the streets seeking to own and control their own destiny.

No more.

In a dramatic turnaround, America seems to be front and center (again) in the Arab story. Three forces have come together -- like a perfect storm -- to threaten the promise of the Arab Spring. And these elements reinforce one another, creating a downward spiral that will be hard to break.

1. Anti-Americanism: We shouldn't kid ourselves -- there is an enormous reservoir of anti-American sentiment in the Arab world, and it has been brewing for years. The vast majority of Arabs may like America and Americans, but the fact is they don't like our policies. What's more,  a disturbingly large minority of conservative, militant Muslims don't like anything about us either - particularly our culture's openness, tolerance, permissiveness and high bar on protected speech.

The sources of Arab anger toward America run deep. We are perceived among many as modern day colonialists throwing our weight around, not taking Arab and Muslim sensitivities seriously, supporting Israel, invading Iraq and Afghanistan, methodically whacking Muslims with Predator drones, bucking up Arab oil sheikhs, interceding in the Arab world when it suits our interests (see Libya) and allowing the Arabs to fend for themselves when it doesn't (see Syria).

This anger and sense of humiliation has been loosed, not constrained, by the so-called Arab Spring.  Public opinion is now freer to shape the political climate in the region, and new governments are less able or willing to control or repress it. Since American policies are not likely to change quickly or easily, we're in for a long, turbulent ride.

2. Islamists: Let's be clear: The "Arab Spring" is really an Islamist Spring. That doesn't mean that militant Muslims are taking over the world -- the Islamists are divided and constrained by their newfound responsibilities of governance, and in Egypt's case dependence on the West for economic support. But what it does mean is that when fair and free elections are held in the Middle East - take Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Palestine, and Lebanon as examples -- Islamist parties do very well. They out organize, out mobilize and outsmart their secular, liberal counterparts.

And even where they don't fare well, such as in Libya, minority groups representing radical Islamist elements can have an impact far out of proportion to their actual support among the general public. It's the nature of the human enterprise -- determined minorities act, majorities acquiesce. The thousands-strong demonstration of Libyans protesting out-of-control militias in the wake of the killing of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens is a hopeful sign, but it has done almost nothing to change the balance of power between what passes for central authority and armed groups.

And let's not forget the fact that the Islamists are operating in deeply traditional and religious societies. As a result, they have an edge over liberals and other secular reformers who occupy only narrow cultural and political space. This was dramatically reflected in the entire Tahrir Square narrative of 2011, where the Western media wrongly believed that young revolutionaries committed to freedoms that would have made Thomas Jefferson blush were taking over the country. I think it's fair to say that they (and we?) jumped too soon on a bandwagon that has now broken down

With the rise of the Islamists comes a much lower bar for what constitutes an offense, particularly if generated by the West against Islam. In this sense the vile anti-Islamic video Innocence of Muslims wasn't simply a pretext for arousing grievances, but reflected the consequences of a clash between Western values and those of Islamists, whose sensibilities have proven impossible to accommodate with our notions of free speech.

Fouad Ajami is right: Modernity requires the willingness to be offended -- and with the digital revolution, to be offended on a global scale. In 1981, a Turkish Muslim tried to kill John Paul II -- in Vatican Square no less. How many Muslims were killed or embassies attacked by angry Christians looking for revenge? And yet we have a series of events on the opposite side of the ledger -- the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for the publication of The Satanic Verses, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Geogh by an angry Moroccan Dutchman, and the murder, threats, and intimidation that followed the publication of Danish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

Admittedly, America has a unique and very high bar for protected speech. However, the standard for freedom of conscience and expression in many parts of the Muslim world is also very low, and not likely to change anytime soon. I can walk into Times Square and say just about anything I want without fear of arrest or death, as long as I don't disrupt the public order. It is a cruel irony that in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the place that embodied so much hope and promise of freedom, there's no freedom of conscience. Should anyone offend the prophet there, the consequences might be fatal.

3. Weak and Enabling Governments: Finally, the third element in this storm is the behavior of new governments, which are either unwilling or unable to manage this new angry Islamic populism. In Benghazi, the Arab world's new Dodge City -- a city with far too many guns, grudges and grievances -- the Libyan government simply seems incapable of establishing order.

In Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi's government initially seemed to be taking a page from its authoritarian predecessor - control the riots when it suits you and don't control them when you want to make a point or are under pressure from others to do so. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allowed crowds to torch the Danish Embassy in Damascus following a Danish newspaper's publication of the caricatures of the prophet, Hosni Mubarak would never have permitted anyone to violate the U.S. Embassy, occupy its grounds for hours, and raise Islam's black flag over its gate.

This isn't a plea to have the authoritarians back. What it reveals, however, is that Morsi's response to the anti-Islam film reflected a different agenda than his predecessor. He's much more sensitive to Islamist sensibilities and also under pressure from hardline Salafist movements.

The power and fury of last month's attacks against U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East and beyond has abated. There's a reason for that: Governments that have some measure of control over their streets, particularly in Egypt, need things from America and can't afford to allow lawlessness and disorder to prevail without compelling cause.  

But the factors that produced the attacks are here to stay. U.S. policies that enrage, aggrieve and humiliate Arabs and Muslims who are only too ready to be enraged, aggrieved, and humiliated are unlikely to change; the capacity of groups and governments to exploit them may only grow stronger; and the uncertain transition to more inclusive democratic systems ensure that an angry Islamic populism won't be defused anytime soon.

So, should we give up on the Arab Spring and stop trying to encourage the possibilities for positive change? Absolutely not. But should we give up our illusions -- particularly the notion that we can significantly influence the Arabs' political future or that we're in for anything other than a wild ride in a stormy, turbulent, and churning Arab world? Yes.

And most of all, we should hope that the Roman historian Tacitus was wrong when he wrote, "The fairest day after a bad emperor is the first."

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images