Looking for logic in the Obama doctrine


Sand dunes outside of Dubai, United Arab Emirates.


Julian Finney

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — As Muammar Gaddafi hangs on past another commercial break, the meme of the week in Washington gets deeper into the American psyche:

What is the Obama doctrine? Where is the consistency? What is the end point in Libya? Where is the truth and logic in intervening in Libya but not in Bahrain or Yemen?

The president's critics on the left say, well, if there's oil we intervene, if not, we don't. They add for good measure, "Dictators whom we like — like the king of Bahrain — we don't interfere with."

The president's critics on the right say he is a chronic ditherer who doesn't act until the women in his life kick his butt. They demand he define a single easy-to-understand policy toward the Arab uprising: why we intervene and how we get out — preferably in monosyllabic words that can fit on a poster.

The answer seems obvious. "Every thing is what it is and not another thing," wrote Bishop Joseph Butler in the 18th century. The Obama doctrine is a paraphrase of Bishop Butler for today, "Every Revolution is what it is and not another Revolution."

The president's foreign policy team is responding to each situation discreetly. What else can they do?

Official Washington — right and left — seems to see the Arab Middle East as a monolith. It is not. Every country here is what it is and not another country. The tribal and sub-ethnic components, the different dialects of Arabic they speak, the differing histories of each, their different experience of Ottoman colonialism and then European colonialism, and, finally, their different experience of governance over the last 60 years have created a series of national populations that are truly separate and distinct from one another.

I am writing from Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. I have been attending a conference called Education Without Borders that brought university students and top educators from 120 countries to this city that looks like the set of "Blade Runner" without the rain, a cosmopolis where the amazing skyline didn't exist 20 years ago.

The conference could have been held in London or Los Angeles or Paris or Sydney or Shanghai. That is how the United Arab Emirates — governed by a series of hereditary rulers — has developed. It seeks to be open to the new globalized world.

The same conference could not have been held in Riyadh or Jeddah. That is how Saudi Arabia, governed by a hereditary ruling family has developed. It remains a closed desert kingdom.

Two nations blessed with oil wealth but two entirely different ways of using that wealth to develop. Do you have a one-size-fits-all policy for dealing with these two nations that share a border in the vast desert that is the Arabian peninsula? Of course not.

Another example. In 1958, Egypt and Syria attempted to forge a union of Arab peoples. These two Arab nations had the richest cultures and histories, the largest populations. The United Arab Republic lasted precisely three years. The cultures and histories and leaders of the two countries were irreconcilable.

Now as the heat from the street is turned up on the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, does it make sense for the Obama administration to respond to demonstrations in Damascus the way it did to demonstrations in Tahrir Square? No. Does it even have the same tools to influence events in Syria that it had in Egypt? No.

Assad made the point in a speech Wednesday to his parliament. "Syria is not isolated from the region ... but we are not a copy of other countries." Indeed.

Egypt made its peace with Israel and put itself firmly in alliance with the United States. When Egypt's population rose up against Hosni Mubarak, the Obama administration had a wide range of contacts in the government and military to speak to and help influence events.

Syria has never made its peace with Israel — although there have been moments when it was rumored this might happen. Diplomatic relations with Syria have fluctuated but there has been nothing like the three decades of close alliance that has existed between the United States and Egypt. So, now as the pressure builds on the Assad regime, whom can the Obama administration call?

What makes the events sweeping the Arab world so exciting for outsiders to watch is there is no template for what is happening. Doctrines and dogmas don't fit. That makes life difficult for those who have to formulate and implement American policy. But they don't do the job for the paycheck, do they?

So as the Libyan revolution lingers and the Syrian revolt begins remember that what happened in one place won't happen in the other. "Every thing is what it is and not another thing."