It won't surprise anyone that I think the Obama administration has done a pretty good job with the Middle East over the last four years. It got the United States out of Iraq, kept the military out of potential quagmires in Iran, Syria, and Libya, and helped to midwife transitions from four decrepit authoritarian regimes. Sure, it failed at the thankless and probably impossible job of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, made no progress on nuclear diplomacy with Iran, punted on Bahrain, and relied too much on drone strikes in Yemen … but it's not like anyone else has offered any better ideas on those fronts.
The critics are right about one thing, though: This administration has not done a good job at laying out and then executing a strategic vision for the Middle East. Avoiding the worst outcomes and effectively managing crises when they rise to the top of the agenda are underrated accomplishments. But they don't amount to a vision, and the president should aim higher in his second term. So what does Obama want the region to look like four years from now? And how will his policies help create that Middle East?
It's been some time since the president gave us hints of his thinking. The last major statement of the administration's vision for the Middle East came in Obama's May 19, 2011, speech at the State Department. That was a good speech, though immediately erased from memory by the stupidstorm over his wording of the conventional wisdom on the 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinians. But a lot has changed since then. Syria has gone from peaceful protest into civil war. Egypt and Tunisia have gotten bogged down in political polarization, institutional failure, economic disaster, and rising Islamist power. Bahrain crushed its opposition with impunity. Benghazi has gone from a symbol of hope to an absurdly politicized buzzword for some vaguely unspecified but surely nefarious scandal.
It's easy to dismiss the most vocal critics on the neoconservative right, who lament the supposed loss of American leadership and cry out for more forceful interventions across the region. Most Americans (and Arabs) have long since internalized the lessons of Iraq and want nothing to do with more U.S. military adventures in the Middle East. The neocons couldn't even convince Mitt Romney to back war with Iran or intervention in Syria -- why should anyone else take them seriously?
It's harder, but arguably more important, to push back against skeptics in the other direction who want either disengagement from the region or a return to business as usual. American disenchantment with an "Arab Spring" they see as producing mainly Muslim Brotherhood victories in Egypt and violence in Benghazi is palpable. Between April 2011 and October 2012, there was a 17-point drop in the percentage of Americans who believed that changes in the Arab world would improve the lives of the people there, and by October only 14 percent thought the changes would be good for the United States. But the seemingly practical idea of retreating to realpolitik accommodations with dictators is a mirage. The destabilizing forces behind the Arab uprisings will continue to unfold in the coming years, whether the United States likes it or not.
So what is the Obama administration's strategy -- and what should it be? It's worth rereading the president's speech from last May. That speech sought to place the United States on the side of a popular movement for universal freedoms while frankly acknowledging that change would take many years and would not come easily. He saw, where many in Washington did not, that the authoritarian status quo had become unsustainable. But he defied the American instinct to place itself at the center of events: "It's not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo -- it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it's the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome." He saw the urgency of engaging with those newly empowered people and that "failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense."
Those assertions have largely faded from view, lost in the relentless flurry of events and the inevitable hypocrisies and compromises that have dulled their edge. It's all too easy to see those tensions. Obama chose to rely on the Gulf monarchies against Iran, which made it exceptionally difficult for him to meaningfully pressure them to reform or to block their counterrevolutionary intervention in Bahrain. Raising expectations on the Palestinian issue and then failing to deliver badly undermined his standing everywhere. Drone strikes degraded al Qaeda in Yemen but increased anti-Americanism, undermined local allies, and made a mockery of pious talk about the rule of law. Both his intervention in Libya and his nonintervention in Syria were the right calls, but baffled many in the region. Even Obama's unprecedented willingness to accept fair Islamist electoral victories in Egypt and Tunisia (the Bush administration talked a good game on democracy but bailed out as soon as Hamas won Palestinian elections) only angered self-styled liberals who just wanted the United States to take their side.