I. From Bush to Obama
I n the last days of George W. Bush’s presidency, the Economist delivered a damning assessment: “Abroad, George Bush has presided over the most catastrophic collapse in America’s reputation since the second world war.” In the view of the magazine’s editors, “a president who believed that America’s global supremacy was guaranteed by America’s unrivalled military power ended up demonstrating the limits of both.”
Without question, the United States paid a large price for Bush’s policies outside the United States. There were two unresolved wars, thousands of American dead, and the lingering castigations of assorted parties around the globe.
Of course all policy decisions are trade-offs, and Bush’s demonstrated not only the limits of American power but also its possibilities. In return for our sacrifices we saw al-Qaeda decimated and the American homeland secured against attack. By the time the 43rd president left office, an American-led coalition had established a flawed but democratic ally in the heart of the Muslim world. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, moreover, had given up his weapons of mass destruction, a development whose full benefit would be appreciated a decade later when Qaddafi’s regime fell and his conventional arms were dispersed to jihadists in North Africa.
By the end of Bush’s presidency, some saw the United States as fearless, others saw us as stumbling, and still others as dangerously belligerent. But for all the outrage about unilateralism and cowboy diplomacy, American relations in the larger Middle East functioned within long-standing diplomatic boundaries. Bush promoted freedom in the region but never jeopardized pragmatic relations with the most important autocracies and monarchies, for better or worse. Some European capitals were upset with Washington, but this caused no long-term rift in transatlantic relations.
The most tangible change brought on by Bush’s foreign policy was its domestic impact. By 2008, Americans were sick of war and tired of the Middle East
altogether. Thus, one of Barack Obama’s biggest selling points was his promise to end the war in Iraq, extricate the country from the region, and pursue a more contrite foreign policy. Once elected, President Obama set out to honor his campaign pledge. The question of his ideological disposition can be debated endlessly, but whatever its precise contours, it translated into policies that largely reversed Bush positions in the Middle East. Where Bush was particularly supportive of our closest regional ally, Obama pressured Israel for concessions. Where Bush reached out to the Iranian people in solidarity against the regime that was our chief antagonist, Obama rebuffed ordinary Iranians and offered an “open hand” to the regime itself.
Between the two poles of Israel and Iran, Obama made clear to other Middle East leaders that his main concern was staying out of their affairs. As he told the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news station soon after taking office: “Too often the United States starts by dictating.” Unlike Bush, Obama implied, he would stand back and “listen.” And he has made good on his word to shrink American influence and undo the disruptive excesses of the Bush years.
What have we gotten in return for our more humble posture in the Middle East? The answer, as a case-by-case examination of the most important examples reveals, is this: a new age of great peril. Under Barack Obama’s leadership, in almost every square inch of the Middle East, the strategic position of the United States has decayed. And the region itself is far worse off than it was when he took office.
II. The Egypt Reversals
B arack Obama chose Egypt as the site of his opening gesture to the Muslim world. The address he delivered on June 4, 2009, at Cairo University is known as the Cairo speech, but its actual title, “A New Beginning,” offers a better sense of his ambition. The president filled the hour-long speech with blandishments aimed at easing tensions between the United States and the world’s Muslims. Among his noteworthy comments was his stated approval of observant women who choose to cover their heads—a signal to those he considered moderate Islamists that the United States would treat them as political equals. Although the address was broad in scope, Obama’s words about democracy would prove to be directly relevant to Egypt itself. He expressed a commitment “to governments that reflect the will of the people” and vowed that the United States “will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people…because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.”
Less than two years later, a quarter-million Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to end the 30-year reign of autocratic president Hosni Mubarak. Despite Obama’s earlier focus on “the will of the people,” the White House was initially supportive of Mubarak. Vice President Joseph Biden denied that Mubarak was a dictator and recommended he not step down. Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described him as a close family friend. Days later, Obama praised Mubarak as a valued American ally who should begin the process of democratic reform rather than leave office. But as protests grew, it became clear that there was no sense in fighting Egyptian popular will. Within days of his initial vote of confidence in Mubarak, Obama declared that it was time for the Egyptian leader to go and that “an orderly transition must begin now.” By this time, however, protestors in Cairo were carrying signs that read, “Shame on you, Obama.” If there had been a window of opportunity for the administration to back up the freedom rhetoric of the Cairo speech, it had passed. The White House zigzag alienated Egyptians who were trying to steer their country’s politics in the wake of Mubarak’s departure.
The administration had good reason to support Mubarak. He was a secular leader who honored his peace treaties with Israel, supported the United States in opposing Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, and provided what stability the region had enjoyed. But the United States misread the state of affairs inside Egypt and looked flummoxed responding to real-time events. Diplomatic cables made public by the group WikiLeaks reveal that the Obama administration had earlier assessed Mubarak as a “tried and true realist” whose record of survival boded well for his staying in power. On the matter of human rights, the State Department had ceased the Bush-era practice of calling out Mubarak for his abuses, and the administration decreased funding for civil-society programs in Egypt. In other words, Obama was cozying up to the dictator just as the legitimacy of his three-decade reign was falling apart.
Obama’s habit of misreading Egypt was only getting started. When the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president, the United States wasted no time in pronouncing him a legitimate democrat. Morsi, for his part, turned at once to theocratic authoritarianism. He bypassed the judiciary, wrote up an oppressive Islamist constitution, and prayed publicly for the destruction of the Jews. If anyone fit Obama’s Cairo-speech description of the elected anti-democrat, it was the fanatical Egyptian president. This was not lost on Egyptians, who, within a year, were once again out on the streets calling for the ouster of an incompetent oppressor. And once again, the oppressor was supported by the Obama administration. Behind the scenes, Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to convince Morsi to call for elections, while other administration officials attempted to prevent the Egyptian military from launching a coup.
Neither side listened.
The United States managed to make an enemy of every party in the course of two Egyptian revolutions. What’s worse, Obama failed to support and exploit an Egyptian public ferociously determined to rid itself of Brotherhood rule.
