It can’t be said too often, but should be said with deep humility: President Obama’s Middle East policy speech transformed the fundamental insight of the Bush Doctrine—that American power must be a force for liberty rather than “stability” in the region—into a bipartisan and enduring principle of American strategy that will not be easily undone.
Nor is it gloating to observe that this reflects a maturation of Obama’s views. Beyond their long-standing reflexive anti-Bush stance (still persistent but, if the speech was any indicator, perhaps fading), administration officials often made what appeared to be, at first blush, a coherent strategic argument: the Middle East was a sideshow and diversion from the emerging great-power competition of the 21st century and the challenge of China. If the president’s speech means anything, it means that he has rejected this China-first approach to strategy. The growth of political liberty across the region is “not a secondary interest,” the president asserted. “Today I am making it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.”
This is also an admission that, though he has confirmed the new direction for U.S. strategy in the region, there is much to do to plot the course and guide the ship. As my boss, Dany Pletka, and former NSC director for the Middle East Michael Singh both pointed out this morning, there are a number of thorny questions still to resolve, and simply taking them one at a time probably won’t work.
Equally important, the president and his lieutenants will need to enforce better discipline across government departments—and the Pentagon and the senior foreign service in particular—that have been the keepers of the “stability” flame for so long. Indeed, no group is more incorrigible on this score than the general officers who are, in fact, the most visible and powerful expression of U.S. policy across a region and among its autocrats. America’s proconsuls in uniform are by habit and by education “realists” of the Colin Powell school, arguing, as did Powell in his autobiography, that attempts to build “desert democracies” were “naïve.”
Whether the pursuit of liberty among Arabs or Muslims is ultimately quixotic or not, it has become established American strategy to promote it “through all of the tools … at our disposal.” It is people in uniform who should know this most profoundly, as it has been their mission for a long time, and their prime mission since September 11, 2001. Now their commander-in-chief sees this, too.
Finally, conservatives ought to embrace and encourage the president’s transformation—after all, he has come around to our point of view. And they should push him to put his money where his mouth is, and not to suppose that “soft” power alone is sufficient; this is a region that puts a premium on very hard power, even in the age of Twitter. The president is right to seek ways to reward those like Tunisia and Egypt, who are moving toward democracy, but it is still critical to punish those, like Moammar Gaddafi, at war with their own people. We should be patient with those who accept the need for change and with those who are our strategic partners, but impatient with Gaddafi, the Assad regime in Syria, or the Iranians who are—as the Israelis and Palestinians are not—the most dangerous enemies of a lasting peace. It would be tragic if Republicans attacked the president for his embrace of the Bush Doctrine.