The Element of Expectation

Congratulations, you’re alive. You survived the bloodiest summer in recent memory; it is a summer your children will ask you about when they are in school. I hope you paid attention. The Syrian Civil War is now in its most violent phase, and the Assad regime has begun to use chemical weapons en masse, including on children. Egyptian democracy came and went. Morsi’s government has crumbled at it seams and the military now controls the country with an iron first. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began, but don’t get your hopes up—Hamas has refused to participate.

Amidst this chaos, the United States made vague, noncommittal statements to the press. Only recently has President Obama begun to discuss military options, albeit limited ones. Liberals describe this as a rational foreign policy. Calm and control, they argue, is preferable to impulsive action. Conservatives, on the other hand, label US foreign policy as weak and submissive. Both presume a foreign policy exists.

But it doesn’t.

From the early days of the Arab Spring to this year’s brutal Arab Summer, the Obama administration has responded unpredictably to international crises, with a series of moves that don’t appear to be part of any long-term strategy.

Egypt, 2011-2013

Early in the 2011 Arab Spring, Egyptian resistance leaders asked President Obama to publicly ask Mubarak to step down, but he refused.  “We have to balance our ideals and also our strategic interests,” rationalized former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen.  According to the Washington Post, Vice President Biden went further, claiming that Mubarak was neither a dictator, nor had the obligation to step down. Instead, he “proclaimed Hosni Mubarak to be a friend.”

This past summer, the ouster of Mohammad Morsi in a military coup was met with no substantial reaction. Rising casualties in the resulting protests led the United States to cancel its military exercises with Egypt, although we did not cancel our aid. Both in 2011, and this past summer, we refused to even voice our views about the situation in Egypt until after the events had decided themselves.

Libya, 2011

In 2011, the Libyan people rose against their oppressive dictator Muammar Gaddafi. As protests escalated, the US itself took no action.Weeks later, on March 17th, did the United Nations finally authorize a no-fly zone, and then, according to CNN, only because European nations led by the French needed to keep their oil prices down. The Libyans knew it. The United States “with their great grand speeches…at all these conferences…in terms of finances they are a complete failure. Our people are dying,” rebel chief Ali Tarhouni told Reuters. Our refusal to lead only reinforced what the Syrians already knew: that for us, oil is more important than our ideals.

Syria, 2011-2013

The goriest conflict occurring in the Middle East is the Syrian civil war. Repeated calls for a no-fly zone, monetary aid, and the provision of weapons to the rebels have gone ignored by the United States. The Obama administration announced that Syrian use of chemical weapons would force it to respond, but when Syria met this threshold, the President made excuses to avoid acting, claiming that he had to wait for the international community to approve his decision (see Calling the Bluff, Issue 15). Lack of resources has led to a radicalization of the Syrian rebels, which is making us wearier of who might come to power if Assad does indeed fall.

Despite recent moves by Congress to arm the rebel groups, The Economist reported in early August that most of this aid has yet to reach them. Recent findings of even greater chemical weapons use by Syrian rebels has led to a discussion of limited bombing of military headquarters in Syria. However, even if Congress were to approve of these bombing, they would be not enough to change the balance of power. Massacres can occur on our watch. The world knows we won’t act.

Leading from Behind

The Obama administration has no uniform foreign policy when it comes to the Middle East. Rather, it has consistently opted to respond to events as they happen. The result is a weakening US deterrent effect and plummeting approval ratings abroad.

Deterrence relies on predictable retaliation. Nations will only be dissuaded from acting in their own interest if they perceive retaliation to be imminent and forceful. Today, however, Middle Eastern leaders know that they have nothing to fear. For leaders like Assad or Egyptian generals, the message is, “If you win, we’ll leave you be. If you lose, we’ll start condemning you, and maybe even try you in an international court.” These leaders have little to lose, and everything to gain, because the United States will not act.

Nobody likes hypocrites and liars. But the United States has been applying different standards to different circumstances for decades. This randomness is something that is alienating Arabs in the Middle East. As a result of the American response to the Arab Spring, according to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Egyptians holding a favorable view of President Obama fell from 42 percent to 29 percent. In addition, 61 percent of those surveyed believed that the U.S.’s role in the country was “mostly negative.” Even if they don’t agree with our decisions, the global community will respect us if we follow our own values. But when we fail to articulate a clear strategy, we’re perceived as a meddling country up to no good.

Like a chess player, the United States cannot spend the majority of its efforts escaping threats. It must lay down a strategy (in this case, a foreign policy) in which it clearly states to the world (and the American people) how it views its role in the world, and in what circumstances it will intervene in foreign affairs. The basic principle of this foreign policy should be 1) No country that suppresses viable democracy movements using outright violence will be eligible to receive US aid. 2) Use of chemical weapons will necessarily trigger US preventative air strikes. 3) Nuclear proliferation will not be tolerated. They will be met with air strikes and economic sanctions. 4) The US should default to vocalizing its support for democratic movements. Only when our allies are entrenched, and success is unlikely, should we opt not to do so.

These guidelines are basic. I don’t have the time, space, or experience to flesh them out further here. Our government should form a doctrine for intervention abroad. If planned thoroughly, and implemented consistently, this would serve as a pivot around which every other nation would be forced to act. We would be leading rather than following. The element of expectation is lot more powerful than the element of surprise.

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