In October 2013, when the military took over the country, it initiated a harsh crackdown on the Brotherhood. This time, most Egyptians seemed to support their government’s extreme measures—yet this time the Obama administration decided to punish the repressive government by withholding a significant portion of America’s $1.3 billion in annual aid. Perhaps Obama hoped this shift in policy would finally give him some leverage over Cairo.
But if so, it’s hard to explain why the administration then decided to reestablish the flow of aid in January. After all this, Egypt has signaled a further drift out of the American orbit and toward Russia, with whom it is negotiating a $2 billion arms deal. In modern Egypt, rulers come and go. Only American incoherence endures.
III. Leading from Behind in Libya
The great Arab upheaval hit Libya on February 15, 2011, when protestors took to the streets of Benghazi. Muammar Qaddafi, a bona fide madman, offered no palliative speeches about reform. He described the protestors as “cockroaches” who were “serving the devil” and vowed to “cleanse Libya house by house.” Within the first few days, Qaddafi’s forces killed hundreds of Libyans, which provoked protestors to take up arms. A full-scale civil war was soon under way as rebels fought Qaddafi for control of city after city. Libya’s tattered army gained the upper hand, and by the first week of March, the poorly armed rebels were asking the West to help prevent a grand-scale massacre.
After scolding the United States for its foreign adventures during the Bush years, France (with Great Britain in tow) now took the lead in formally recognizing the Libyan opposition and laying out a case for intervention. France got a significant percentage of its oil from Libya and has deep, historic ties to its former colonies in Northern Africa. Also, the proximity of the two countries meant that a flood of war refugees could become a French problem. But there seemed to be virtually no compelling American interests in Qaddafi’s country. And for Obama, whose fundamental foreign-policy concern was keeping America’s nose out of the Muslim world, intervention was especially unappealing.
And yet the United States doesn’t have the luxury of looking at the globe through the narrow lens of national interests alone. Our power and credibility derive from our singular willingness and capacity to protect a relatively peaceful world order. When the specter of mass atrocities arises, America has to determine whether it can do anything about it. In the 1990s, we twice led the effort to halt large-scale killing in the Balkans, although our national interests there were nil. The atrocity we didn’t stop—the Rwandan slaughter—continues to haunt our national conscience. With uprisings suddenly rampant in dictatorships around the Arab world, the refusal to prevent one bloodbath could give a green light to other embattled dictators. For these reasons, leaders in Europe and some members of Obama’s administration expected us to intervene.
At a G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in Paris, Hillary Clinton, who personally favored intervention, responded to European calls for action (now supported by the Arab League as well) with noncommittal language meant to stall any effort. European leaders were baffled by the uncharacteristic American indifference and incoherence. “Frankly we are just completely puzzled,” said one diplomat. French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with Clinton to urge the United States to take the case for action to the United Nations. He, too, was stonewalled.
Obama, who had lambasted Bush for disregarding the wishes of allies, had created his own “go it alone” crisis.
Eventually, the cry for action both in and out of the administration became so great as to shame Obama into following the Europeans’ lead. The United Nations Security Council authorized military force on March 17, and the first bombs were dropped on regime-related targets two days later. Reluctant and regretful, Obama repeatedly professed that the United States was playing only a peripheral support role. In truth, the American role was large and the five-month campaign that ousted Qaddafi wouldn’t have been as successful without our unparalleled military might.
When the dust settled, administration supporters began to tout the Libya episode as a “new model” for American intervention. Unlike the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, it had been low-risk and required no boots on the ground. The approval of the Arab League lent it regional legitimacy, and the approval of the French somehow translated into global legitimacy (even though the Germans, Russians, Chinese, and others disapproved).
But in the hubristic aftermath, things unraveled. As there was no sufficient presence on the ground to look after the dictator’s abandoned arsenal, a terrorist weapons bazaar sprouted up that not only armed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Hamas in Gaza, but also changed the course of a rebel war in Mali (ironically prompting French intervention there as well). A UN report documented internationally smuggled Libyan weapons, including “rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns with antiaircraft visors, automatic rifles, ammunition, grenades, explosives (Semtex), and light antiaircraft artillery (light-caliber bi-tubes) mounted on vehicles.”
“Leading from behind,” as one administration official notoriously characterized the Obama approach in Libya, didn’t turn out to be so low-risk. Insufficient post-Qaddafi planning had made sitting ducks of the four American officials at a diplomatic mission in Benghazi who came under terrorist assault on September 11, 2012. All four were killed. The details surrounding the attack ignited an enormous controversy that still rages on.
Unsurprisingly, Libya remains a land of chaos and tribalism. In no way is that Barack Obama’s fault. But a genuine commitment to action instead of a grudging and pusillanimous cave-in to other powers would have gone some way toward making things safer after Qaddafi was gone. Neither in nor out, neither leading nor following, in Libya America sounded an uncertain note to allies and offered a new model of superpower ambivalence.
IV. The Iran TrapHaving pledged on the campaign trail to talk to Tehran without preconditions, Barack Obama telegraphed his position on Iran far in advance. He wanted solicitous, gesture-heavy diplomacy aimed at erasing the ill will between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Obama believed that mutual misconceptions had piled up and had made constructive engagement on the Iranian nuclear question unnecessarily difficult. Yes, the mullahs are deeply religious, so the thinking went, but they are not suicidal. Persians are a proud people with a great history and want respect from the international community. Treat Iran like a reasonable country acting on its own set of logical interests, and you will break out of the unproductive cycle of fantastic demonization.
If only any of it were true. The Islamic Republic was founded in 1979 on a theocratic and apocalyptic strain of Shia Islam. The regime is suicidal. “For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn,” said its founding visionary, Ayatollah Khomeini. “I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” It is also exterminationist, having adopted as its sustaining myth the divinely ordained destruction of both Israel and the United States. In pursuit of its aims, Iran has been building a nuclear-weapons program complete with uranium mines, enrichment plants, hidden facilities, advanced centrifuges, and research-and-development sites devoted to perfecting a delivery system. The prospect of Iran’s using such a weapon on Israel is unthinkable only to those who are wholly unfamiliar with the Islamic Republic or the abominations of modern history. And the current Sunni-Shia tensions mean that a nuclear-armed Iran is certain to spark an atomic arms race in the region. Since 1979, successive American administrations have made extensive diplomatic overtures in hopes of negotiating away the Iranian threat, and they have all failed. Obama objected to an understanding of Iran that had been hard-earned, from experience—not fashioned to fit a prejudice.
