A Midsummer's Night Rant -- and Question for Obama

Perhaps it's just the summer doldrums or the various small setbacks that second-term presidents routinely suffer. But it's hard to avoid the impression that the Obama administration's foreign policy is running out of gas, despite the arrival of a new secretary of state, a new secretary of defense, and a new national security advisor.

On Egypt, U.S. policy is neither hard-nosed realist nor a principled defense of democracy. Indeed, I can't quite figure out what the U.S. policy is except that the Egyptian generals are still going to get the customary U.S. baksheesh and the United States will do its best to nudge them into something it can plausibly defend as kinda, sorta democratic. On Syria, I'm glad the United States hasn't gone the Full McCain (defined as a blindfolded dive into a shark-infested pool), but it would be nice if someone explained to the world what U.S. policy is. On Iran, the arrival of a new, more moderate president -- something the administration was positively panting for back in 2009 -- seems to have elicited the most timid of policy responses. Instead of a serious diplomatic initiative, Americans just get to hear more lectures from Prime Minister-Who-Cries-Wolf Netanyahu, who seems to think the United States owes his country another Middle East war. (And while I'm at it, when did CBS News' Bob Schieffer forget how to ask serious questions? If he plans on retiring anytime soon, a second career hosting paid infomercials beckons).

Maybe I'm being too harsh. The transatlantic trade talks seem to have survived Edward Snowden's revelations about National Security Agency spying in Europe, though it will be a long slog before a deal is reached. Despite the sequester, the U.S. military (especially the Special Forces) is busy partnering with foreign militaries around the world. (But am I the only person worrying that the most extensive U.S. connection to a lot of countries seems to be through their generals?). The foreign-policy bureaucracy in Washington is still busy churning out talking points for the next set of summit(s), principals' meetings, or visits from foreign dignitaries. Of course, the vast, top-secret intelligence and counterterrorism empire created after the 9/11 attacks is continuing to burn up $billions, collect gazilla-bytes of data, and Keep Us Safe against a wildly overstated threat.

Of course, compared with the challenges that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Dilma Rousseff, Xi Jinping, Manmohan Singh, François Hollande, and David Cameron are facing these days, I'll bet the view from the White House looks pretty good. But think back to where Obama started back in 2009. Remember that dizzying array of initiatives he launched back then? The Cairo speech, heralding "two states" for "two peoples"? Gone, baby, gone. The Prague speech on nuclear disarmament? There has been some modest progress, perhaps, but nothing you'd call a breakthrough. Climate change? Obama's latest set of initiatives was a step in the right direction, but mostly it proved he's still very good at making a speech. And don't get me started about Afghanistan: I'm glad the United States is finally going to get out, but it's with a whimper, not a bang (or a victory).

I know what you're thinking. Isn't he always complaining that the United States is trying to do too much in international affairs? And didn't I recently label Obama a "buck-passer" and suggest that this isn't such a bad approach for this particular period of U.S. foreign policy? So if the United States is "running on empty" these days, why am I not rejoicing?

Here's why. I'm certainly pleased that the United States isn't doing foolish things like invading Syria or bombing Iran. But that doesn't mean there aren't other areas where greater energy, effort, and focus are needed. What I don't see is a clear sense of what the administration is trying to accomplish in the time it has left in office, or a well-developed strategy for reaching those goals (whatever they might be). Barack Obama's administration had lots of good instincts from the very beginning, but it never developed a clear set of strategic priorities (i.e., what steps would bring the American people the greatest benefits in terms of security and prosperity) or a well-articulated program of initiatives designed to accomplish those ends. And surely we know by now that a really well-crafted Obama speech is not by itself a policy or a strategy; at best it can be one element of the PR campaign.

So I'd like some reporter with more access than I have to ask the president, Susan Rice, or maybe John Kerry the following question: What are the two most important foreign-policy objectives that you intend to achieve by the time you leave office in January 2017? Follow-up: How are you going to use American power and influence to ensure you succeed?


Stephen M. Walt

Making Lemonade in the Middle East

Smart statecraft is sometimes opportunistic. No government can anticipate every twist and turn in global politics; the question is whether it can seize the moment when one arrives and advance the national interest in new, unexpected circumstances.

