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Dear President Obama


December 6, 2008
By Barry Rubin

Dear President Obama:

They say that you prefer the name Barry and so it pleases me no end that another Barry is finally president of the United States. In addition, I once worked as a community organizer so we have two things in common.

On that basis, then, I hope you don't mind my making some suggestions about how you might think about the Middle East. I'm not looking for a job in Washington. In fact, as I look back on my life, I note that if I'd been successful in some obsession for a U.S. a government post I would have been a proud participant in such endeavors as the catastrophic mishandling of Iran's revolution, the failed U.S. dispatch of troops to Lebanon, the botched trade of arms for hostages with Iran, the crashed peace process, and the Iraq war.

So don't be misled! Today, everyone's talking about how wonderful you are. Those are the people who want jobs, favors, and access. There are others who want something else from you--like control over Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, or Georgia--who are more likely to be psychopathic than sycophantic.

Your expressed theme for your administration's Middle East policy can be described in one word: conciliation. You think that your predecessors made unnecessary enemies and blocked, rather than furthered, progress. Building on the basis of your perceived popularity and sincere good will, you believe that it is not so heard to make friends with Iran and Syria, soothe grievances that have caused Islamism and terrorism, and solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Good luck. We hope you succeed.

But please bear in mind some important points as you go along in this effort.

  • In the Middle East, it is not so useful to think yourself popular and show yourself to be friendly. You have to inspire fear in your enemies and confidence in your friends. And if you don't inspire fear in your enemies--if you're too nice to them--then you will indeed foment fear among your friends.
  • Not everyone thinks the same way. When you talk of "empathy," America's enemies hear the word "fear." When you speak of change, they, too, want change. Unfortunately the change they want means wiping other states off the map, creating radical Islamist dictatorships, and kicking the United States out of the region.

This is no misunderstanding: it's a conflict.

(In the film, "Cool Hand Luke," the noble convict (played by Paul Newman), jokes to the sadistic guards, "What we have here is a lack of communication." The audiences laughed. What everyone has forgotten is that a moment later they shoot him dead. Harvard Law School meets the law of the jungle.

You are going to talk to Iran, negotiate with Syria, and try to buy the Palestinians or press the Israelis into making peace. It's your presidency and many Americans think--whether rightly or not--that this hasn't been tried enough.

But please keep in mind four very important points for when the going gets rough:

  1. How much do you offer them and at who's expense? Not too much, please.
  2. How closely will you monitor whether or not they are keeping their commitments? Be tough please.
  3. At what point will you conclude that they don't want to end existing conflicts or be America's friends? Don't wait too long, please.
  4. What do you do when you figure out this doesn't work? Don't be afraid to admit failure, blame those responsible, and try something else.

Let's take Iraq. You want to withdraw and turn the war over to the Iraqis. Makes sense. But what will you do if Iran escalates in order to make your withdrawal look like a defeat and fill the vacuum--subtly, of course, not too openly.

And what do you do to combat Iranian and Syrian efforts to turn Iraq, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip, into their sphere of influence? They will pump in money, pump up hatred, and kill anyone who stands in the way. Making a good speech, apologizing for the past, or offering more concessions won't work.

Westerners are eager to resolve conflicts; revolutionaries want to use conflicts. You think grievances can be resolved; their grievances are insatiable. Make a concession, they ignore it and demand another. Withdraw from a territory, they occupy it and turn it into a base for the next advance. Explain that you feel their pain, and they add to your pain.

This is what it is like to deal with extremists and ideologues.

Right now you don't understand why Bill Clinton and George Bush couldn't solve a little thing like the Arab-Israeli conflict. Don't worry. Be patient. You will.

The truth is that an emphasis on Afghanistan is no panacea because Afghanistan is far tougher than Iraq. no one tames Afghanistan, it is a product of geography, ethnic conflict, macho militarism, and degree of development. In Iraq, the majority is very basically on your side and a stable government could definitely emerge, in Afghanistan, it is a permanent holding action or collapse.

I'm not the least bit worried about a good U.S.-Israel relationship, but what about the indirect threat.

What happens when the Europeans hug you, kiss you and then refuse to extend sanctions. Will Austria, Germany and Switzerland cut off their deals with Iran or will you even ask them to toughen up?

How will you convince the Saudis, Jordanians, Egyptians and others that you are their reliable protector against Iranian nukes?.
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