History doesn’t repeat itself, but as the old adage attributed to Mark Twain goes, it does rhyme. What U.S. President Barack Obama now presents as a responsible adult’s insight into the Middle East more closely resembles a repeat of the mistakes of the Eisenhower administration. Unfortunately, the results also appear to be similar.
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Granted, the context is different in important respects. President Dwight Eisenhower was implementing the containment doctrine against the Soviets, in a bipolar world of competition between two superpowers over spheres of influence. Obama, in contrast, while not a classic isolationist seeks to reduce America’s influence and abandon the global policeman role that had fallen to the United States in a one-superpower world. Nevertheless, at the local level, in our region, the similarities are glaring.
Eisenhower sought to bring the Arab radicals of his day, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser above all, closer to the NATO bloc through massive U.S. aid to build the Aswan Dam. But Nasser understood the advantages he could reap from the rivalry between the blocs, and instead of returning the Americans’ love, he challenged them: First he recognized the People’s Republic of China, and then he nationalized the Suez Canal.
England and France responded aggressively, forcibly retaking the canal in cooperation with Israel (which sought to remove the threat posed to it by the Egyptian-Czech arms deal). But Eisenhower still thought he could placate Nasser. He did so by publicly humiliating his NATO allies and forcing them to turn tail, with help from the Soviets.
He thereby hoped to sever America from the legacy of colonialism and offer Egypt friendship. But Nasser once again saw weakness where the United States had hoped he would see America had wanted him to see goodwill.
The result was catastrophic for progressive forces in the Arab world and for the West: resurgent Arab radicalism and Soviet domination of the region for nearly two decades. This dangerous constellation held on until the Nixon administration, through a mix of finesse, flexibility and aggression (and the invaluable assistance of Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat), created a new system of alliances that pushed the Soviets from the region. It is this system that the Obama administration has just dismantled.
Obama sounds as if he has given up on bringing peace to the Middle East. That’s an elegant way to describe the devastation wrought by his repetition of the mistakes made in the 1950s.
When he entered office he tried, like Eisenhower before him, to appease the region’s radicals, and like Eisenhower he did so by distancing himself from his allies — in this case, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. He began by extending his hand and ceremoniously rejecting the legacy of colonialism in his Cairo speech. He continued by opening a door to the Muslim Brotherhood, at the expense of the Mubarak regime. From there he proceeded to the nuclear deal with Iran and hesitancy in the Syrian theater: First there were red lines, then stammering and softening, and finally de facto capitulation to Russian activism.
The “lessons of Iraq” became the be-all and end-all to the administration, and the United States openly abandoned all its tools of deterrence. Muslim radicals learned an important lesson: The most violent party wins, and it’s possible to thumb one’s nose at the United States with no real fear of consequences. Iran drew similar conclusions to those of Nasser.
At the same time, Obama weakened the moderate forces and undermined the stable pillars of American policy in the region. His appeasement of the radicals didn’t yield new alliances, but it did weaken the old ones. The result is that not only has he reduced direct American involvement in the region, as perhaps he intended to do, but he has also strengthened his rivals, weakened his friends and reduced his own room for maneuver.
It will take a tough and sophisticated president to enable the United States — and moderate forces within and outside the region — to recover the strategic assets the Obama administration scattered to the winds without receiving anything in return.