Pitfalls of a ‘realist’ Mideast strategy

WASHINGTON — Talleyrand, the celebrated French diplomat, is said to have offered this inscrutable advice about the use of military power: “One can do everything with bayonets except sit on them.” Perhaps that’s a starting point in thinking about President Obama’s new approach of what might be called “strategic humility” about American power in the turbulent Middle East.

How should we apply this pointedly ambiguous French aphorism? Obama might argue that rather than attempt to sit on the bayonet of the Arab revolutions, he is moving away to avoid damage. But a critic could counter that such a withdrawal is unwise; unless American power is projected outward, we will only injure ourselves.

Obama first outlined his more cautious approach in his speech last month to the U.N. General Assembly. Susan Rice, the national security adviser, elaborated in an interview last Sunday with The New York Times. Ben Rhodes, her deputy, provided more detail in a conversation with me Tuesday.

“We have to be humble about the timelines for change in the Middle East and our ability to dictate political outcomes there,” Rhodes said. “If you try to make everyone happy, you inevitably make people unhappy. You overpromise. You let others tell us what our interests are.”

Well, the president certainly doesn’t have to worry about making everyone happy. The Saudis and some other traditional Arab allies are furious about what they see as Obama’s weakness and vacillation on Syria, and nervous about his willingness to negotiate a nuclear deal with their arch-rival, Iran.

The White House takes this Saudi criticism in stride, with officials reckoning that Riyadh inevitably chafes at U.S. disagreement with its policies on Syria and Iran — which are driven by a Sunni agenda toward Shiite-led Iran and Syria that America doesn’t share. Secretary of State John Kerry will probably visit the Gulf soon to explain U.S. views, but it’s telling that the administration didn’t immediately dispatch a top official to the kingdom for high-level hand-holding.

Obama’s implicit message to Riyadh seems to be: Our interests differ, get over it. That’s a useful note of honesty, but the White House could have saved itself a lot of trouble by communicating its strategic views better to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — all long-standing U.S. allies.

The “core interests” Obama says the U.S. is prepared to fight for all involve Gulf security. The four commitments he underlined in his U.N. speech were: responding to aggression against U.S. friends and allies; maintaining a free flow of energy; fighting terrorists; and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. That reads like a Saudi wish list.

The centerpiece of U.S.-Saudi friction is the administration’s more restrained approach in Syria. Obama has decided to limit the U.S. commitment there to dismantling chemical weapons (in a joint effort with Russia); providing humanitarian relief for refugees (who may experience massive suffering and loss of life this winter, testing the limits of American sang-froid); and catalyzing a political process to replace President Bashar al-Assad.

What Obama is not prepared to do is topple Assad militarily. “We are not seeking to help the opposition win a civil war,” says a White House official. While the U.S. will continue to provide overt and covert aid to the rebels, the goal is “strengthening their negotiating position” at an eventual peace conference in Geneva, not military victory.

But let’s be honest: This is basically a formula for stalemate in Syria, with continuing carnage and growth of al-Qaida there. Though it sounds like a low-risk strategy, the administration’s disengaged approach is actually quite dangerous.

The new Middle East strategy is Rice’s first big initiative as national security adviser. Conceptually, it marks her as a “realist” who wants to help the president make clear decisions in a world where the limits of U.S. power are obvious. Conceptually, it makes sense. By cautioning that the U.S. can’t solve every problem, Obama is rejecting the region’s “contradictory standard,” as Rhodes puts it. “People want us to resolve all conflicts, and they also oppose our intervention. It’s our fault, no matter what happens.”

But foreign policy is about the execution of ideas as much as their formulation. And here, Rice’s touch has been less sure, especially in messaging with allies. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah shouldn’t be surprised by U.S. policy on Syria — but neither should German Chancellor Angela Merkel when it comes to NSA surveillance. The communications part of the process needs work.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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