Obama came into office extending an “open hand” to Tehran, and offered gesture after gesture to establish good faith. In his first video-recorded Nowruz (Persian New Year) message of March 2009, he appealed directly to Iranian leaders for mutual cooperation. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei responded with public insults. In his Cairo speech, Obama became the first serving American president to admit to American involvement in the 1953 ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This seemed a direct response to Ahmadinejad’s public demand, made months earlier, that Obama apologize for America’s role in the coup.
As he would do with Egypt, the president picked the wrong moment to ingratiate himself with the leadership of Iran. Following the June 12, 2009, reelection of Ahmadinejad, Iranians flooded the streets to protest what they saw as a rigged vote. The Green Movement, an unmistakable precursor to the Arab Spring, became the dominant global spectacle of the summer. The sea of green-clad Iranian protestors enraged by the Khomeinists captured the world’s attention. And so the world was watching when the brutal Khomeinist crackdown began a week into the demonstrations. Police and intelligence officers tortured, raped, and killed innocents. The gruesome murder of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan went viral and became an emblem of the regime’s inhumanity.
Although Iranians in enormous numbers rose up against a government that was our single most devoted enemy, Obama would not stand squarely with them. He stuck to tepid remarks about dignity and violence and proclaimed that his pursuit of constructive diplomacy with the regime was undeterred. His disregard for popular will in Iran was not lost on the Iranian public, who chanted, “Obama, are you with us or with the regime?”
He had made his choice.
The administration spent Obama’s first term using third parties and back channels to approach Iran with various schemes that would give it access to enriched uranium if its purely civilian use could be verified. These sagas followed a familiar pattern: newspaper headlines about hopeful officials and fresh starts, negotiations with little detail offered to the public, a new round of stories about the very brink of a breakthrough, and then word of Iran’s refusal to cooperate. Throughout the course of these failed attempts, the White House assured Americans and Israelis that “all options are on the table” for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But little else indicated that this was so. The United States and Israel collaborated on the 2010 Stuxnet cyberattack that temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear program, but the Obama administration quickly leaked the details for political benefit, thus putting Israel at greater risk. In addition, Obama repeatedly insisted that Israel not launch a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.
While the administration pursued its “open-hand” policy, the Iranian regime stepped up its provocations. The threats against the Jewish state and the United States were constant. In 2011, American officials revealed a foiled Iranian plot to kill a Saudi Arabian ambassador with a bomb in a Washington restaurant. Even that planned, state-sponsored terrorist attack did nothing to knock the administration off its course.
But all first-term negotiation efforts were mere prologue to the diplomatic push that began in June 2013, when Iranians elected a new president, Hassan Rouhani. Obama believed Rouhani to be a moderate and thus more receptive to American outreach than his predecessor. The administration clandestinely eased the bite of American sanctions by citing fewer violators than usual. The White House then opposed bipartisan legislation pushing for new sanctions. In September, days after Rouhani rejected a direct meeting with Obama in New York, the two spoke by telephone, constituting the highest-level contact between the countries since the shuttering of the American Embassy after the Iranian Revolution 34 years earlier. On November 22, the lopsided courtship came to its culmination. “Iran, world powers reach historic nuclear deal,” read the Washington Post headline atop the story about an agreement reached in Geneva that would supposedly freeze “key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for temporary relief on some economic sanctions.”
The events leading up to and including the Geneva deal were certainly historic. They also constitute the single most dangerous shift in American foreign policy since the height of the Cold War.
For starters, Rouhani is not a moderate. He is a faux-moderate, hand-picked by Khamenei—the country’s actual ruler—to get exactly the kind of sanctions relief that Obama provided. During the Revolution, Rouhani was a close confidant of Ayatollah Khomeini. In 1999, he was behind a crackdown intended, in his words, to “crush mercilessly and monumentally” a student uprising. In 2004, he bragged of his Machiavellian moderation to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council. “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium-conversion] facility in Isfahan,” he said. “In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.” The man’s sole purpose is to charm the West while Iran gets the bomb.
As it happens, the deal he has facilitated will probably achieve that aim. From disagreements on missile capabilities to the definition of “freeze” to inspections and the right to enrich uranium, the terms of the “framework” for a deal seem more like a season of geopolitical improvisational theater, with an ever shifting storyline made up on the fly. The framework is supposed to be concluded on July 20, at which point a final agreement may be negotiated. Meanwhile, sanctions have been lifted and centrifuges continue to spin. The administration has successfully fought congressional efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran aimed at getting it to honor its side of the deal. But the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) estimates that even if Iran lives up to our current conditions, its ability to “break out” with a completed nuclear weapon would be slowed by only two to three weeks. Little wonder that Rouhani bragged that the deal “means the surrender of the big powers before the great Iranian nation.” To make matters worse, the Obama administration laid the economic and diplomatic groundwork for the deal away from the eyes of the American public and behind Israel’s back. The Obama administration betrayed its closest Middle East allies to meet its most fanatical enemy all the way on a deal that might very well give the latter the means of mass destruction.
V. The Syrian DisasterSyria is best understood as part of the Iranian threat. The Alawite dictator Bashar al-Assad is Iran’s closest ally and only link to the Mediterranean Sea, making his regime vital to the mullahs’ bid for Middle East dominance. When the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Tehran jumped to Assad’s aid in waging war on the country’s mostly Sunni population. Hezbollah, a terrorist statelet loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, was dispatched to fight alongside Assad’s men, and Assad was grateful for the help.
