Turmoil among America’s client states in the Middle East is fracturing the foundation of our strategic position in the region. As of now, Washington policymakers are refraining from dashing about in public crying; “the sky is falling.” That is a good thing. Rather, they seem to be flapping their wings excitedly within the confines of the coop. There are no signs yet of rigorous and deliberate efforts to rethink the fundamentals of American policy. That is a bad thing. Were our leaders inclined to do so, it would be sensible to start with some indisputable givens.
One, Washington does not bear direct responsibility for either the popular challenge to autocracy or the attempts at its brutal suppression. We must finally acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our control or even influence. Two, we are stuck though with allies in the Gulf who have shown their true colors as thuggish, corrupt regimes. They have draw a line of blood between themselves and their people that will endure. Which side are you on becomes the overriding question for all. Three, the American tightrope act of simultaneously casting ourselves as the champions of democracy and freedom, on the one hand, and clear eyed realists who are rock solid backers of its friends, on the other, has suffered a disabling fall. Four, it is suicidal to pretend that the United States somehow can revert to the foreign policy perspective ante with just a few tactical adjustments. That is most certainly true in regard to its servile relationship with Israel. Five, the current team calling the shots in Washington is not ready to do anything more than muddle through. From Barack Obama on down, they have neither the insight into the Middle East’s intricate politics, nor the diplomatic skill, nor the experience, nor the strength of character to reset the bearings for a fresh course. Running through one’s mind the backgrounds of Obama, Biden (Mubarak is not a dictator), Donilon, Clinton, Gates, Panetta, Clapper and their deputies, it is stunning to realize that there is not one who has more than a cursory understanding of the region’s culture, history and personalities. At this moment of epochal change, the United States is flying through a fog bank while wearing distorting lenses with the drone of ‘stay the course’ in their ear phones. This is world change you can believe it. It is the capacity to cope with it that evokes disbelief. Michael Brenner