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Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo, June 4, 2009

“Force projection” in the Middle East is the largest legacy Barack Obama inherits from the administration of George W. Bush; and the main question asked about Obama in his first months in office has been how far he intends to continue Bush’s policy. The answer in December 2008 seemed to be an expansion of the war in Afghanistan and a careful withdrawal from Iraq, with no clear signal on Iran, Israel, and Palestine. All this changed with Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4. But the events of the last year were the climate in which Leslie Gelb wrote Power Rules— a book modeled on The Prince, whose “main addressee” the author declares to be “you, Mr. President.”

Gelb has had a distinguished career as a policymaker and commentator, and his book is offered as the autumnal wisdom of a distinguished public man. He supervised the writing of the Pentagon Papers. Later, he served in the Carter administration, as assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs under Cyrus Vance; but he grew increasingly dissatisfied with Carter’s foreign policy, and (he tells us) ended up voting for Reagan. He went on to edit the New York Times Op-Ed page and to serve as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Between the council, the Times, and the advisory work for more than one administration and party, Gelb might fairly be called a triple pillar of the foreign policy establishment.

He divides the world of nations into a plain hierarchy that is determined by what he calls “the pyramid of power.” The United States is on top as the “paramount” power, but it can seldom “prevail on its own.” In the second tier are the “Eight Principals”: China, Japan, India, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, “and just barely Brazil.” Below them, says Gelb, are the “Oil and Gas Pumpers.” Further down, in a fourth tier, may be found such “Regional Players” as Mexico, South Africa, and South Korea. Beneath the Principals, Pumpers, and Players stand the harmless “Responsibles” (Switzerland, Norway, Singapore, others)—Gelb’s naming and ranking of this group may express a shade of contempt. Finally there are the “Bottom Dwellers”: Sudan, Congo, and Bosnia figure here but also, curiously, Nicaragua.

If there is an overriding thesis in the book, it is that American power needs a world to work in, and the world needs American power. This comes out pungently in Gelb’s description of America “exiting Vietnam in the early 1970s amid wails the world over for the passing of the American era.” The outcry over Vietnam, as Gelb heard it, did not have to do with carpet bombing or defoliation and the napalming of Vietnamese hamlets, but rather the cessation of these things. American power, for Gelb, is good as no other power imaginably can be. He quotes with approval Madeleine Albright’s statement in 1998 that “if we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”

The high point of American foreign policy in Gelb’s lifetime, he suggests more than once, was the Russia and China diplomacy conducted by Nixon and Kissinger in the early 1970s; accompanied as it was by the renewal of bombing of North Vietnam on a devastating scale—all this at a time when peace in Vietnam was the leading apparent item on the agenda of American policy. Gelb marvels at the “streams of diplomacy” that amounted to “a cascading display of America’s unique role.” And again:

The genius of President Richard M. Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger [in their withdrawal from Vietnam]… was to let the victim drown slowly while they steered the world’s attention in another direction—to the most dazzling and theatrical display of American power ever.

Machiavelli would have appreciated the sentiment if not the economy of that sentence.

What would be the correlative of a policy like Nixon and Kissinger’s today? It might seem to be an escalated war in Afghanistan, and serious bargaining on Iran that should not be expected to bring a “quick resolution,” combined with overwhelming high diplomacy elsewhere. Gelb thinks that Obama is situated to deliver an impressive display of war that adds heft to diplomacy, and of diplomacy that reconciles us to war. The reason Obama can do this is that “to Arabs and Iranians, America is still number one.”

Three axioms are laid down here to guide Obama’s policy. (1) The US is the indispensable power, and must recognize itself as such. (2) Though we are in a position to lead, we cannot dictate. (3) The way to stay at the top of the “pyramid of power” and lead is to form coalitions. These maxims will be of interest only in the application, of course; but Gelb obliges his readers: at the end of the book he offers the outline of the speech on the Middle East that he thinks Obama ought to give near the start of his presidency. It might seem a prescription, in fact, for the very speech that Obama chose to give on June 4 in Cairo.


The difference between the speech that Gelb calls for and the speech Obama gave begins with the choice of a place and an audience. Gelb implies that this should be an American speech, about American power, delivered to an American audience. Why else argue, as Gelb does, that the final gesture of Obama’s speech should be the unveiling of “an action plan to make homeland security a reality”? Or that its peroration should declare that “with or without peace” in the Middle East, the president will “prepare for the worst at home”? Gelb also recommended that Obama indicate a broad but vague concern for progress on Palestine, without initially speaking to Hamas, without directly addressing the question of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, and without pressing the parties into a schedule of any urgency. The model here is Northern Ireland—up to a point. Just as, in the earlier conflict, London and Washington “nurtured the fledgling movements for a cease-fire,” so today “Washington can do the same and more for Fatah.” And yet it must do so in the knowledge that “Fatah may be hopeless.”