Here again, Barack Obama suffered from an unfortunate sense of timing. He began his presidency hoping to engage Syria and peel it away from Iran (a perpetually popular realist notion), as a means of putting pressure on the Islamic Republic to negotiate. Before Assad’s country erupted, the administration undertook high-level diplomatic discussions with Damascus, relaxed export licensing for Syria, tried to smooth its path to the World Trade Organization, established warmer ties with the Syrian foreign minister, and nominated Robert Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005, when the Syrian government was implicated in the killing of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Obama’s plan was undone by the events of March 2011, because Syria and Iran now needed each other more than ever. For this reason alone, the administration would have been wise to consider intervening on behalf of the Syrian rebels. A toppled Assad would have dealt a massive blow to Iran. What’s more, in the early days of the civil war, the rebels weren’t dominated by Sunni terrorist organizations.
But there were also good reasons to stay out of the Syrian conflict. For one, U.S. intelligence on the rebellion was shoddy. Those opposing Assad comprised a confusion of organizations, some radical, some not, many with ties outside the country. Even early on, helping to topple Assad would have probably boosted the standing of some extremists. Additionally, no proponents of intervention were calling for a significant post-Assad American presence. This meant Washington would have scant ability to shape events in a new Syria. With all those caveats in play, however, it’s hard to think of a situation in which ridding Iran of its most important friend wouldn’t have been a net gain. And if Obama’s strategic thinking about Iran were different, he might have seen in Assad’s troubles an important opportunity.
Not only did the American president eschew support for the rebels; he didn’t publicly call on Assad to step down until five months after the initial uprising. During that time the White House had instituted some sanctions on Syria. But as Assad was fighting for his life, it was unlikely that he would hold back for the sake of a blip in oil revenue. What nonlethal aid Washington had promised to the rebels was slow and spotty in coming.
The president made his first allusion to using force in Syria at a press conference in August 2012. “A red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said. “That would change my calculus.” Obama used this tough line as his reelection contest with Mitt Romney was heating up. He did not want to appear weak and give his rival room to run at him as a weak-kneed Democrat. Obama won, of course, but he had set the stage for the most bizarre and damaging geopolitical blunder of his presidency.
Assad crossed the American red line on August 21, 2013, with a chemical attack that killed 1,400 of his own people. A week later, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a bold speech that pointed toward an American military response. The president then declared on television that he would hit Syria. And then, in the same speech, he punted to an out-of-session Congress, demanding he first be given authorization to act—even though he also said he was within his rights and powers as president to do so without Congressional approval.
Before members of Congress could vote, before Obama would be forced either to act without them or act with them, he was suddenly rescued altogether by an ad-libbed Russian-American deal to put Moscow—a Syrian ally—in charge of removing Assad’s chemical weapons.
The Russia deal is a great boon to the governments in Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow. It has effectively kept Assad in power as an American partner in the weapons-removal process. Iran has kept its key ally, and Russia’s profile has been elevated once more on the world stage. As for the rebels, they have been predictably overtaken by Sunni jihadist groups during the three long years of civil war. The non-radicals among them, like the liberals of Iran’s Green Movement and of the Tahrir Square protests, have no illusions about the American president’s lack of commitment to their cause. To the rest of the world, the American administration seems weak, wavering, and in over its head.
Meanwhile, the Russian deal is failing on its own terms. Deadlines for removing Assad’s weapons have come and gone and left Assad holding significant amounts—by some accounts, nearly 96 percent—of the proscribed items. Russian-American tensions over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will probably add further delays.
The United States also shepherded two rounds of UN talks in Geneva aimed at bringing together the Assad regime and the rebels to form a transitional government. The talks failed on the most fundamental level. Syrian rebels are fractured among themselves and completely uninterested in sharing a transitional government with Assad. And the Assad regime is uninterested in talks with a party whose primary goal is the end of Assad’s rule.
Bashar al-Assad, perpetrator of a chemical-weapons attack, has gone unpunished. Three American antagonists have gained ground. And the Syrian civil war, with its death toll at 150,000, rages on. In March, the New York Times reported that al-Qaeda members are now setting up training operations inside Syria and that intelligence officials have reason to believe they are planning attacks on Europe and the United States.
VI. The Turkish Model CollapsesPresident Obama has praised Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan more effusively than any other leader on the world stage. “I think it’s fair to say that over the last several years, the relationship between Turkey and the United States has continued to grow across every dimension,” said Obama in 2012. “And I find Prime Minister Erdogan to be an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend on a wide range of issues.”
Chief among these issues was Turkey’s supposed standing as a powerful model for intertwining Islam, democracy, and economic growth. When he became prime minister in 2003, Erdogan seemed to strike a much-needed balance. His avowedly Muslim Justice and Development Party (AKP) attracted Islamists without taking a punitive line on non-radicals. As prime minister, he got off to a fine start. Turkey greatly improved relations with its Arab neighbors, achieved significant economic growth, and enjoyed an overall boost in quality of life. For Obama, who believed that working with “moderate” Islamists was key to more agreeable relations in the Middle East, courting Erdogan was a given. It was clear from his comments that the president sought to make his relationship with Erdogan the centerpiece of his Middle East diplomacy.
In late 2009, Obama lunched with Erdogan at the White House and proclaimed that Turkey would be an “important player in trying to move” Iran away from a bomb using diplomacy. There were already signs, however, that Ankara was moving closer to Tehran. In 2009, Erdogan took private meetings in Tehran with his “good friend” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and with Ali Khamenei. Turkey also abstained from an International Atomic Energy Agency board vote condemning Iran’s nuclear activity, and Erdogan claimed that Iran wasn’t pursuing a nuclear weapon at all.
At the same time, Erdogan was stoking tension between Turkey and Israel. He stormed out of a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres over Gaza; Turkish leaders announced the country’s first joint military exercises with Syria; and Turkey asked Israel to bow out of hosting a scheduled NATO exercise.
