Niall Ferguson: On one issue the Republican contenders and the president they wish to replace are in agreement: the United States should reduce its military presence in the Greater Middle East. The preferred arguments are that America cannot afford to be engaged in combat operations in far-flung countries and that such operations are futile anyway. The question no one wants to answer is what will come after the United States departs. The “happily ever after” scenario is that one country after another will embrace Western democracy.
In July 2008, Bishop Thomas, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt, delivered a talk in Washington about the cultural history of his co-religionists, entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization.” His lecture ignited an immediate explosion within Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques.
The Esenyurt District of Istanbul is classic new Turkey: pastel-colored office buildings with plastic-looking facades, rows of high-rise apartment buildings organized into little vertical gated communities, skeletons of shopping malls waiting to be filled with Mango and Starbucks. On a recent May afternoon, the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made a campaign stop there. The people who gathered to meet him were both covered and loose-haired, lower-middle class and middle class, and they eagerly sandwiched their way through security checkpoints.
The border crossing from Egypt into rebel-controlled eastern Libya offers few clues that the country is at war. The Libyan immigration officers wear ragged uniforms and carry on the routine of stamping passports, though with a friendliness and ease that is undoubtedly new. The eight-hour drive to the rebels’ de facto capital of Benghazi is dramatic only for its scenery—a rugged coastline with wide open beaches, then, surprisingly, green hills, crossed by deep gorges and adorned with beautifully preserved Greek ruins, visited by no one.
After yet another weak jobs report came out last Friday—the U.S. private sector, it turns out, added just 38,000 jobs in May—economists have been groping for an explanation. One theory is that the economy is still in a deep, deep funk: As the IMF warned back in 2009, it takes a long time for the world to recover from a severe financial crisis.
The U.S. war in Iraq has just been given an unexpected seal of approval. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in what he billed as his “last major policy speech in Washington,” has owned up to the gains in Iraq, to the surprise that Iraq has emerged as “the most advanced Arab democracy in the region.” It was messy, this Iraqi democratic experience, but Iraqis “weren’t in the streets shooting each other, the government wasn’t in the streets shooting its people,” Gates observed.
In his State Department speech last week, Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet to Benjamin Netanyahu. In the Oval Office a day later, and more fully in an address to Congress yesterday, Netanyahu picked it up and threw it right back. The question now is whether this clash can be turned into a new understanding between the United States and Israel that improves the prospects for the two-state solution both parties say they want. To bring this about, Obama will have to make further tweaks to his approach and rethink his declared stance on Palestinian refugees, among other matters.
Who is the forty-fourth president of the United States? After two-and-a-half years, we should have a pretty good idea. But we still don’t. Barack Obama remains a canvas for the mind—a wondrous, vexing projection surface. He is a rock star and redeemer to his devotees, and a left-wing Darth Vader to his enemies. Yet, above all, he is a man of too many qualities; take your pick. Or take his vaunted speech last week on North Africa and the Middle East.
Jerusalem—It was a nation of ambivalent Israelis that listened to President Obama’s latest Middle East plan—an interim agreement based on ending the occupation of the Palestinians while somehow ensuring the security of the Israelis. Israeli ambivalence is peculiar: It has nothing to do with uncertainty or confusion. Instead, to be an ambivalent Israeli is to be torn between two conflicting certainties.
As the revolt that started this past winter in Tunisia spread to Egypt, Libya, and beyond, dissidents the world over were looking to the Middle East for inspiration. In China, online activists inspired by the Arab Spring called for a “jasmine revolution.” In Singapore, one of the quietest countries in the world, opposition members called for an “orchid evolution” in the run-up to this month’s national elections. Perhaps as a result, those watching from the West have been positively triumphalist in their predictions.