A mural on the wall of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, 2009.(Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week President Barack Obama’s administration announced that it was going to engage Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. As the White House explained, American officials from previous administrations have already met with members of the prominent Islamist party—a party that, it’s worth noting, has been resolutely anti-Western and viciously anti-Zionist since its founding in 1928. Obama administration officials said that they wish to expand contacts with the Brotherhood because they perceive, correctly, that the movement is likely to become an even bigger factor in regional politics.

The Arab Spring surely has something to do with Obama’s new approach, but it is hardly the sole or even the main cause of a shift that has turned U.S. Middle East policy on its head. So, what is?

Even before pro-U.S. regimes in Tunis and Cairo were toppled, Obama had said that he opposed the existing U.S.-backed order in the Middle East, which has rested on close military and diplomatic alliances with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and a substantial American military presence in the Persian Gulf. Most observers assumed that the president was indulging in rhetorical flights of fancy when he said that the status quo was unsustainable. But now we see he meant every word of it.

The existing political order in the Middle East has cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives over the past 60 years. In some cases, such as Israel, our alliances have been built on cultural affinity, military necessity, and domestic political considerations. In other cases, such as Saudi Arabia, our considerations have been more commercial. The larger point of U.S. engagement in the region has been to ensure the freedom of crucial shipping lanes and the flow of oil—without which the global economy that sustains billions of people around the world would grind to a halt.

Given the strong Wilsonian streak in U.S. politics, one might imagine that Obama is a staunch idealist—a man who, like Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, or George W. Bush, is disgusted by dictators. But Obama’s shameful record as a protector of human rights in the Middle East hardly bears out this theory: Iran’s Green Revolutionaries begged Obama for support for weeks, only to be greeted first with silence while being shot, tortured, and maimed by the mullahs and their goons, and then by lukewarm support, and now again with silence. Syria’s authoritarian rulers shoot their own people in the streets and bombard civilian neighborhoods with tanks and helicopter gunships, but the White House is virtually mum.

So, Obama is clearly not being driven by an obsession with human rights. Perhaps he is a wily master of realpolitik? A leader of this kind—like, say, Richard Nixon—would support the United States’ powerful friends, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, while seeking to constrain the power of its enemies, like Syria and Iran. Yet Obama has so significantly alienated the Saudis that they have embarked on their own cash-heavy royalist-oriented foreign policy, seeking to woo American allies like Jordan and Bahrain and even Pakistan into a new alliance devoted in large part to blocking Obama’s destabilizing policies in the region. Obama picks fights with Israel and then suddenly demands the Jewish state return to its 1967 borders as a condition for negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians—and is publicly rebuked by the Israeli prime minister, with the support of the U.S. Congress. Losing the trust and support of both Saudi Arabia and Israel in the space of a few months is hardly the move of a leader driven by realpolitik.

Perhaps, as some right-wing critics claim, Obama’s policy is the product of something worse, or more sinister, like a blueprint to weaken America on behalf of its enemies? Except this doesn’t fly either. Obama’s no Manchurian candidate, brainwashed by U.S. enemies during his schooldays in Indonesia to ruin the country. Instead, what all these theories miss is that Obama is simply a representative man of the post-World War II American Ivy League intelligentsia, which came to see the United States in a context shaped by the collapse of the European colonial empires under the weight of greed and barbarity.


It was the furies of Europe—its anti-Semitism and racism, its need to dominate and destroy—that drove its people to war twice in the last century while inflicting a series of revolting indignities on the so-called “lesser races” whose lands they colonized and plundered. Americans believed they were different, both at home and abroad, because they were anti-colonial from birth, and with the 20th-century advent of the decolonization movement they instinctively if sometimes cautiously sided with the new nations of the world against their former European overlords. The American sympathy for decolonization began with Woodrow Wilson and was passionately held by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and most of his top aides and by their successors in the U.S. foreign policy establishment of the 1950s, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen, head of the CIA, none of whom can be dismissed as left-wing academics.

