President Barack Obama, according to pundits, is losing the Middle East. The charge recalls those leveled after Mao Zedong’s 1949 victory in the Chinese civil war, when anti-communists in the United States accused the Truman administration of “losing China.” While advocates of this position never explained how any feasible level of U.S. support could have staved off Chiang Kai-Shek’s defeat, the idea that refusing to back friendly dictators leads to preventable strategic disasters subsequently became ingrained in American thinking. It later inspired Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to disengage from Vietnam even when it became clear that the Saigon regime could not win and, more broadly, delegitimized the idea of cutting American losses when partners proved unsalvageable and conflicts intractable. In other words, an incorrect reading of the China situation paved the way for further strategic mistakes.
The narrative that Obama has lost or is losing the Middle East began to form in 2011 and is now growing among Obama’s critics. Front Page Magazine, for instance, ran an article in October entitled “Obama Loses the Middle East.” A November column on Mediate.com asserted that “Obama, Not Bush, Lost the Middle East.” Writing in Commentary, Joshua Tobin asserted that Obama is “losing the Middle East to Putin.” Undoubtedly more will follow. But the “Obama lost the Middle East” assertion is just as flawed and overly simplistic as the idea that “Truman lost China.”
That the Middle East was America’s to lose is hubris verging on narcissism. The post-colonial social and political order in the region was fragile and brittle from its inception. But it held together for a while. Just as the Soviet Union used domestic repression, ideology and a historical fear of external meddling to keep a dysfunctional political and economic system tottering along for more than 60 years, the Middle Eastern political order survived through powerful internal security organizations, oil wealth, superpower support, a shared dislike of Israel and immigration to Europe and North America when populations grew faster than economies. Eventually, though, information technology and global interconnectedness awakened the region’s formerly submissive people, undercutting the old order and unleashing social and political revolution.