George Packer of the New Yorker is always worth reading, and he has a thoughtful reflection in the latest issue on Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state and what it tells us about the Obama administration's successes and failures during the first term. His basic thesis is that the White House didn't give Hillary much to do (though she stayed plenty busy doing it) and downplayed diplomacy in favor of drone strikes, special forces, and other military instruments. These tools were deployed without an excess of zeal and there were no big catastrophes, but also not a lot of big wins either.
So far so good. But Packer's real complaint is that things are deteriorating in some key places, and that Obama is going to have to shoulder the burden of global leadership in his second term. There's trouble throughout the greater Middle East, he warns, and that region "will remain an American problem." And so he concludes his piece with a recommendation that ought to send your "uh-oh" meter tingling. In his words, "[Obama] will need to give his next Secretary of State, John Kerry, the authority that he denied his last one, to put the country's prestige on the line by wading deep into the morass."
I don't know about you, but I've always thought that when you see a morass, the last thing you want to do is "wade deeply into it." Ditto quagmires, bogs, and the "Big Muddy." Indeed, most of the problems U.S. foreign policy has faced in recent years have occurred when we poured vast sums into ambitious social engineering projects in societies we didn't understand and where our prospects for success were never bright.
Packer is surely correct that the greater Middle East is in turmoil, but it does not follow that deep American engagement there -- even if purely diplomatic -- will solve that problem. For starters, there is little affection for the United States in many of these societies, either because they rightly blame us for turning a blind eye to Israel's treatment of the Palestinians or because they rightly blame us for backing various brutal dictatorships for our own strategic reasons. Nor does the United States have a lot of credibility as a diplomatic actor, having screwed up the Oslo peace process (with plenty of help, to be sure) and having bungled the occupation of Iraq.
Instead of wading deeper into the morass, in short, the United States would be far better served with a more distant and hands-off strategy. This doesn't mean writing off the region entirely, as we still have a strategic interest in keeping oil flowing to world markets and in discouraging the spread of WMD or the emergence of more anti-American jihadis. But getting deeply involved in the excruciatingly complex problems of internal governance and institution-building that are going to be taking place in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere is probably something America is not that well-suited for, no matter how noble our intentions. Moreover, in some cases greater U.S. involvement fuels jihadism or gives some states greater incentive to think about getting WMD. Regrettably, we are equally incapable of making a positive contribution to solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which is neither the source of all the region's troubles nor irrelevant to our diminished capacity there.
I don't like admitting that there are problems that Uncle Sam can't solve, and I wish I could share Packer's enthusiasm for another round of energetic U.S. engagement. But given our track record of late, the Hippocratic injunction to "do no harm" strikes me as the wiser course. And I'm pretty sure Obama agrees, although he's unlikely to admit it too loudly or too often.
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When the revolt in Tunisia occurred back in January, I wrote:
Although most Arab governments are authoritarian, they are also all independent and depend on a slightly different mix of political institutions and measures to keep the rulers in power. The fact that Ben Ali ultimately mismanaged a challenge and was driven from power does not mean that other Arab leaders won't be able to deflect, deter, or suppress challenges to their rule."
Tunisia is an obvious warning sign to other Arab dictatorships, and they are bound to be especially vigilant in the months ahead, lest some sort of similar revolutionary wave begin to emerge."
While conceding that a revolutionary cascade was possible and that pressure for greater openness might succeed in the long term, I concluded that a rapid transformation was unlikely.
As I've noted previously, I underestimated the degree to which events in Tunisia would inspire like-minded movements in other countries, and it's clear that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak didn't respond as swiftly or effectively as I expected. But Arab governments are under no illusions now, and we seem to be witnessing precisely the sort of counterrevolutionary responses that often serve to contain a revolutionary outbreak.
In Libya, the Qaddafi regime has responded in brutal but increasingly effective fashion and now seems likely to retain power in at least part of the country for some time to come. With few genuine foreign friends, a big pile of cash, and no place to run or hide, Qaddafi and his family had little choice but to fight it out and hope for the best, even if their brutal suppression of the rebel forces lands them back on the list of international pariahs.
For its part, the Saudi government has sought to pre-empt significant protests by doling out $37 billion worth of new social benefits, while making it clear that protests will be dealt with harshly. In neighboring Bahrain, the Khalifa dynasty has responded to rising protests from its Shiite majority population with heightened repression. It has also invited the Saudis -- which share the Khalifa regime's fear of Iranian influence -- to send several thousand troops there to back up the government.
So if you believed that the events in Tunisia and Egypt -- which were both relatively bloodless and remarkably swift -- were likely to be duplicated elsewhere, you were wrong. The revolutionary impulse has been remarkably contagious, but revolutionary outcomes much less so, at least thus far. Nor do we yet know how far-reaching the reforms in Tunisia and Egypt will ultimately be (though I remain cautiously optimistic).
All that said, I still find it hard to believe that these events do not herald more far-reaching political change throughout much of the Arab world. Even if some governments are able to keep the lid on for now, the social, political, and economic conditions that have given rise to these upheavals won't vanish anytime soon. Whether they consent to real reform or not, ruling elites are likely to be more mindful of popular opinion going forward, for fear of facing new protests in the future or driving frustrated reformers in more radical and dangerous directions.
If this view is correct, then the days when the United States could base key elements of its Middle East grand strategy on alliances with a set of Arab regimes whose policies tended to ignore popular sentiment -- including widespread popular anger at the U.S. role in the region -- are coming to an end. A new grand strategy is going to be needed -- and soon.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.