Lecturehop: How Not to Fix the Middle East
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog correspondent Claire Sabel dives into the murky waters of the MEALAC department
As a decorated hero in the world of academic politiking, Professor Martin Kramer was expected to lambaste Columbia’s approach to Middle Eastern policy. An outspoken critic of Columbia’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture Department (MEALAC), Kramer is currently the Adelson Institute Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, the Wexler-Fromer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and the National Security Studies Program Senior Fellow at Harvard. Since Columbia’s International Relations Forum invited Kramer to speak, though, Kramer compensated; he delivered a somewhat pointed introduction explaining that he intended to adhere to that limited sphere. Kramer was very upfront in delineating his relationship with the university. He described himself as a “longtime and often sharp critic” of Columbia, but he qualified that he has made his comments both as an academic and as an alum himself (he received an M.A. in History here in 1976.) He spoke respectfully about his admiration for the institution, speaking of its “diverse approaches and high standards,” but concluded his introduction by qualifying that “politics of the middle east are so much more interesting than politics of middle eastern studies.”
He instead proceeded to critique one of Columbia’s most famous alums: President Obama. Kramer argued that popular opinion in America holds that Obama’s aim is to “shrink the Middle East down to its pre-9/11 size,” an undertaking for which Obama has already been awarded “the down-payment of the Nobel Prize.” Kramer thus introduced his central point: why the current administration’s Middle Eastern policy is so ineffective.Kramer denigrated the international relations community’s “dithering praise” for U.S. policy in the Middle East as lacking a coherent strategy. He believes that Obama’s less forceful approach — which stands in marked contrast to the infamous Bushism “bring ’em on” — indicates his discomfort with the exercise of American Power. “Sensitive antennae,” in the Middle East, Kramer claims, are aware of this, and this awareness could undermine Obama’s ambitious plans. The Middle East sees the United States as wounded and weakened politically and economically, and believes that “its decline has begun.” Kramer claims this “American declinism” manifests in Obama’s policy and rhetoric and indeed indicates a greater problem in the significance of American power. The White House’s current strategy is a “white glove,” he contends, not because it conceals a fist, but because it is empty.
The response of our allies to American policy has been one of polite condescension as they placate the U.S. with minor gestures while in effect acting without regard to, or indeed against, the pressures applied by Obama and his administration. Kramer cited Saudi Arabia and Turkey as prime examples. In the case of our adversaries, whatever progress can be made must be done by a more aggressive assertion of American power; as soon as weakness is perceived, these Middle Eastern states “will snap back to their default position.” Kramer contends that attitude is certainly not in the interest of the U.S. nor Middle Eastern stability.
Kramer admitted that his commentary was deliberately thin on the proposal of strategies to replace the one he criticizes. He concluded that his primary concern is that “the answer to all of these questions will become moot if the U.S. is just a player among these powers.” He strongly believes that while he still can, that Obama can and should instigate a salvage operation, if not bring about salvation. The crucial argument is not to lose our hold in the Middle East: whatever crises are occurring now, the U.S. must act as a bulwark for crises worse still.
He may have acknowledged his lack of alternative proposals, but Kramer’s omission still frustrated his audience. In responding to these comments, Columbia’s I.R. Professor Jack Snyder questioned Kramer’s “implied solution” but agreed that he had framed the question very well. Snyder called attention to the approach of the realists, which stresses the importance of an “offshore balance,” yet neither Synder nor Kramer really proposed a conclusion. However there was a reason the evening’s topic was ‘How Not to Fix the Middle East.’ Despite Kramer’s more-than-occasional condescension and aggressive assertion, he provided a rigorous framework to reevaluate Columbia’s own policy in the Middle East — a policy that affects both the ivory tower and the very real world outside it.