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Leon T. Hadar Headshot

Who Really 'Lost' the Middle East?

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Remember the one about the kid who killed his parents and then pleaded to the judge for leniency because he was an orphan? Now that's the ultimate chutzpah, you say. But then, you probably have not been following the tale of those foreign policy experts who despite being proven wrong (Big Time!) again and again, insist that they were always right and that they are ready for a repeat performance.

It would probably be a waste of time and space to recall here for the one-hundredth-and-one time the many ways in which the geo-strategic thinkers aka the neoconservatives, who occupied top positions in the administration of President George W. Bush, and who now dominate Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's foreign policy team, had led the United States into one of the most horrendous strategic disasters in American history in the name of doing a "regime change" in Iraq and spreading democracy in the Middle East.

It's difficult to imagine that there is anyone out there who still believes that it made sense for the United States to pay the huge costs, in terms of lives and treasure, military over-stretching and loss of diplomatic credibility, for carrying out the military adventure in Mesopotamia and launching the so-called Freedom Agenda in the rest of the Middle East.

Oops! I forgot. Our former Iraqi ally Ahmed Chalabi, the Shiite rulers in Baghdad and their patrons in Tehran beg to disagree with the American critics of the Buscheney administration and of the policies concocted by the neocons. The members of Iran-led Shiite Axis would tell you that ousting Saddam Hussein from power was actually a great idea and helped strengthen Iran's position in the Persian Gulf and the rest of the Middle East.

And the guys in the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Weekly Standard, FOX News, and Wall Street Journal editorial board, and the rest of the cheerleaders for the Iraq war continue to argue that the script they had written for "liberating" Iraq was great. The diplomats and the generals were the ones who screwed up and should be held responsible for the lousy production.

Indeed, with few exceptions, none of the neocons have apologized for the mess they had made in the Middle East, and have instead been trying to defend their foreign-policy narrative, especially after the election of a new president who seemed to be offering a different one.

But then how can you attack President Barack Obama for "appeasing" the Ayatollahs in Tehran, if it was your own policy of removing Saddam Hussein from power that helped strengthen Iran and its satellites in the region? Or can you really criticize the White House for failing to back Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and for supporting the Arab Spring or for helping oust Muammar Gaddafi after urging Americans to spread democracy in the Middle East before, during, and after the Iraq War?

In fact, much of what President Obama has been doing in the Middle East in the last four years has been to try to save U.S. hegemony in the region, in the aftermath of the fiasco in Iraq and the series of other diplomatic and military failures in the region that occurred under the Bush administration, including the emergence of Hezbollah as the main power-broker in Lebanon; the holding of the election in Palestine that brought the radical Islamist Hamas to power; the stalled Israel-Palestine peace process; and the growing tensions between Washington and Ankara.

While trying to get out of the quagmire in Iraq and to improve the relationship with Turkey and other Arab and Muslim countries, President Obama has embraced a cautious and cost-effective approach in response to the so-called Arab Spring which recalled a similar and successful strategy employed by the administration of President George H. W. Bush in dealing with the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago.

The notion that Obama has "lost" the Middle East, that his policies were responsible for the fall of the pro-American autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt and that his administration could (or should) have prevented that from happening is quite preposterous.

Are Romney and his neoconservative advisors proposing that President Obama should have called on the military rulers in Tunisia and Egypt to suppress the popular uprising in those countries? Would the American people have supported such a policy that could have led to direct U.S. military intervention in domestic political crises that would have evolved into full-scale civil wars? In reality, the U.S. has neither the power nor the will to determine the outcomes of the political changes taking place in the Arab World, but only to try to influence them at the margin by working together with other regional and global powers.

Moreover, in Libya, where the Obama administration -- operating "from behind" -- did provide some indirect military support for the uprising there, the ousting of Muammar Gaddafi occurred without any American casualties. Would the United States be better off today if it had deployed ground troops in Libya that would have become targets for attacks by radical Islamist groups?

Obama's critics in the Romney campaign seem to be suggesting that launching new wars of choice in Iran or Syria a la Iraq would advance U.S. interests in the Middle East. Assuming that the American people, exhausted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, would support such new military crusades in the Middle East (and opinion polls suggest that they won't), are the Republicans ready to increase the defense budget to the stratosphere in order to achieve these ambitious goals, perhaps by raising new taxes? I didn't think so.

Operating against the backdrop of the mess in Iraq, the continuing war in Afghanistan and the expanding federal deficits and a slow economic recovery, and as he tries to shift U.S. geo-strategic focus to East Asia and respond to the economic and military rise of China, President Obama has wisely resisted the pressure to open new military fronts in the Middle East.

It remains to be seen whether a President Romney would end up following the advice of his neoconservative foreign policy advisors. But the fact that he has recruited them to play such an active role in his campaign raises doubts about his judgment. The kid who killed his parents may have been pardoned by the judge, but it is doubtful many couples were standing in line to adopt him.

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