Anti-colonialism was the motor driving the Middle East policy of the American warrior who won Europe, Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose administration wished to make friends in the region by distinguishing itself from the great European powers and showing that Washington had no colonial ambitions. Ike put that premise into practice when he demanded England, France, and Israel stand down after invading Egypt in the Suez Crisis of 1956. Obama seems to understand the world similarly—the established order is wrong for us and wrong for the people of the region, morally and politically.

Obama may also reasonably believe that a United States in the grips of a financial crisis simply doesn’t have the money to meddle in the Middle East anymore. This country gets less than 25 percent of its energy resources from the Persian Gulf, so why should it be up to us to make sure that affordable oil transits the region? Let China, India, and Europe share the burden. Combine a bad U.S. economy, American exhaustion with our post-Sept. 11 commitments in the Middle East, and the nostalgic logic of decolonization and you can, finally, understand the origins of Obama’s regional policy.

But then you must tackle its consequences. The problem with this philosophy is that anti-colonialism is not a response to the realities of the Middle East but rather an exercise in self-congratulatory and often delusional nostalgia—and the results in practice have been awful. Eisenhower called his stance on Suez the worst foreign policy mistake of his tenure, and the results of Obama’s updated version of Ike’s policies have also been poor. After all the early enthusiasm for Mubarak’s ouster, Egypt is in deep trouble and spinning out of the U.S. orbit. If the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t rushing in to fill the vacuum, perhaps it’s just because they’re too savvy to want to claim ownership of a country that may be on the verge of bankruptcy and famine, as some analysts argue.

Pushing out Mubarak has made both the Israelis and Saudis wary of Obama—a move that has proven bad not only for Washington but for Riyadh and Jerusalem as well. The notion that several thousand libertine and/or fundamentalist Saudi princes are capable of formulating a coherent regional strategy is more fantastical than a J.K. Rowling novel. The Saudis on their own are a danger to themselves, the Middle East at large, and the world’s largest known reserves of oil. Leaving them to their own devices is easily the worst option among an array of bad choices.

With Israel, the administration may be on the verge of accomplishing the previously unthinkable—forcing the Jewish state to find other allies who will maintain the continuing supply of high-tech weapons to ensure its qualitative military advantage over its rivals. Perhaps Russia, India, and even China are interested in Israeli technology—military and civilian—and its newly discovered energy resources. By driving Israel away, the United States risks losing the leverage it has historically enjoyed with the Arabs by being able to broker deals with the Israelis, who will care a lot less about what Washington thinks once they can produce their own high-tech fighter planes, satellites, and missile systems.

Without U.S. leadership, the Middle East is less stable and less secure than it has been at any point since the 1973 war, for both U.S. allies and adversaries alike. The Iranian-led resistance bloc has also been hurt by the Arab Spring, even as the Obama Administration has failed to capitalize on Tehran’s setbacks. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is fighting for the survival of his regime, a fight that no one, not even Washington, expects him to win. Hezbollah has also been wounded and may suffer further with four of its members indicted for the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

The result of the political insecurity that Obama has fostered has been a plunge in the standard of living for ordinary people throughout the region and increasing instability there. In the absence of strong U.S. leadership, Turkey now fancies itself as the second coming of the Ottoman empire and creates international incidents by dispatching flotillas to Gaza and making nice with Iran and Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, further rattling the political and security architecture that the United States built, and now wishes to abandon.

Obama has locked in Washington’s losses in the Middle East while ignoring opportunities to hurt U.S. adversaries like Syria and Iran. But sooner or later he will have to act there, too. It cost Obama nothing to ditch Mubarak, alienate the Israelis and the Saudis, or even wage a thoughtless war against Qadaffi. But if he crosses the line with the Iranians, as they rush to build a nuclear bomb, they have the power to retaliate by causing regional havoc and raising the price of oil to $150 a barrel—making the current global economic mess seem like a profitable holiday season and ensuring a Republican victory in 2012. The fact is that letting the Iranians get the bomb is a much worse outcome. Even if it has little effect on the president’s re-election chances, Iranian hegemony in the Persian Gulf would spell long-term disaster and shape Obama’s historical legacy. The lesson that the president needs to learn from his mistakes is that the status quo is worth preserving because change is dangerous in the Middle East, where things can always get worse. So far, that’s exactly what has been happening.