With Iran, Gelb thought, the critical thing was to lodge in the minds of the mullahs the two sides of “the power package”: on the one hand, the “vast US strike capability in the area”; on the other hand the opportunity—if nuclear enrichment is curtailed or continued only “under the strictest of safeguards and inspections”—that America will “open the international economy to Iran, and pledge noninterference in Iran’s internal affairs.” Indeed, Gelb speaks here with as much moderation as any member of the President’s Middle East team. On Iran, he says, Obama “can use the Libyan model, whereby Washington and Tripoli put all cards on the table and traded them most satisfactorily.”

As for Iraq: “divide,” says Gelb, the “constitutional powers in a united country along geographic lines.” The syntax of that sentence may obscure its meaning. Iraq is to be divided into three separate geographical sections, Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni, each with a “strong regional” government, and sharing “a central government with limited powers.” Decentralized government and “federalism” are to be preferred in Iraq, says Gelb, because the Shiites and Sunnis are at each other’s throats; and the Kurds already have a regional government. True, there is an unhappy history throughout the world of carefully separated enemy-neighbors who have stayed at each other’s throats. Still, Gelb, foreseeing a “continuing civil war,” likes the idea of a divided Iraq.* To gain that end, the US “would have to press and cajole” and remind all the parties that US troops would remain on the scene “only if the fighting died down” as a result of such a federal settlement. No rapid withdrawal from Iraq, then. The model here is Bosnia. “You will put American power on the line,” says Gelb to Obama, summing up the speech he has just sketched, “for the best outcomes in the region.”

Barack Obama in Cairo took a path that was different in tone, in implication, and in many particulars; it can be read as a counterargument to the sort of thinking one finds in Gelb’s book. Obama started with a salutation as obvious as it was impossible to predict. This American president speaking in Cairo said to the Arab world that he was “proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country.” The phrase “Muslim communities” names an entity that Americans know, yet one that cannot be reliably heard of as we turn the dial on the radio.

Alluding to the wars between Christians and Muslims, Obama placed, on an equal footing, their “centuries of coexistence and cooperation,” and cited among the reasons for Muslim suspicion of the West a

tension…fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations.

Not since John Kennedy’s inaugural address has there been such a candid admission that the wrongs of a colonialism that America has sometimes supported work against the ideals of American liberty. At the same time, Obama said that the acts of violent extremists in the Muslim world have “led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights.” He summed up: “This cycle of suspicion and discord must end”; his own policy in speaking to and about the Middle East would be to “say openly…the things we hold in our hearts and that too often are said only behind closed doors.” He quoted as his chosen authority on tolerance John Adams, who wrote when signing the Treaty of Tripoli: “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.”


The first Muslim elected to Congress, as Obama now pointed out, took his oath of office on a Holy Koran that had once been part of Thomas Jefferson’s library. This was held out as one example of such American tolerance. The US government has gone to court to protect the right of women and girls to wear the hijab: “So let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.” No country, culture, or faith can be an island to itself, least of all in the twenty-first century, when a disease, a financial disaster, or the particular effects of the general environmental deterioration are bound to involve directly people all around the world. So we must confront “violent extremism in all of its forms”; and this is a project for more than one country.

The American wars in the Middle East received here a firm but delimited justification as a response to violent acts by al-Qaeda. But the things al- Qaeda had done against innocent people were “not opinions to be debated; these are facts to be dealt with.” And Obama made opposition to that fanatical sect a point of accord above race prejudice: “They have killed people of different faiths—but more than any other, they have killed Muslims.” To give meaning to the limitation, he affirmed that the US seeks no military bases in Afghanistan or in Iraq. He restated his commitment to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay by early next year, and repeated the unequivocal prohibition he had issued against torture.


Peter Souza/White House/Getty Images

Barack Obama visiting the pyramids and the Great Sphinx of Giza, June 4, 2009

On Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world, Obama started again with facts —with the unprecedented Holocaust suffered by Jews in World War II—a simple and stark truth, the denial of which was “baseless, ignorant, and hateful.” Then, with care, as one not to be deterred by the memory of an enormous evil from remedying a drastic and persistent evil in the present, he spoke of the sufferings of Palestinians (Christians and Muslims alike) in pursuit of a homeland:

They endure the daily humiliations—large and small—that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

He would “personally,” he said, pursue the solution “with all the patience and dedication that the task requires.” As a beginning, he called on Palestinians to abandon violence, and called on Israel to freeze all construction of settlements. Speaking of Palestinian militants, he said:

It is a sign neither of courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed, that is how it is surrendered.

He named Hamas and called on it to recognize the state of Israel. But the continuing crisis in Gaza, he added, “does not serve Israel’s security.” The Arab Peace Initiative he saw as the beginning but not the end of the responsibilities of other countries in the region. This summoning to mutual respect, justice, and equality, with the more particular call on Hamas to recognize Israel, was broadcast by al-Jazeera throughout the following day.