On May 31, 2010, a flotilla of six boats left Turkey with the express goal of breaking Israel’s blockade on Gaza. After the boats ignored repeated warnings, members of the Israel Defense Forces boarded the biggest of them, the Mavi Marmara, and were attacked by armed jihadists ready for battle. The IDF opened fire, killing nine, and the incident came under international scrutiny. Erdogan flew into a permanent outrage, ratcheting up regional anti-Israel sentiment, and demanding that the Jewish state pay for having used lethal force.
But by this point, it had already become clear that the Turkish model was disintegrating. Erdogan’s government has taken a steady path toward increased state suppression, borrowing policies from both the Islamist and secular autocratic playbooks. He has restricted alcohol sales and the use of sidewalk cafés, cracked down on press freedoms and citizens’ access to the Internet, nullified the independence of the Turkish judiciary, and abused his power in myriad ways.
Nonetheless, Obama’s original approach to Turkey remained intact. This once again impressed upon a Muslim country that the United States, for all its lofty pronouncements on freedom, was unconcerned about the threatened liberties of a real-world population. In March 2013, Obama took credit for organizing a phone call between Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in which the latter expressed regret over the deaths of those shot on the Mavi Marmara. The White House hailed this as a great leap toward normalizing relations between Israel and Turkey, yet the very next day Erdogan announced that he would not drop his case against the IDF, as he had apparently promised before the phone call had been made.
Two months later, Erdogan’s continued strangulation of freedoms inspired Arab Spring-style protests across Turkey, putting the lie to the Turkish model once and for all.
Obama had tried to get Erdogan to play a conciliatory role in Syria, but the Turkish leader took up support for the hard-core Sunnis among the rebels. This was in keeping with his strong and stated preference for Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. Yet Turkey’s destabilizing role in Syria is overshadowed by its underhanded support for the regime in Iran. Erdogan has been anything but the diplomatic go-between Obama envisioned. In 2012 and 2013, Turkey helped Iran evade international sanctions through a “gold for oil” scheme involving the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, which made approximately $13 billion of gold available to Tehran during that time. This has now become part of a larger corruption and abuse scandal. Obama, hoping to maintain his relationship with Erdogan and to stick to his diplomatic course with Iran, did nothing to punish the Turkish bank. And in 2012, Turkish officials, with Erdogan’s express approval, exposed the identities of Iranians who were meeting with Mossad agents inside Turkey.
Obama’s own Iran policies are partially to blame for Turkey’s now overt move toward Iran’s sphere. First, with Assad now ruling Syria for the foreseeable future, Erdogan figured that warm relations with Tehran might mitigate some of the effects of that conflict’s impact on neighboring Sunni-majority Turkey. Second, Obama’s general enabling of Iran’s rise makes it a power that no regional leader can afford to snub. Not least of all in deference to an unsure American power.
VII. Losing Iraq, Leaving AfghanistanIn Barack Obama’s own words, he “was elected to end wars, not start them.” What’s most interesting about that formulation is that he offered it in 2013. Obama promised something different when he was first elected: He would end the war in Iraq “responsibly,” so that he might better fight the war in Afghanistan. “For six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq,” he said soon after taking office. “Now we must make a commitment that can accomplish our goals.”
Let’s take the two parts of this twin promise in turn. In 2009, Iraq was no longer the nucleus of regional chaos. It had, in fact, become a kind of shining light. The government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, had legitimacy and was a functioning, if young, parliamentary democracy. What’s more, Maliki proved willing to take on both Sunni jihadists and Iranian-backed Shiite radicals in order to deliver to the long-suffering Iraqis some modicum of peace. In June, the United States ceased to handle security for cities and the Iraqis were managing the job reasonably well. American casualties in Iraq for 2009 hit a wartime low.
This relative calm allowed the Obama administration to pursue its plan of disengagement. If the previous administration had been fixated on Iraq, Obama’s would catch up on all the other things the war had pushed out of view. The president announced his plan to withdraw most troops from the country by the end of 2010, and the rest by the end of 2011. And then never looked back.
With a disengaged Washington, the democratic project in Iraq began to drift. In March 2010, Maliki refused to honor election results that had handed a partial victory to Ayad Allawi’s moderate Iraqi National Movement. The ensuing crisis birthed an open-ended power struggle in the Iraqi Parliament. For a country so recently liberated from tyrannical rule, the instability proved to be too much. Bit by bit, Maliki’s government began to resemble a typical strongman regime, trading legitimacy for power.
At the time, the United States had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq, extensive security contracts with Baghdad, and leftover working relationships from the Bush years. Nudging the country back on its democratic course would have required exercising some of this formidable American leverage, not any further military commitment. But Obama was determined to keep America out of Iraqi affairs, no matter how serious the circumstances or how light the demands.
In 2011, American neglect was made formal and permanent when the Obama administration failed to negotiate a renewed status-of-forces agreement with Baghdad that would have left behind much-needed U.S. troops. The popular explanation is that Maliki would not countenance immunity for American troops accused of breaking Iraqi law. But the Bush administration had overcome the same sticking point in 2008 when the first status-of-forces agreement was negotiated. The truth is that the Obama administration made an 11th-hour, perfunctory effort at negotiations and Iraqi leaders calculated that risking popular disapproval to maintain such a weakened relationship was not worth the trouble.
In December 2011, the last U.S. troops left the country. Predictably, things spiraled out of control. Maliki never pivoted back toward less oppressive rule, and the uprising in neighboring Syria fueled anti-Maliki sentiment in Iraq. Maliki then sidled up closer to Iran and committed himself to more heavy-handed anti-Sunni measures.
This sent the country’s Sunnis into the embrace of al-Qaeda–affiliated organizations. By 2012, a terrorist group named the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was killing more civilians with greater frequency than were its al-Qaeda brethren in Yemen and Somalia. Things steadily fell apart as the Syrian civil war spilled over that country’s eastern border. In 2013, more Iraqi civilians were killed than in any year since 2007. In early 2014, militants took the city of Fallujah and brought it under Sunni control. Al-Qaeda raised its flag over the city that American soldiers and their Iraqi partners had died fighting for 10 years earlier. America’s bloody 2004 fight for Fallujah had facilitated the emergence of a pacified, democratic Iraq. That real and precious American achievement is now history.