So it is with the recent ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This is an opportunity for the United States to do something it should have done a long time ago -- namely, end its unjustified military aid packages to Egypt and Israel. Robert Wright and Andrew Sullivan have raised this issue in different ways over the past week; here I want to explore the connection between the two aid programs.

In essence, the current level of U.S. aid to Egypt and Israel is a bribe dating back to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Israel demanded a long-term aid commitment in exchange for withdrawing from the Sinai, which it had occupied since the 1967 Six-Day War. Egypt got the money as a reward for making peace and realigning with the West. The United States made a bunch of other commitments as part of this deal, and it has been locked in ever since, which is why recent events provide a tempting opportunity to restore U.S. freedom of action.

Let's start with Egypt. U.S. law prohibits the U.S. government from providing aid to any government that has taken power as the result of a military coup. Unless you torture the English language to the breaking point, this is precisely what has just happened in Egypt. So if you believe in the rule of law, the United States ought to be terminating its aid program.

But as Robert Wright tweeted on July 8, it would make a lot more sense to convert the current military aid program into something more useful, such as food aid. The last thing Egypt needs is more high-priced toys for its generals, like F-22s or tanks or even armored personnel carriers. Nobody is threatening to invade Egypt, and most of these weapons aren't all that useful for keeping public order. What Egypt needs is more-effective government, less corruption, economic growth, lower food prices, more reliable water and energy supplies, etc., etc. -- not more sophisticated or well-armed conventional military forces. The coup is an opportunity to end an aid program that outlived its usefulness a long time ago, and the United States ought to seize it.

Now for Israel. At this point there's no valid strategic reason for Israel to receive $3 billion to $4 billion in U.S. aid each year (most of it in various forms of military assistance). Israel isn't a poor country; its per capita income is nearly $30,000 per year, and it ranks in the world's top 30 countries on that indicator. Israel is far and away the dominant military power in the region, and its regional superiority would only increase if the United States stopped subsidizing Egypt's armed forces. Remember that Israel won the 1948, 1956, and 1967 Middle East wars, and each of these took place before the U.S. government was providing it with lots of military assistance. Egypt and Syria launched a stunningly successful surprise attack in October 1973, yet Israel eventually won that war too. And this was back in the bad old days when Israel's Arab adversaries were getting lots of help from the Soviet Union. Israel's various neighbors are much weaker today than they used to be (just look at the condition that Syria and Iraq are now in), and Israel also has the ultimate deterrent in the form of more than a hundred nuclear weapons. And as President Barack Obama learned during his first term, it's not like the United States gets any diplomatic leverage from giving Israel all that money. Bottom line: The case for continued U.S. military assistance is laughably weak.

So instead of military aid that Israel doesn't need and that serves only as an indirect subsidy for the settlements the United States opposes, the United States should offer Israel an equivalent amount of aid, provided it agrees to use the money to begin dismantling settlements in the West Bank and allowing the Palestinians to create a viable state of their own on these lands. That would be consistent with the stated U.S. objective of "two states for two peoples," and this shift in policy might actually get Netanyahu & Co. to pay serious attention to Secretary of State John Kerry the next time he pops in for a visit. (I don't think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would take the money and do this, by the way, but that's another issue).

In short, the events in Cairo are a perfect opportunity to wean these two dependencies off the U.S. dole or to convert U.S. assistance into something from which these two societies could actually benefit. This shift would also do wonders for the America's image in the region, which has taken a beating over the years for being too supportive of an expansionist Israel and too supportive of unpopular Arab dictatorships.

But we all know that a sensible response like this is about as likely as snow on the pyramids. The United States' Middle East policy isn't driven by rational calculations of the national interest or by a desire to make the United States stronger, more secure, or more prosperous. It's not even driven by moral considerations, given that the United States still provides generous support to governments that routinely commit serious human rights abuses or deny political rights to millions of people. Instead, it's driven mostly by domestic politics, especially the political power of AIPAC and the rest of the Israel lobby. And that's why the phrase "sensible U.S. Middle East policy" has become an oxymoron. The results, both for the United States and for the various peoples in the region, speak for themselves.