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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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With the end of 2013 comes the end of the American era in the Middle East. To call the last 40 years a “Pax Americana” would probably be overstating the case because, this being the Middle East we’re talking about, there was an awful lot of violence—from the Israeli-Arab wars, to the Iran-Iraq war, to the American liberation of Kuwait and invasions of Iraq, to scores of bloody terror attacks stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. But no one doubted that America was in charge, and everyone in the region could place bets accordingly and with a reasonable idea of what might be in store.

If you were a Middle Eastern leader allied with Washington, you got financial assistance, weapons, and a photo of yourself with the president. This last was perhaps most important of all, because what mattered even more than U.S. planes, tanks, and billion-dollar aid packages was the idea that someday, when times got tough, your pal in the White House—who also happened to be the most powerful man in the world—might bring down his mighty hammer on your behalf and smite your enemies.

After all, it happened to Saddam Hussein—twice. And who knows but that it might have happened to Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic Republic of Iran, too, both of whom had done virtually everything in their power over the past 10 years—and in the case of Iran, since the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, and the taking of American hostages and killing of American servicemen—to identify themselves as America’s leading adversaries in the region.

But as these two examples show, times have changed. This was the year that America swapped the sledgehammer for the scalpel and reached out a hand of friendship to its enemies—leaving its friends to wonder what lay in store. For those actors who didn’t understand that the era of heroic U.S. engagement in the Middle East—everything from democracy promotion and big-ticket aid packages to “shock and awe” and regime change brought about by hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops—has ended, 2013 was a particularly bad year.

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Of these, the year’s biggest losers were the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, the Syrian rebels, and Israel. The MEK is the anti-Iranian regime resistance movement that the Clinton Administration listed as a foreign terrorist organization in 1997 to curry favor with the 1990s model of the moderate Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami. In the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the MEK complied with American requests to disarm, in exchange for which the Pentagon gave them protected-persons status. Nonetheless, starting in 2009 they came under repeated attacks from Iranian allies, including security forces affiliated with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. U.S. officials agree that Iran was also responsible for the most recent attack at Camp Ashraf on Sept. 1 that killed 50 MEK members, with another seven taken hostage. The lesson is, when the United States tells you to put down your weapons and not to take matters into your own hands, don’t listen.

The Syrian rebels believed that for all the setbacks and casualties they suffered the last year, at least there was the possibility that the White House might make good on its stated policy of seeking the removal of Bashar al-Assad—if not by military means, then at least by diplomatic and political pressure. After all, how could Washington maintain its standing in the Middle East if its adversaries and allies came to believe that the Americans were bluffers?

What the Syrian opposition didn’t see was that America was no longer interested in its own prestige in the region; what interested American policymakers this past year was getting out of the Middle East. First, the White House failed to make good on delivery of arms promised in June. In September it backed off on striking Assad after the regime used chemical weapons, and crossed President Barack Obama’s famous “red line.” Instead of punishing Assad, it moved instead to close down avenues of rebel support from Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Then the administration signaled that everyone will now just have to deal with Assad sticking around—because he is a good partner for containing Al Qaeda. The lesson? When the U.S. says it doesn’t bluff, don’t listen.

White House aides also reportedly came to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last fall in the middle of the 2012 presidential campaign and asked him not to take matters into his own hands and bomb Iran. It turns out, as the Associated Press reported this week, that in July 2012, Obama aide Jake Sullivan was already in the midst of secret talks with Tehran, which ultimately led to the interim agreement announced Nov. 24, which effectively insulates the Iranian nuclear program from any future Israeli attack. The lesson there is, when the United States says it has your back, don’t listen.

Failure to learn the lessons the White House taught the region this year means that, at best, you will become perennial losers, like the Palestinians—powerless to shape your own destiny and dependent on the largesse of an easily distracted international community. While turning Israel into a helpless ward of America’s strategic relationship with Iran was hardly what Bibi Netanyahu had in mind for 2013, things can also get worse. As in the case of the MEK and the Syrian rebels, relying on Washington can also mean being slaughtered by your enemies, after giving up the freedom to respond in kind.

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The fact that this year’s big losers—the MEK, the Syrian rebels, and Israel—were all on the wrong end of the White House’s two major achievements this past year says something about what Washington now prizes. The initiative to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and the administration’s secret negotiations with Iran that led to an interim agreement at Geneva are the products of a larger belief in what Democratic party strategists like Joseph Nye and policymakers like Hillary Clinton call “smart power”—a term first coined in the aftermath of the Bush administration’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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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