- By Peter Feaver
The rising tide of war in the Middle East is giving way to a rising tide of chaos. It is also making me think that my balanced appraisal of the Obama administration’s Middle East strategy may have been too optimistic. I credited Barack Obama’s "lead from behind" strategy with avoiding what Obama supporters like to call "another Iraq." What they usually mean by that is, as I put it: avoiding "a controversial decision for war that yields a bloody conflict that crowds out other national security priorities by committing the lion’s share of our defense, diplomacy, and development tools to a venture with uncertain prospects."
However, Obama’s strategy has yielded "other Iraqs," as defined thus: bloody sectarian conflicts that, unless resolved successfully, put in jeopardy American national interests, threaten wider regional conflicts, and hasten a global perception of American decline. Syria has long since passed that threshold. Egypt seems teetering on the edge. Iraq is inching back in that direction too. If Egypt and/or Iraq follow Syria over the abyss, can Jordan or Lebanon be far behind?
Is it fair to credit/blame these developments as the fruits of Obama’s regional strategy? In political terms, perhaps not (yet) to the degree that George W. Bush’s administration bears responsibility for Iraq. It is easier to trace a direct line of responsibility from acts of commission (invading Iraq) than it is from acts of omission (failing to intervene decisively as Syria, Egypt, or Iraq devolves).
The extent of Obama’s culpability depends on whether alternative policy choices could have yielded better results. In that regard, I was intrigued by Thomas Pierret’s detailed account (over on FP‘s Middle East Channel) of the effects of differential levels of external support on the Syrian insurgency. Pierret’s bottom line is more bullish on Syria than I would be. Here is his rosy assessment:
In any case, recent military developments show that Syrian insurgents have become increasingly dependent on state supporters for their logistics. Gone are the days when rebels could storm lightly defended regime positions with assault rifles and a few RPGs. The retreat of loyalist forces on heavily fortified bases last winter has required a major quantitative and qualitative increase in the opposition’s armament. This is something only foreign governments, not jihadi utopians, can offer. Given Saudi Arabia’s apparent determination to lead the way in that respect, this situation will probably continue to favor mainstream insurgents over their radical brothers in arms in the foreseeable future.
But his analysis of the past contains a powerful, if implicit, critique of Obama’s hands-off approach to Syria:
The radicalization of the Syrian insurgency has often been interpreted as a quasi-natural phenomenon, the inevitable outcome of a brutal sectarian conflict that has made Salafi-jihadi ideology increasingly appealing to Syrian Sunnis. This view is debatable, however, since the rise of radical Salafi groups throughout 2012 was in fact paralleled with the watering down of their rhetoric….The one main reason for the success of hard-line Salafists throughout 2012 was a matter of superior material resources. As illustrated in numerous press reports at that time, such resources made them inherently more appealing but also more disciplined compared with groups that sometimes had to finance themselves through looting and other criminal activities.
In other words, at the crucial early stage of the crisis, when Obama was resisting pressure to provide material support to moderate factions, the jihadi terrorist groups used this window of opportunity to skew the rebel movement in their direction. Of course, Pierret goes on to argue that moderate factions can regain the initiative — and perhaps are already in the process of doing so — because the underlying ideological distribution within Syria favors them.
If Pierret’s prospective judgment is correct, Obama may yet dodge the Syrian bullet. But if only his retrospective judgment is correct, it is Obama’s critics, not his defenders, who are right.
The historical debate matters in many ways, but one that has been comparatively less remarked upon is that if Pierret’s retrospective analysis is right, it provides the outlines for Hillary Clinton’s brief on foreign policy in 2016.
Clinton will have many things going for her in a 2016 presidential run, but it looks increasingly like the Obama foreign-policy legacy could be a net negative. Of course, many things could change between now and then, but if current trajectories hold, it may be hard to argue that the United States is in a better global position in 2016 than it was in 2008. Yes, the easing of the global recession will be a major positive factor, and the world is a better place without Osama bin Laden. But on most other foreign-policy lines, a fair-minded assessment could well be negative for Obama’s legacy.
Clinton is tightly linked to that Obama foreign-policy legacy, so she’ll look for ways to take credit for any good while blaming all of the bad on others within the Obama administration. In this regard, look for candidate Clinton to remind voters that she famously argued for a more muscular approach to Syria earlier in the crisis. Such an approach might have better positioned the moderates to resist the influence of the terrorist fringe. It might also have meant the toppling of Bashar al-Assad’s regime before the sectarian civil war reached the horrific levels it now has reached. Of course, the case of Iraq shows that even a rapid regime change with substantial U.S. military force and influence on the ground is no guarantee of success. But Clinton will benefit politically if she can argue with some credibility that Obama’s most dramatic foreign-policy failures are associated with times when Obama overruled his secretary of state.
It is harder to see what will be her line on Egypt. The Obama administration’s Egypt policy has utterly collapsed, and perhaps Clinton has an explanation of her role in the crafting of that policy that puts her in a better light, but if so, it has yet to get much traction.
Of course, responsibility for repairing U.S. policy rests with the sitting administration, but the one who would like to shoulder that responsibility next — especially one so closely tied to Obama’s foreign-policy legacy — has got some explaining to do.