As President Obama stumbles in implementing his own strategy for combating terrorism, the United States is reverting, almost by default, to an earlier, failed approach: a reliance on dictators to do our dirty work.
The latest, and saddest, indication of Obama’s capitulation to this oldthink has been signals sent by his administration that the United States will no longer insist on Bashar Assad’s departure as leader of Syria, as Michael R. Gordon and Anne Barnard recently reported in The New York Times.
Obama’s demand that Assad leave was never more than rhetorical. Still, it has to be dispiriting for the president who created the Atrocities Prevention Board (“President Obama has made the prevention of atrocities a key focus of this Administration’s foreign policy,” a White House fact sheet says) to acknowledge implicitly that he has no Syria strategy without Assad.
Assad is the bloodiest butcher of this young century, but he’s hardly the only example of the United States’ reborn love of strongmen. Egypt’s new dictator has killed and imprisoned opponents with a brazenness Hosni Mubarak never dreamed of. The State Department is eager to embrace him in a new partnership.
Obama used to insist that the government of Bahrain “engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.” Now, as Bahrain cracks down on peaceful dissidents, the United States barely notices.
In Central Asia’s Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, 76, presides over a closed society of prison camps and forced labor. But immediately after he announced he would rule for five more years — after all, he’s been in charge only since 1989 — the United States approved a shipment of weaponry for his government and counseled “a certain amount of strategic patience in how change can take place.”
From Azerbaijan to Saudi Arabia, where Obama will visit today, the United States is cozying up to dictators who share some key attributes.
They agree with the United States that Islamic extremism must be fought. But they also go after nonviolent opponents — and they are most ferocious against secular, liberal critics. By destroying any moderate forces, they can present themselves as the only alternative to religious fundamentalism.
If partnering with these people offered an effective defense against terrorism, maybe it would be worth overcoming any moral qualms.
In fact, though, their actions will create more trouble down the road — as Obama himself explained in 2011.
“Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder,” the president said. “[S]trategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore. . . . The status quo is not sustainable.”
Obama promised a historic shift in policy, away from the short-term comfort of alliances with dictators and toward promoting “self-determination and opportunity.”
“After decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be,” the president said.
So what happened? The Arab Spring didn’t go as hoped — and the United States began to lose the war. An al-Qaida offshoot shockingly conquered large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Libya descended into civil war. Yemen, which Obama cited just last year as proof of his successful strategy, is on a similar downward spiral. The Taliban is gaining ground in Afghanistan. Boko Haram is carving out another space for barbarism in Nigeria.
When Obama is questioned about this picture, he generally stands up his favorite straw man: “If the assertion is, is that had we invaded Syria we would be less prone to terrorist attacks, I’ll leave it to you to play out that scenario and whether that sounds accurate,” he said during his recent news conference with British leader David Cameron.
But that is not the assertion.
What critics suggest is that Obama should implement the strategy he outlined in a speech at West Point in May: not a U.S. invasion, not a subcontracting of the war to heavy-handed dictators, but “a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel” with moderate forces committed to fighting extremism.
Unfortunately, Obama has put little meat on that strategy. He toppled Libya’s strongman, then abandoned the country. He pulled all advisers out of Iraq and vows to do the same to Afghanistan. He emphasizes drone strikes, but with little of the institution-building that would engender cooperation over the long term.
Help for Syrian moderates has been promised again and again for four years, with little to show for it. And instead of building public support for what must be a long and difficult effort, Obama barnstorms the country boasting that “our troops are coming home.”
Which is true, for the moment. But as his reluctant redeployment of 3,000 troops to Iraq demonstrates, it will not stay true if the terrorists continue to advance.
A partnership with the devil of Mideast autocracy will, in the long run, only stoke that advance.
Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.