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In 2013, America Swapped Its Sledgehammer for a Scalpel. Here’s Who Won and Lost.

The Pax Americana is over in the Middle East, and now the jockeying starts to see who will come out ahead

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President Barack Obama waves as he walks toward Marine One with daughter Malia December 20, 2013, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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The Acrobat

President Obama’s Middle East diplomacy seems to eschew symbolic triumphs in favor of a pragmatic vision that keeps all sides guessing. Israel could have a lot to gain by signing on.

Lax Americana

The U.S. could stop Iran from going nuclear. But policy-makers won’t risk the repercussions of a devastating attack on the Islamic Republic.

What “smart power” means is that American policymakers should rely on international institutions, diplomacy, alliance systems, and intimate knowledge of other cultures, instead of relying on blunt instruments of warfare—that America should use a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer. That is, “smart power” was simply another way of saying that George Bush’s war in Iraq was dumb. Abjuring military force in favor of other alternatives—any other alternatives—would be, these people argue, a smarter way to go. OK. But then perhaps one should examine not the results of the Iraq war, which are mixed at best, but instead focus on how America’s use of this “smart power”—international institutions, diplomacy, social media tools like Twitter, and traditional American allies—all fared this year.

In its rush to make a deal with Iran, the White House ignored U.N. resolutions demanding Iran stop all enrichment activity and implicitly granted Iran the “right” to enrich—thus trampling on the international consensus, which is supposedly so crucial for American “smart power” to function. In country after country, U.S.-backed old allies and new allies alike were quickly overthrown by regimes that didn’t fear American retribution. America’s allies, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, discovered that being America’s friend meant being kept in the dark, lied to, and spied on – and being deterred from pursuing their own national interest.

If American allies miss the shadow of big brother standing behind them to ward off their enemies, the fact is that Obama’s scalpel—drone strikes, SEAL raids, small arms and humanitarian assistance, and spur-of-the-moment diplomatic deals—is much less sloppy and dangerous than swinging a sledgehammer. The first problem for American policymakers is that sometimes you need a sledgehammer, especially if your house is on fire.

The second problem is that Washington has yet to prove it’s very adept at brain surgery. The deal with Russia over Assad’s chemical weapons hasn’t stopped the Damascus regime’s killing machine from further devastating the country, which has in turn become the greatest training ground for jihadi fighters since the Afghan wars. The smart power, like clandestine operations, cyberwarfare, and sanctions regime, that were supposed to bring Tehran to its knees hasn’t stopped the Iranian nuclear weapons program—and it seems quite possible that the interim agreement with Iran won’t even lead to a permanent agreement, but merely to the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb under an American protective umbrella.

So, either smart power doesn’t work very well in the Middle East, or this White House doesn’t know how to use it. Or, maybe neither is the case—and the reality is, as I’ve argued before, that Obama believes the entire game has changed. Maybe Obama believes that energy independence has finally bought us freedom from a recklessly violent part of the world. Maybe he believes that a nuclear weapon will finally make the Iranian regime less volatile and more responsible and more open to the rest of the world, once it no longer has to worry about being toppled by domestic rivals, Israel or the United States.

Maybe Obama is right, and maybe history will see him as a visionary leader who understood the emerging geopolitics of a multipolar Middle East better than generations of American Cold War power-players, oil men, and cultural exceptionalists. In any event, if America’s allies in the region don’t learn the lessons of 2013 quick, 2014 will be an even more costly year for many of them.


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In 2013, America Swapped Its Sledgehammer for a Scalpel. Here’s Who Won and Lost.

The Pax Americana is over in the Middle East, and now the jockeying starts to see who will come out ahead

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