Another source of tension was now brought up: nuclear weapons. And it was under the larger rubric of proliferation, he said, that Iran would be dealt with. We must prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East; this will require a resolution by all the countries of the region. A shorter section on Iran spoke of the utility of giving that country access to nuclear power for peaceful uses and under strict supervision—a benefit to which Iran is entitled by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Obama spoke at the end about the general good of democracy: his predecessor’s favorite and almost his only theme. Advocates of democracy ought to maintain their support for freedom even when they gain power. As for religious freedom, its sincerity is not measured by a rejection of other people’s faith. And women’s rights are not to be confused with the approval or discountenancing of an orthodox custom:

I reject the view of some in the West that a woman who chooses to cover her hair is somehow less equal, but I do believe that a woman who is denied an education is denied equality.

It was a long speech, fifty-five minutes, none of it easy to take in at a glance; but there were two decisive moments in Obama’s peroration: “It’s easier to start wars than to end them.” The suggestion seemed to be that even in Afghanistan, he has his eye on the difficult work of ending a war. And the last of his three quotations from the Hebrew Bible, the Koran, and the New Testament was drawn from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

In a discussion moderated by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan some twenty-five years ago, Leslie Gelb said with a genial irony that covert wars brought no real impairment of democracy: “The fact of the matter is that almost any covert operation that might be considered controversial is going to be debated publicly.” This was said when the US was supplying arms to the contra rebels in Nicaragua, and mining the harbors of that country; the facts had lately come to public view, but the facts were not discussed until discovered by accident. The same held true with the American policy on torture under Bush and Cheney, which spread from Guantánamo to prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Gelb, in 1984, was challenged by Morton Halperin:

The critical moment for debating a military intervention is before it begins. Clearly, once you help people start a war there are weighty arguments in favor of continuing to support them.

Senator Moynihan also disagreed with Gelb:

I suggest that in the United States we openly discuss a very limited number of such operations, that the far greater portion are not discussed, but are hermetically sealed.

Moynihan plainly thought this a bad thing for constitutional democracy.

Gelb had the last word, in a way; but it was a puzzling last word: “I disagree,” he said, with

the proposition that we ought not to interfere in the internal politics of other societies. I believe that is exactly what foreign policy is. All foreign policy is the extension of one’s internal policies into the internal politics of another nation.

The subject was, to repeat, the arming of the contras in Nicaragua, but it was also the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. The comment sheds considerable light as well on Gelb’s eagerness to continue pressure in the Middle East in the form of military and covert operations.

Obama in Cairo spoke as the leader of a constitutional democracy. By contrast, Gelb, and many others of the policy establishment, think a president should take Congress into his confidence only for the reason that Machiavelli advised the prince to hold the powerful close by. You keep a sharper eye on them that way; it is better to have them as visible allies than as secret enemies. But the involvement of Congress in policy is presented, in this book of advice to a democratic prince, as a strictly instrumental good. Policy is the property of the strategists. You work out a policy, and you implement it.

Among the tacit assumptions of Gelb’s argument is the good that should have come, and that may yet come, from America’s bombing, invasion, and occupation of Iraq. He offered the assistance of the Council on Foreign Relations to Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley in the aftermath of the war, and he wishes that they had not declined the help of so many qualified talents. He believes that “soft power” in the aftermath of the war, as in its preliminaries, “could have facilitated our exercise of power and enhanced general receptivity to our power”; but that formulation suggests that Gelb may underrate the change in the understanding of the US that the Iraq war has prompted around the world—a point to which Obama accorded a vivid recognition. Leslie Gelb’s contacts are with policymakers, mainly in the US, with journalists, and with presidential advisers. He is satisfied with the judgment that “anti-Americanism is now woven into the texture of international affairs.”

Perhaps he is too easily satisfied. For if this is so, it may give the United States carte blanche for any military action whatever; after all, if “anti-Americanism” is so ingrained, it is possible that nothing we do will make things worse. Gelb has much to say about negotiated outcomes. Yet he allows us to fall back on the perception that these people hate us for what we are. This common and undemanding position relaxes the conscience of the country by awarding us a permanent bill of acquittal. It is essentially a parental message of comfort. Is such a view compatible with citizenship in a democracy?

Turn to Machiavelli, The Prince, chapter 14, and read:

A prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but that of war and its orders and discipline; for that is the only art which is of concern to one who commands.

Nobody who praises and takes modern instruction from The Prince can fail to be aware that this is the heart of its teaching. How good a recommendation is it to the children not of Lorenzo de’ Medici, but of Washington, Madison, Franklin, and Paine? On the Machiavellian view there is nothing to object to and everything to admire in a war that succeeds, regardless of its justice.

Yet on this central question President Obama, once again, took the opposite line in Cairo. The speech broke no ground, some people have said, because it did not specify. But simply by being spoken, and by addressing the Arab world without condescension, Obama’s words placed the United States on a different footing. He can hardly have said what he did without knowing that he would be measured against the weight of the changes his words appear to promise. Will a freeze on West Bank settlements stop one Caterpillar bulldozer from knocking down one Palestinian house in the next six months? If the answer is no, the Arab world will see; and it will have mattered, one way or another, that an American president gave the world reason to think that the answer would not be no. In this sense, whatever its temperateness and generality, the Cairo speech played for higher stakes than any strategist in an earlier mold could have advised or foreseen.

June 18, 2009

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