Pointing to the absence of “soaring poetry” in Barack Obama’s inaugural address and the President’s shocking statement to Al Arabiya that “we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” with the Muslim world, Fouad Ajami laments the “return to realpolitik and business as usual in America’s encounter with that Greater Middle East.”
Say what you will about the style — and practice — of the Bush years, the autocracies were on notice for the first five or six years of George. W. Bush’s presidency. America had toppled Taliban rule and the tyranny of Saddam Hussein; it had frightened the Libyan ruler that a similar fate lay in store for him. It was not sweet persuasion that drove Syria out of Lebanon in 2005. That dominion of plunder and terror was given up under duress.
True, Mr. Bush’s diplomacy of freedom fizzled out in the last two years of his presidency, and the autocracies in the Greater Middle East came to a conviction that the storm had passed them by and that they had been spared.[...]
Where Mr. Bush had seen the connection between the autocratic ways in Muslim lands and the culture of terror that infected the young foot soldiers of radicalism, Mr. Obama seems ready to split the difference with their rulers.
Yes, maybe Bush’s policies were an abject failure, and Middle East autocracies strengthened as a result, but hey, for a minute there Bush put those autocracies on notice (Here’s Bush putting Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah on notice back in April 2005, holding hands as they stroll around the ranch.) This is all delusive nonsense, but its unsurprising delusive nonsense. After all, Ajami was bemoaning the heartless realpolitik of the Obama administration even before the Obama administration had begun. Even though Obama’s inaugural address contained an explicit attack on authoritarianism, Ajami has chosen to interpret the new president’s lack of enthusiasm for invading more Arab countries and killing vast numbers of their inhabitants in the name of democracy as evidence of a troubling “realism.”
Like most of his neoconservatives comrades, realism is clearly not, in any sense, something Fouad Ajami is troubled by, as evidenced by his continuing inability to grasp that, while Bush’s words about the need for democracy in the Middle East may have been nice to listen to, his actual plans for promoting democracy the Middle East were staggeringly dumb. Bush’s “freedom agenda” proved hollow because that agenda also included kidnapping, torture, indefinite detention, invading and occupying foreign countries, enabling a sectarian civil war in which hundreds of thousands were killed and maimed and several millions displaced, all of which contributed to previously unseen levels of anti-Americanism while further empowering some of the most conservative, undemocratic forces in the region. It was not out of a loss of nerve, but out of a need to contain those forces that Bush unceremoniously discarded the freedom agenda. But expect Ajami to continue arguing that neoconservatism didn’t fail, it’s just never been tried.
As for Obama’s foreign policy, there’s no evidence thus far that President Obama plans anything like the global withdrawal that Ajami projects. As the ThinkProgress team showed in yesterday’s Progress Report, every indication is that Obama intends to strengthen America’s global leadership role, though with greater emphasis on responsible governance and less emphasis on invading and occupying foreign countries.
In light of Ajami’s disdain for the pragmatic new direction of U.S. foreign policy, however, I think it’s useful to consider — again — something Ajami wrote in his most popular work, 1998′s Dream Palace of the Arabs, his critical examination of the worldview of modern Arab intellectual elites:
In an Arab political history littered with thwarted dreams, little honor would be extended to pragmatists who knew the limits of what could and could not be done. The political culture of nationalism reserved its approval for those who led ruinous campaigns in pursuit of impossible quests.
What a difference a decade makes.