July 6th, 2011
06:00 AM ET

Obama's restraint in the Middle East

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

Last week, I interviewed U.S. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon on GPS. Much of our conversation focused on the Middle East.

I got the sense from Donilon that the Obama Administration is more realist than people are willing to acknowledge. While President Obama’s heart is with the Arab Spring, he is somebody who is very careful in his commitment of American power and very measured in the use of that power.

President Obama sees trends like democratization and liberalization as long-term processes.

Here’s how that vision is playing out in U.S. policy toward the region:


What struck me about U.S. policy toward Libya is that it is a carefully calculated, incremental policy. The U.S. has adopted a policy that is trying to achieve its results but is very conscious of the costs.

There is a determination to put the screws on Moammar Gadhafi - to set out a goal that he eventually must leave - but to do so in a way that does not excessively commit America power or prestige. President Obama wants to ensure that we don’t end up owning Libya. It is a policy designed more to ensure against bad outcomes than to take big gambles in the hope of good outcomes.


You see a similar approach in Syria. The Administration is attempting to ratchet up the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad without calling for his ouster. This is presumably because of a fear of what might follow: potentially chaos and civil war in Syria that could create conditions where people start expecting international humanitarian intervention.

This feels to me like a policy for the long-run. Again, it is an incremental policy.

The administration seems fairly comfortable with this policy. They are not itching to present a historic interventionist policy on the Arab Spring. They are comfortable tightening the screws, ratcheting up the pressure and waiting.

Saudi Arabia

In our interview, Tom Donilon signaled that the United States values its alliance with Saudi Arabia and would not do anything to destabilize the regime unless there were completely unforeseen events. He praised the Saudi regime for liberalizing and said countries have to change at their own pace.  The Administration does not want to put itself in the position where it's openly calling for regime change.


I think it was striking how open Tom Donilon was about the U.S. making overtures to Iran. Those overtures were rebuffed.

Now the Administration is on the track of increasing pressure on Iran, but Donilon did hold out the possibility that if the Iranians changed their minds, the offer was still on the table.

This was interesting because a number of people have said you should not negotiate with this regime because it would give it credibility.

I think Donilon was saying that if the Iranians were willing to make a deal on the nuclear issue, that was important enough that it would be worth doing – it would solve a huge festering problem. But in any case it’s highly unlikely the Iranians would take Donilon up on the offer.

Overall Thoughts

I think this is an appropriately practical approach.

There is a certain kind of pleasure that American presidents have gotten from standing on the podium and issuing ringing declarations.

I think Obama believes in those ideas and ideals, but he also understands that the practical task of achieving them is more complex and more long-term and that open-ended commitments of American power and prestige in these situations can have very expensive consequences.

soundoff (96 Responses)
  1. JOE

    So how can president Obama approach the Middle East without restraint especially when from day one John Boehner and the GOP have made it their utmost priority to attack, criticize and oppose every thing that the president tries to do at home and abroad. Can someone really write an article reflecting on the historic nature in which John Boehner and the GOP are conspirring to return America to Jim Crow while preventing the Obama administration from governing? Let's face it, you cannot judge, evaluate or criticize president Obama's leadership at home or abroad fairly and effectively without taking into account the constant and deliberate roadblocks being established by John Boehner and the GOP to ensure that our nation's first African-American president does not succeed. So the president didn't do this in Seria and he didn't do that in Libya or that in Iran but what kinds of support would the president really get from John Boehner and the GOP regarding sanctions or intervention in these countries? Mr. Zakaria, its about time you or someone else write an article talking about the historic and deliberate roadblocks being eatablished by John Boehner and the GOP as opposed to what president Obama isn't doing. Foe example, every week or so CNN's Gloria Borger writes an article criticizing both the GOP and the Obama administration for what she calls " the childdish behavior" or gridlock in Washington. But to date Gloria Borger hasn't had the guts to blame the GOP alone for the gridlock. Her method is that in order to blame or criticize the GOP and keep her job at CNN, she must include the Obama administration in the blame. That is called propaganda and simply lying. So please Mr. Zakaria, let your next article be on the deliberate roadblocks being set by the GOP as opposed to what the Obama administration isn't doing.

    July 7, 2011 at 11:01 am | Reply
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA


      I surely agree with you. While I voted for Obama and support him on several issues incl. healthcare, Wall Street reform, Tax cuts, etc. I am perplexed (as most Americans are) at his HALF-HEARTED support of our true allies ISRAEL & INDIA, and his FOOLHARDY & NAIVE attitude to embracing Islamists; thanks to the UNRELENTING efforts of his external advisors like Mr. ZAKARIA for leading him down a ROSY PATH into a MINE FIELD.

      As Mike Huckabee put it correctly Obama himself seems oblivious to the dangers lurking in the Muslim world given that he grew up in predominantly Muslim Indonesia and that his father was a Muslim.

      Having said that I absolutely agree that the GOP (specifically John Boehner) is hell bent on opposing ANYTHING & EVERYTHING that Obama does without caring two hoots on the DISASTROUS effects on America.

