Niall Ferguson’s Phoned-In Obama Bashing

Others have already criticized Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek cover story attacking President Obama’s lack of a “grand strategy” for the Middle East, but I want to specifically address Ferguson’s suggestion that Obama has “just missed — again — …the revolutionary wave of Middle Eastern democracy”:

It has surged through the region twice since he was elected: once in Iran in the summer of 2009, the second time right across North Africa, from Tunisia all the way down the Red Sea to Yemen. But the swell has been biggest in Egypt, the Middle East’s most populous country.

In each case, the president faced stark alternatives. He could try to catch the wave, Bismarck style, by lending his support to the youthful revolutionaries and trying to ride it in a direction advantageous to American interests. Or he could do nothing and let the forces of reaction prevail. In the case of Iran, he did nothing, and the thugs of the Islamic Republic ruthlessly crushed the demonstrations. This time around, in Egypt, it was worse. He did both — some days exhorting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to leave, other days drawing back and recommending an “orderly transition.”

The result has been a foreign-policy debacle. The president has alienated everybody: not only Mubarak’s cronies in the military, but also the youthful crowds in the streets of Cairo. Whoever ultimately wins, Obama loses. And the alienation doesn’t end there. America’s two closest friends in the region — Israel and Saudi Arabia — are both disgusted. The Saudis, who dread all manifestations of revolution, are appalled at Washington’s failure to resolutely prop up Mubarak. The Israelis, meanwhile, are dismayed by the administration’s apparent cluelessness.

It seems to have become a bit of conservative campfire folklore that, by failing to say just the right things at just the right times in June 2009, President Obama somehow aborted the second Iranian revolution. Understand, the next person to describe a plausible scenario in which Obama could have actually effected a different outcome than the one that occurred in June 2009 will be the first. Ferguson accuses Obama of doing “nothing” — which is untrue — but what is the “something” that President Obama, or any U.S. president, could have done to prevent “the thugs of the Islamic Republic” from “ruthlessly crushing the demonstrations”? Ferguson doesn’t say. Because, of course, he doesn’t know.


It’s worth pointing out here that actual Iranian democracy activists — including leading dissidents like Akbar Ganji and Shirin Ebadi — believe that President Obama handled those protests fairly well. (Ganji and Ebadi have also both noted that the neoconservative policies that Ferguson himself favors were politically devastating to Iran’s democrats, and that Obama’s policy of engagement helped to open political space for the Greens.) The idea that the June 2009 demonstrators could have toppled the Islamic Republic (not one of their stated goals, by the way) if only Obama had stood up taller and waved the American flag more vigorously is one that, in my experience, Iranians themselves find insultingly parochial and simple-minded.

In regard to Israeli and Saudi reactions to Egypt, I appreciate Ferguson trying to give the Israelis pass here, but, as I reported in the Nation earlier this week, many Israelis dread the outbreak of Middle East democracy just as much as the Saudis do, and are just as appalled at Washington’s failure to resolutely prop up the friendly dictator Mubarak. In Egypt, as in Iran, however, Ferguson wrongly presumes the ability of the U.S. to produce specific outcomes. It’s true that the administration tacked back and forth a bit amidst a highly uncertain and potentially explosive situation, but they clearly ended up in the right place, and the fact that even House Speaker John Boehner has credited Obama’s handling of the crisis tells you a lot. I’ve also heard that Obama’s speech following Mubarak’s departure was well received among Egyptians, though, as always, what matters is the follow-up.

As for Ferguson’s citing the vaunted “consensus among the assembled experts” at Israel’s Herzliya Conference, you can read my dispatch about that collective freak-out and judge for yourself whether these are the sort of people whose views of Obama, or of Middle East “grand strategy”, should be taken seriously. Just for fun, though, I thought I’d share one of the slides generated from a poll taken among those assembled experts (yes, it is absolutely adorable that they actually went to the trouble of doing a pie chart for such a hilariously unscientific poll) on the likelihood of military action stopping Iran’s nuclear program:

Now, to be fair, just because these conclusions are wildly out of step with the overwhelming analytical consensus on the inefficacy of military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t mean they’re wrong, necessarily. But it does give you a sense of where these particular experts are coming from.