- By Peter Feaver
Since last month’s large-scale chemical weapons attack in Syria injected a new sense of urgency in Barack Obama’s administration regarding America’s declining fortunes in the Middle East, I have repeatedly urged the administration to articulate a coherent strategy for the region (see here, here, here, and here). The administration had a Middle East strategy — what I called a "no more Iraqs" strategy — but it was played out. It was prone to errors of omission that were leaving U.S. interests in the region in far worse shape than they had been even five years ago.
Today, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama offered something of a sneak peek at the administration’s latest thinking about Middle East strategy. Alas, too much of the new thinking looks like the old thinking. One is left wondering how candid the administration’s internal strategy sessions really have been.
The president still talks naively about "ending" wars, when all he has really accomplished is ending U.S. involvement in the wars. Iraq is arguably in worse shape today than it was when Obama took office. The trajectory for Afghanistan is very uncertain, but if Afghanistan declines as Iraq has declined since Obama withdrew U.S. combat troops, the forecast is bleak. Despite that, in his speech Obama actually declared mission accomplished in Afghanistan: "Next year, an international coalition will end its war in Afghanistan, having achieved its mission of dismantling the core of al Qaeda that attacked us on 9/11." [Emphasis added.]
Some of Obama’s claims are suspect, but in the usual "White House spin" way that everyone recognizes and automatically discounts, e.g., his claim that he is "working diligently to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay." Other claims seem almost like a pathological dare to the fact-checkers, e.g. his odd boast that "we have limited the use of drones" when the world knows that Obama substantially expanded the use of drones.
The heart of the problem is Obama’s boast: "The world is more stable than it was five years ago." One could argue that the global economic crisis is a bit more stable, though there are good reasons to fear that this is but a lull in a storm that has by no means exhausted itself. However, it is not really possible to argue that the Middle East, the subject of the president’s speech, is more stable. On the contrary, virtually every state is in a more perilous condition than it was when Obama took office. How can he hope to fashion a coherent strategy when he struggles with the very first stage of strategy formulation: ascertaining the global environment?
The president also struggled by articulating contradictory goals without explaining how to resolve the contradiction. Thus, he boasted about the diplomatic progress with Syria but then went on to insist that Bashar al-Assad’s regime could never "regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country." Thus, he urged the Russians and Iranians to abandon Assad, without acknowledging that the direct immediate result of the U.N. diplomatic line of action on Syrian WMD is to relieve regime-change pressure on Assad.
The section of the speech that will be quoted the most may be the president’s articulation of four core interests in the region: (1) confronting aggression against America’s allies and partners, (2) ensuring the free flow of energy, (3) dismantling terrorist networks that threaten "our people," and (4) preventing the development and use of WMD. (Stand by for endless headlines about Obama’s Four-Pillared Middle East Strategy. Oddly, one reporter miscounted and identified a five- pillared strategy.) Obama said the United States would use force to secure these interests.
But what is interesting about this section is that it simply restates long-standing U.S. doctrines — indeed, Obama essentially listed what is generally known as the Eisenhower, Carter, and Bush doctrines. He did not discuss how these core interests are threatened by the growing regional instability. And the rest of the speech was devoted to lines of action that, with one prominent exception, do not link up to these core interests.
The one, most newsworthy line of action is the pursuit of a diplomatic bargain with Iran that would verifiably thwart any Iranian quest for a nuclear weapon. The president noted the hopeful signs from Iranian President Hasan Rouhani and promised to pursue that avenue zealously but not naively.
The rest of Obama’s speech discussed the long-standing desiderata he pointedly left off his list of core interests: a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors, the expansion of democracy in the region, and greater international action to prevent the humanitarian disasters caused by civil wars. The discussion here was unsatisfying. He talked about limits but did so in utterly incoherent ways, for instance, claiming that the Iraq war was a "unilateral" U.S. action when it was in fact far more multilateral than the Syrian strikes Obama was contemplating. Or pretending that the Iraq war was simply about imposing democracy by force when, in fact, it arose out of an attempt to enforce the long-standing opposition to Iraqi WMD ambitions (albeit an attempt based on faulty intelligence about those ambitions).
Beyond bromides he did not really articulate a diplomatic strategy that would lead to success in the peace negotiations. His discussion of how the United States will respond to the convulsions known as the Arab Spring will likely continue to annoy all sides in the debate. And the lament about international inaction in the face of mass atrocities was striking given how reluctant the President has been to lead on that very issue.
There were bright spots. The president has come a long way from the dismissive treatment of U.S. exceptionalism he gave in a 2009 news conference. In 2009, he dismissed exceptionalism as mere pride in one’s country. Today, he articulated a more useful (if controversial) understanding of the term, meaning that the United States has historically borne an unusual set of global burdens. (The full embrace of American exceptionalism grounds this exceptional global role in a nuanced understanding of American values — Obama did not go all that way in his U.N. speech). The president also deserves credit for calling out critics of American foreign policy who alternately chastise the United States for meddling and doing too little in the region. As Obama rightly pointed out, "These contradictory attitudes have a practical impact on the American people’s support for our involvement in the region and allow leaders in the region, as well as the international community sometimes, to avoid addressing difficult problems themselves."
Perhaps the brightest spot of all was when Obama explicitly denounced what he considers to be the course of American foreign policy that would yield the greatest danger for the world:
The danger for the world is not an America that is too eager to immerse itself in the affairs of other countries or to take on every problem in the region as its own. The danger for the world is that the United States, after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill.
I believe such disengagement would be a mistake. I believe America must remain engaged for our own security, but I also believe the world is better for it. Some may disagree. But I believe America is exceptional. In part because we have shown a willingness through the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interest of all.
I must be honest though: We’re far more likely to invest our energy in those countries that want to work with us, that invest in their people instead of a corrupt few, that embrace a vision of society where everyone can contribute — men and women, Shiite or Sunni, Muslim, Christian or Jew — because from Europe to Asia, from Africa to the Americas, nations that have persevered on a democratic path have emerged more prosperous, more peaceful, and more invested in upholding our common security and our common humanity.
I believe that the same will hold true for the Arab world.
The good news is that Obama is right about how dangerous an American retreat would be. The bad news is that the speech did not indicate that the administration understands just how much its own approach seems to be fostering precisely this danger.