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Obama's Mideast strategy muddled, thoughtless

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There's an old saying that liberals will support armed intervention in a foreign conflict only so long as nothing resembling a self-interest is at stake.

If the cause is purely humanitarian -- if the refinement of American morality is the only possible domestic benefit -- liberals just might be persuaded to support the use of military force to help a starved, invaded or otherwise oppressed people.

Which brings me to the baffling subject of Syria. As with many observers of the Obama administration, I've been confused by its unwillingness to take even the relatively modest steps required to bring about a decisive end to the regime of Bashar Assad. More than 30,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising against him, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and untold numbers have been wounded, tortured or raped.

The Syrians who are rebelling are in dire need of the sort of support the United States can best provide. The U.S. has the capability to efficiently neutralize Syria's air defences and impose a no-fly zone to ground Assad's attack helicopters. And as Michael Doran and Max Boot pointed out in a recent New York Times opinion article, only the U.S. can lead a multinational effort to establish safe corridors between the Turkish border and the besieged city of Aleppo. If Aleppo was under the stable and permanent control of Syria's rebels, it would spell the end of Assad's regime and its appalling brutality.

So what explains U.S. President Barack Obama's hesitancy?

Perhaps the caricature of liberals is true: In Libya, where Obama deployed the air force against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi -- whose crimes were terrible, but not as terrible as Assad's -- there were only marginal national-security interests at stake. In Syria, the national-security interests are profound. It doesn't seem plausible Obama is hesitating because the U.S. self-interest is so nakedly apparent. Yet a better explanation for his passivity is elusive.

Could Obama simply be avoiding a messy foreign entanglement during his bid for re-election? If this were true, it would make him guilty of criminal negligence. Is he the sort of man who would deny innocent and endangered people help simply because greater engagement could complicate his re-election chances? I truly doubt it.

Here's another possible explanation: Perhaps Obama isn't quite the brilliant foreign-policy strategist his campaign tells us he is. Of course, he has had his successes. I'm not sure you're aware of this, but Osama bin Laden is dead (killed, apparently, by Obama, who used only a salad fork and a No. 2 pencil). And, despite Republican assertions to the contrary, he has done far more to stymie Iran's nuclear ambitions than his predecessor, George W. Bush, ever did.

Yet, Obama's record in the Middle East suggests missed opportunities are becoming a White House specialty.

Syria is the most obvious example. Assad is a prime supporter of terrorism (as opposed to Gadhafi, who had retired from terrorism sponsorship by the time his people rose up against him), and his regime represents Iran's only meaningful Arab ally. The overriding concern of the Obama administration in the Middle East is the defanging of Iran. Nothing would isolate Iran -- and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah -- more than the removal of the Assad regime and its replacement by a government drawn from Syria's Sunni majority. Ensuring Muslim extremists don't dominate the next Syrian government is another compelling reason to increase U.S. involvement.

Yet all we have from Obama is passivity, which is a recurring theme in the administration's approach to the Middle East. So is "aggressive hedging," a term the Brookings Institution's Shadi Hamid uses to describe Obama's strange reluctance to clearly choose sides in the uprisings of the Arab Spring.

"There's a widespread perception in the region that Obama is a weak, somewhat feckless president," Hamid, who runs the Brookings Doha Center, told me. "Bush may have been hated, but he was also feared, and what we've learned in the Middle East is that fear, sometimes at least, can be a good thing. Obama's aggressive hedging has alienated both sides of the Arab divide. Autocrats, particularly in the Gulf, think Obama naively supports Arab revolutionaries, while Arab protesters and revolutionaries seem to think the opposite."

Leaders across the Middle East don't take Obama's threats seriously. Neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the Arab leaders of the Gulf countries believe he'll act militarily against Iran's nuclear program in his second term.

Obama's handling of Middle East peace negotiations couldn't be characterized as passive; they could, however, be described as thoughtless. Obama publicly demanded Netanyahu freeze settlement growth on the West Bank. When Netanyahu only partially and temporarily complied, Obama, in reaction, did nothing. Obama was wrong to draw a line in the sand over settlements, which are a derivative issue (if the Israelis and Palestinians settle their borders, the settlement issue will also be solved). But because he made it an issue without a thought to follow-up, he managed to freeze the peace process. From the Arab perspective, Obama didn't carry through on a stated policy. This didn't help his reputation.

"Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have run roughshod over Obama, embarrassing and undercutting him," Hamid said. "They simply don't believe that Obama will do anything about it."

The Middle East is a misery for American presidents. Very few, including Obama, have managed to shape events there in ways that benefit the U.S.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2012 A11

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