      Coming to CNN, many of these liberal media outlets have confined themselevs to a SHELL IN LITERALLY SHUTTING OFF ALL MEANINGFUL DISCOURSE, all in the garb of POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, and their own business reasons given that Americans are DIVIDED IN THE MIDDLE on every issue on party lines, without the ability to THINK OUTSIDE THE BOX & provide ISSUE BASED SUPPORT just as independents do.


      July 7, 2011 at 11:46 am | Reply
      • Rwg86

        While I agree with some of your assessments, I do not find it unusual that Obama's liberal policies include a lukewarm relationship with Israel and our true allies. President Obama is an apologist who, along with much of our government, is terrified of angering and alienating much of the Middle East so he seeks to befriend and/or appease it. Acting in favor of Israel would be to the contrary. In addition, thanks to his academic upbringing he does not hold Israel nor any of the western European nations in particularly high regard.

        July 10, 2011 at 8:23 pm |
  2. Amit-Atlanta-USA


    While I agree with you that FIRST & FOREMOST America needs to look after itself, we ABSOLUTELY need true allies like ISRAEL, & INDIA to keep a check on Islamists who pose an EXISTENTIAL THREAT to America.

    We should never forget that little Israel, perched in that most hostile of lands is fighting a valiant battle both for its own survival and to keep the Islamists at bay something that America itself cannot do with all our immense resources.

    Likewise, India also has been a great bulwark against the NEO-FASCIST designs of China and ISLAMIC JIHADIST CRUSADE of TERRORIST PAKISTAN.

    America can neglect these nations much to our own peril !!!


    July 7, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  3. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    @Just a thought:

    You said it right. Democracy cannot be showed down the throats of unwilling peoples particularly Muslims. No wonder of the over 50 Islamic countries barely a few are democratic and with the exception of TURKEY hardly any other ISLAMIC nation is TRULY democratic. The classic case being Pakistan which proclaims itself as a democracy, but for over half its 60+ yr. existence it has directly been under military dictatorships, and even when a democratically elected govt. does take power (as it currently is) it is totally subservient to the all too powerful army & their intelligence agencies for CLINGING to power!

    Even in India the Muslims are up in arms against the Indian govt. for making PRIMARY education compuls

    We also have burnt our fingers in Iran which turned into a bitter foe after the overthrow of the Shah, and more recently the Palestinian territories where TERRORIST HAMAS have captured power.

    So, America should stop this STUPID, SELF-DEFEATIST approach propagated by Islamic supporters WITH AN AGENDA like Mr. ZAKARIA and continue to let those Islamic nations decided for themselves what is that they would want to live with!


    July 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  4. GULLU


    July 7, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  5. Jason

    Having no real foreign policy direction doesn't make you a "realist."

    Sure, Obama's policy is more nuanced than George "You're with us or against us" Bush, but without any sort of guiding principle, it's hard to look at it as anything other than "whatever's politically popular right now."

    July 10, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  6. Mikee

    Only a Obama supporter could say that declaring unilateral war on Libya, a third rate country that had not only not attacked us but was cooperating with us and dismantling its nuclear program, is "restrained".

    July 10, 2011 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  7. Terry P

    The US has a very bad habit of trying to "save" the world of this or that. We need to so doing so because charity begins at home.

    July 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  8. John

    Fareed – you can thank George Bush. For he started the ball rolling in that part of the world. The history books will show he was the impetus.

    I wonder i you liberals have the guts and honesty to admit it.

    July 10, 2011 at 6:01 pm | Reply
  9. Priori

    It was 1949 when the "War Dept" was renamed "Dept of Defense". Little was it known then that by 2011 the State Dept would assume a goodly part of the abandoned title, via brute exercise of "diplomatic" means centering on various alliances including NATO. It may well be that the precious art/skill combination necessary for successful diplomacy has been misplaced in upper levels at State, causing the rattling of sabres at Foggy Bottom in some circumstances (see: Lybia, et al) in place of effective, quiet diplomacy. Current administration or next, change in this regard cannot come too soon.

    July 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm | Reply
  10. integrity2

    blah, blah, blah....Fareed, you're sounding like a ventriloquist's dummy.

    July 10, 2011 at 7:52 pm | Reply
  11. Bribarian

    Obama is a muslim

    July 10, 2011 at 9:38 pm | Reply
    • Paul Westhead

      Bribarian is a barbarian

      July 10, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Reply
  12. Matt

    His recent Mid East speech on the uprisings was a good speech, there should be more of them, it went down well with the people. But it was overshadowed by Netanyahu and the fight between Obama and Netanyahu that occurred. The positive message of the uprising was lost to the US being a puppet of Netanyahu. And it gets worse Israel is going to end up going to war over resources again Lebanon, and the US will support Israel, but this time it will not be over terror but gas. A huge shift is going to occur among the uprisings in relation to the US and how the US is viewed. So the best position is to let the EU and UK take the lead on the uprisings because the end result is the same as what the US wants but the US cannot provide that influence. But the EU and UK can in relation to moderation. The US has to take a low key role or inflame the situation.

    July 20, 2011 at 4:27 pm | Reply
1 2

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.