In a nod to the severity of the circumstances in Iraq, the United States recently agreed to supply the Maliki government with Hellfire missiles. Too little, too late? Certainly. And given the saga of looted Libyan weapons, probably risky to boot.
When the entire Muslim Middle East was set aflame, it would have been no small prize to have a real ally in the best-governed Muslim-majority state in the region. As American influence is at an all-time low, a grateful and malleable Baghdad might have been the friend Obama never found in Ankara. Perhaps more important, a flourishing, stable, and democratic Iraq would have stood as a true regional model for a post-autocracy Middle East. It’s hard to think of another American achievement at once so important and hard-won that was so unnecessarily thrown away.
Regarding the war in Afghanistan, Obama initially supported a surge of 33,000 troops in 2009. The results of this surge were mixed, owing mostly to the president’s simultaneous announcement of a troop drawdown 18 months later. America’s enemies knew exactly how long they’d have to wait us out. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates details in his recent memoir, Duty, Obama “eventually lost faith in the troop increase he ordered in Afghanistan, his doubts fed by top White House civilian advisers opposed to the strategy, who continually brought him negative news reports suggesting it was failing.” And so the war in Afghanistan became another war that needed ending, not winning.
As he did with Iraq, the president expended little energy on Afghanistan. His relationship with the highly erratic Afghan President Hamid Karzai drifted into near nonexistence. Thus, the administration began to reach out to the Taliban in hopes of securing a peace agreement. This approach made matters worse. Since it was clear the United States wanted out of Afghanistan, the Taliban saw no reason to negotiate with a party in retreat. Karzai, for his part, recognized that in a post-American Afghanistan, his best hope for survival was not to get on the Taliban’s bad side by doing too much American bidding. Having communicated every move to all sides in advance, the United States saw its influence fizzle everywhere. American troops are scheduled to leave at the end of 2014 with few hopes of a bilateral security agreement with the Afghan government. This means no troops will stay behind, and the Taliban will probably stage a massive comeback largely unopposed. By the end of Obama’s second term, Afghanistan could come to recall its pre-9/11 days once again.
VIII. The Lebanon TinderboxLebanon, like Turkey and Iraq, has the great misfortune of bordering Syria. But unlike Turkey and Iraq, it was dominated by Syria for three decades, until 2005, and the two countries remain firmly intertwined. Roughly 1 million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon since the start of the Syrian uprising. Gebran Bassil, the Lebanese foreign minister, has described the refugee crisis rightly as “threatening the existence of Lebanon.” And because the country is a perpetually unstable patchwork of religious enclaves, it is particularly hospitable to spillover battles from the neighboring war. The Sunni majority naturally support the Syrian rebels, but the Shiite group Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the Assad regime, is a strong force inside Lebanon. The divide between the two sides is sharp and deep, owing in part to likely Syrian involvement in the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Like so many other spots in the region, the tinderbox of Lebanon has now been made especially flammable by American neglect. When Obama reduced U.S. influence, he opened up a power vacuum that sucked in all comers. “I think we are witnessing a turning point, and it could be one of the worst in all our history,” Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury told the New York Times. “The West is not there, and we are in the hands of two regional powers, the Saudis and Iranians, each of which is fanatical in its own way. I don’t see how they can reach any entente, any rational solution.”
Indeed, without American involvement, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has taken it upon itself to blunt Iranian influence in Lebanon. In January, it pledged $3 billion to the Lebanese army, hoping to counter Hezbollah’s power. But Assad’s all but certain victory in Syria means that Iran will continue to exert great cultural and political force in Lebanon.
Just as bad, the Obama administration’s early refusal to back non-radical Sunni Syrian rebels resulted in a greater al-Qaeda presence not only in Syria but in Lebanon as well. As Assad continues to drive the rebels from their strongholds, they have been fleeing to Lebanese border towns. Today, Lebanon’s two largest al-Qaeda-associated groups, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades and Jabhat al-Nusra (which took its name from the Syrian group), constitute a growing and deadly threat. They are stepping up suicide attacks on Shiite targets, and Hezbollah is countering with roadblocks and attacks of its own. It wouldn’t take much for ongoing reprisals to lead to civil war. Jabhat al-Nusra has additionally declared the nonsectarian Lebanese army a legitimate target of attack, accusing it of aiding Hezbollah.
The pervasive sectarian strife is maiming Lebanese politics. For nearly a year, reverberations from the Syrian war had deadlocked the parliament’s two main factions. In late March, the parliament finally approved Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s government. His mandate is over on May 25, and there’s little reason to doubt that the country’s leadership will once again be at an impasse. After Salam’s government was approved, Obama spoke with him by phone. The president urged upcoming elections to be held on time and “emphasized the importance of all parties observing Lebanon’s policy of disassociation.” This bit of phoned-in encouragement, divorced entirely from Lebanese reality, makes it clear that the policy of disassociation is an American one.
IX. The Jordan Weather VaneOf all the Arab countries, Jordan has the strongest and longest record—stretching back four decades—of pro-American sentiment and policy; the Jordanians also have a uniquely close working relationship with the Israelis (“cousins,” as King Abdullah II refers to them). So the fate of Jordan is of supreme importance to the United States. The king is a reform-minded and modern monarch, and this largely accounts for the monarchy’s ability to survive (so far) the Arab Spring. Protestors in Jordan were not, by and large, subjected to the degree of police-state brutality that took place in neighboring countries. What’s more, Abdullah II quickly enacted electoral reforms that went some way in satisfying Jordanians.
But Jordan is hardly inoculated from the new Middle East upheaval. An influx of some 600,000 Syrian refugees is just one of the Hashemite kingdom’s recent challenges, and it’s proving to be a formidable one. Most of the refugees are making their way to cities, where they are putting unmanageable strain on the country’s already ailing economy and infrastructure. That strain, in turn, is igniting broader unrest that could potentially spark, in the words of one Jordanian official, “a new Arab Spring.” King Abdullah II has recently asked for $4.1 billion in aid to ease the plight of the refugees and mitigate the impact on the country.
Naturally, there’s the challenge of Iran. During the presidency of the fanatical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the majority-Sunni Jordan recalled its ambassador from Tehran. But today, with the U.S.-led rehabilitation of the Khomeinist regime, there are indications that Jordan has found it prudent to draw closer to the Persians. In February, Haaretz reported that Jordan and Iran would be exchanging ambassadors once again.
And the Muslim Brotherhood is at work there, too. Abdullah II’s father, King Hussein, managed to subdue the Brotherhood and even gain their support for his rule. But the younger, more liberal king has denounced them to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg as a “Masonic cult” and “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” confiding that “behind closed doors, the Muslim Brotherhood here wants to overthrow [the government].”
It must have come as quite a surprise, then, when the king heard from “some of his Western interlocutors,” as Goldberg put it, that “the only way you can have democracy is through the Muslim Brotherhood.” One can only speculate about the identities of these interlocutors, but if they were from Washington, the formulation would fit in with the Obama administration’s belief that the Brotherhood plays a vital role in forging a democratic Middle East. This also jibes with the larger disconnect between observers of the Middle East over here and our most dependable allies in the region. In 2011, Abdullah II told the Washington Post:
I think everybody is wary of dealing with the West…Looking at how quickly people turned their backs on [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, I would say that most people are going to try and go their own way. I think there is going to be less coordination with the West and therefore a chance of more misunderstandings.
In no way does this mean that the Obama administration was wrong to endorse finally Mubarak’s ouster. But Abdullah II’s complaint is further evidence of how the administration’s aimless handling of Egypt failed to earn influence anywhere or gain the respect of any interested party, including our close friends. And his prediction of less coordination and more misunderstanding is proving true. Jordanians, however, are not quite “going their own way.” They’re looking to the Saudis and other Sunni Gulf states for some of the monetary support they used to get from America. In America’s absence, regional influence can be fought for or bought outright. One way or another, the power vacuum will be filled.
As for Jordan’s Syria problem, Obama recently announced that he’d renew a five-year aid package to Jordan and guarantee $1 billion in loans to go toward handling the flood of refugees. These are perfectly fine decisions, but they are small-bore measures compared with the early actions the United States might have taken in trying to prevent the widening gyre of
X. See-Saw in the GulfSaudi Arabia has a long history of funding and fomenting radical Sunni Wahhabism. It played an essential role in creating the jihadism that now threatens the United States and the entire world. But statecraft is about choosing among bad options and frustrating trade-offs, and the world’s largest oil producer is also a tremendously important American ally. For the better part of a century, Saudi Arabia and the United States have been locked into an energy-for-security pact that has proved to be remarkably solid.
The post-9/11 years, paradoxically, have created additional reasons for maintaining the American-Saudi connection. First, the kingdom has come grudgingly to realize that the fundamentalism it fueled now poses a threat to the existence of Saudi Arabia itself. Al-Qaeda attacked the United States foremost because of the American military’s presence in Saudi Arabia during and after the first Gulf War in 1991. The partnership between the two countries has been mutually beneficial, and enemies of the American-Saudi relationship are enemies of the Saudi Royals. Second, the United States and Saudi Arabia share a dangerous and determined enemy in Iran. Khomeinist Shiism is predicated not only on anti-Americanism, but also on an ancient animosity toward Sunni Islam. (Remember, the United States foiled an Iranian plot to kill a Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C.) An Iranian rise necessarily means a Saudi decline. And an Iranian nuclear bomb would be a horrifying reality for Riyadh.
Barack Obama has, in several related ways, jeopardized the Saudis’ standing in the Middle East. First, the United States has failed to back the region’s more moderate Sunnis against the more radical Sunnis. After Mubarak fell in Egypt, the Obama administration endorsed the democratic legitimacy of the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia (and the United Arab Emirates) put up billions of dollars in support of the secular Egyptian Army. As noted above, Jordan’s moderate Sunnis are now looking to Saudi Arabia for the support that the United States no longer gives. In Syria, the United States failed not only to support the non-radical Sunni rebels early on but also to carry out its threatened strike on Iranian ally Assad. After the American mishandling of Syria, Saudi Arabia saw little choice but to support whatever enemies of Assad they could find. Thus the Saudis, who are combating the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda elsewhere in the region, are now supporting al-Qaeda franchises such as the Nusra Front in Syria.
Of even greater concern is what the Saudis see as Obama’s diplomatic folly with Tehran. Along with many skeptics in Israel and the United States, Saudi Iran-watchers are convinced that the Obama diplomacy track is leading straight to an Iranian nuclear weapon. To demonstrate its seriousness on the matter, Riyadh has all but promised to get a nuclear bomb of its own in the event of Iranian nukes. Naturally, this concern over a rising nuclear Iran has brought the Saudis and the Israelis closer. Saudi Royal Prince Alwaleed bin Talal told Bloomberg News, “The threat is from Persia, not from Israel.” He added: “There’s no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran.” Both the Saudis and Israelis also feel burned by the Obama administration for keeping its diplomatic machinations with Iran largely secret. The Jewish state, in fact, first learned of Obama’s recent deal with Iran from an equally distressed Saudi Arabia. In October, Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of walking away from a seat on the UN Security Council in protest of the new global leadership void.
If Saudi Arabia is the big Gulf-Arab loser, then the winner is clearly Qatar. This smaller gas-exporting Sunni monarchy has brilliantly exploited the power vacuum the Saudis abhor. And it’s done so by backing radicals at every step of the way. In Doha, Qatar hosts the extremist Muslim Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi. And Qatari money is behind the Brotherhood in Egypt and al-Qaeda–linked groups in Syria. Last year Qatar pledged $400 million in aid to Hamas in Gaza. Recently, the U.S. Treasury tracked big sums going from Qatari and Kuwaiti charities to extremists in Iraq as well. But Qatar isn’t merely throwing money at Islamists. It uses its global broadcasting company Al Jazeera to promote Brotherhood views and criticize its
By deepening ties with ascendant radicals in other countries, Doha hopes to exercise leverage with foreign heads of state. So far the tactic has brought tremendous strain on relations in the Gulf. Obama was supposed to attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council this March, but Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain pulled their ambassadors from Qatar in protest over its courting and funding of radicals, and the summit fell apart. The United States is in a difficult position with Qatar because of important military and commercial ties. But the larger point is that the Obama administration’s withdrawal from the region left an enormous space open for energy-funded bad actors to advance their cause.
XI. The Tilt Against IsraelBarack Obama came to office determined to take U.S.–Israel relations in a new direction. Where his predecessor had seen Palestinian intransigence as the main obstacle to Middle East peace, Obama saw Israeli rigidity as the culprit. And while American administrations traditionally understood that Israel was most willing to take risks when it felt its relationship with the United States was secure, Obama’s administration would make historically close American–Israeli ties partially contingent upon Israeli concessions to Palestinians. As he told a group of Jewish leaders at the White House, according to the New York Times, “For eight years [during the Bush administration], there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished.” On a personal level, Obama considered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a true partner for peace and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu an atavistic nationalist who would soon be replaced by the more liberal Tzipi Livni.
As he said in his Cairo speech, Obama believed that peace between Israel and the Palestinians “would have a profound and positive impact on the entire Middle East and North Africa.” In other words, he saw an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal as the key to a more pacified Muslim world. So he quickly set about enacting his policy changes. In his first face-to-face talk with Netanyahu in May 2009, Obama told the prime minister that “settlements [on the West Bank] have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.” The theme of stopping settlements was repeated and echoed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who specified that this meant all such settlements, “not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions.”
In November 2009, Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze in order to kick-start new U.S.–led peace negotiations. But if the American approach had changed, the Palestinian one had not. For nine months, Abbas refused to talk. With one month to go, he sat through two meetings before once again walking away from
And thus the template for Obama-era Israel policy was set. The president would publicly pressure Netanyahu into taking some action (freezing settlements, apologizing to Turkey, releasing Palestinian prisoners), and the Palestinian leadership would brazenly fail to step up to negotiations. As the failures built up, the administration took a heavier line with Israel. In March 2010, Hillary Clinton berated Netanyahu by phone for 43 minutes over settlements. That same month Obama snubbed Netanyahu at the White House. And so a personal animosity would steadily become another unhelpful feature in the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem.
In Obama’s second term, with John Kerry as secretary of state, American disapproval morphed into something closer to American threat. Kerry organized a new round of peace talks (predicated on Israel’s release of dangerous Palestinian prisoners), and those talks stalled due to the Palestinians’ inability to meet the most preliminary demands. In Kerry’s frustration, he wondered aloud last November on Palestinian television, “Does Israel want a third intifada?” In February, he wondered aloud once again, this time in Germany: “There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things,” he said. “Are we all going to be better with all of that?” These were barely veiled threats that Israel would face boycotts and violence if it didn’t sign on to his “Framework Agreement” for peace.
But when talks resumed, it was Abbas who would not comply with three key details of the Framework: He refused to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, refused to give up the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians and generations of their descendents, and refused an “end of conflict” with Israel, which is, more or less, the essence of peace itself. In response, Kerry began to downplay the importance of Israel’s being recognized as a Jewish state in the hope that he could get one yes on the board.
The administration’s miscalculations on Israeli-Palestinian peace are multiple and have been self-reinforcing. First, Obama simply inverted the positions of the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is the Palestinian leadership that remains unable to agree to peace with Israel. After decades of making anti-Semitism a foundation of Palestinian culture, Palestinian leaders who would now dare make peace with the Jewish state would live in fear for their lives. Public-opinion polls demonstrated that Israel’s electorate, on the other hand, wants nothing so badly as it wants peace with its neighbors.
Second, while the public criticism of Israel brought about a great many Israeli concessions, it reinforced Palestinian intransigence. What Palestinian leader could take steps toward peace with Israel while Israel’s closest ally is calling the Jewish state stubborn and unreasonable? The disapproval from America also made Netanyahu stronger domestically, as Israelis began to understand just how strong he had to be under these unprecedented circumstances. Finally, as events from 2011 on have demonstrated, the Israel-Palestinian problem has played no role whatsoever in the chain reaction of instability and violence set off by the Arab Spring.
On the matter of stopping Iran’s nuclear quest, the administration has repeatedly reassured Israel that “we’re not going to have talks [with Iran] forever” and that “all options are on the table.” All along, Obama has seen the specter of an Israeli strike on Iranian targets as a potential spoiler of his diplomatic plan to disarm the mullahs. And, now, with the advent of direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran, an Israeli attack would be widely condemned as an act of war on the eve of diplomatic success.
In truth, such an attack has become more likely and more necessary owing to the lengthy and mistaken diplomacy of the Obama administration. In March, Israel Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told a crowd at Tel Aviv University, “We have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us [on Iran] but ourselves.” And so they must.
It would be the height of unfairness to blame the Obama administration outright for everything that’s happened in the Middle East in the past five years. The region’s bad actors and cultural disorders are often well beyond the reach of the United States, regardless of who’s in office. But limitations are one thing—ineptitude another. It’s simply hard to find a single instance of President Obama responding to recent regional events in a way that has paid off either for the United States or its allies. At the same time, America’s antagonists—chiefly Iran and its enablers—have been emboldened and are now ascendant.
If this is what the Obama administration has gotten in return for a more humble American posture, then it’s time to drop that posture. Dangers like rolling civil wars, a near-nuclear Iran, a re-Talibanized Afghanistan, and a resurgent al-Qaeda will not vanish on their own. This administration has three years to reduce the damage that’s been done. The challenge is enormous, but, despite all these setbacks, the United States remains the strongest power in world history. And, as we’ve seen, a lot can happen in a short amount of time.
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He’s Made It Worse: Obama’s Middle East
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages