The entire Middle East is at war right now, and the Obama administration's strategic incoherence is aiding and abetting the chaos.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
Just because the Middle East’s descent into chaos is hardly the fault of the Obama administration, that doesn’t mean its policies in the region are not an egregious failure.
The situation in the region is unprecedented. For the first time since the World Wars, virtually every country from Libya to Afghanistan is involved in a military conflict. (Oman seems to be the exception.) The degree of chaos, uncertainty, and complexity among the twisted and often contradictory alliances and enmities is mind-boggling. America and its allies are fighting alongside Iran to combat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria but in Yemen, the United States and many of those same regional partners are collaborating to push back Iranian-backed Houthi forces. Israel and Saudi Arabia are closely aligned in their concerns about Iran while historical divisions between the two remain great. Iran supports Bashar al-Assad in Syria; the United States and Western allies deplore his policies but tolerate his presence while some of the rebel forces we are supporting in the fight against the Islamic State in that country seek his (long overdue) removal. The United States wants the states of the region to stand up for their own interests — just not in Libya or when they don’t get America’s permission first.
The technical foreign-policy term for this is giant cluster-fuck. (In the military’s shorthand, using its own phonetic alphabet, the expression is charlie foxtrot.) It is no wonder that the response of so many Americans is to want to back away from the region as quickly as possible. They argue that its problems are beyond our control, that the animosities fueling the fires of the current Middle East hellscape are ancient, and that many of the festering conflicts have little relevance to the daily lives of the American people.
It is true that the Sunni-Shiite divide that plays some role (although perhaps an overstated one) in the divide in Yemen or that created the divisions that have broken the Iraqi state and led to the rise of IS is a thousand years old. Further, there is no denying that many of the current uprisings trace their roots to the abuses of autocratic governments that stole from their people and failed at the rudiments of governance. A remarkable number of the problems date back to the misjudgments of the leaders of the British Empire (who, in retrospect, were really not very good at the god-like role of nation-defining that they arrogated onto themselves). Still other conflicts are the result of the breakdown of the formulas for regional stabilization — like Sykes-Picot — that have been rendered obsolete after nearly a century. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq certainly didn’t help, either. And then of course, there is Bibi, who is still a jerk.
Further, assert the advocates of disengagement, America has oil. We have gas. We don’t need them like we used to. And, by the way, we have also proven ourselves to be really lousy at military interventions and nation-building in the Middle East (among other places). So, why not just walk away and let this fire burn out? In fact, come to think of it, wasn’t that our plan? Wasn’t that the reason that Barack Obama was elected?
Well, no. Taking the last point first, Obama was arguably elected to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but he also explicitly took on the responsibility of keeping America safe from further threats that might come out of that region. And as president he had the broader responsibility of advancing our national interests worldwide.
And those interests require that we remain engaged in the Middle East. On the energy front, while we have plenty of supply, energy prices are set globally and that means that major fluctuations in supply or perceptions of risk will impact us. Further, were this regionwide conflict to deteriorate further, it could have very serious global economic consequences. The Sunni-Shiite war could spread. The Islamic State, embedded throughout the region, could take advantage of the chaos, as would other groups like al Qaeda or al-Nusra Front in Syria or Libya Dawn or Hamas. Libya could easily turn into the next Yemen and that would certainly trigger a regional intervention like that led by the Saudis. (One reason the Egyptians have offered their support in Yemen is that they would inevitably have to lead any action in their neighbor to the west.)
The breakup of countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, or Libya could certainly shift the regional balance of power — especially if it were to result in the establishment of a state (or states) like the one IS seeks to create in Iraq and Syria or in the creation of permanent failed regions that become breeding grounds for more extremism. As 9/11 should have taught us — and as recent events in Europe, Africa, Canada, and the United States have demonstrated — in today’s world seemingly distant problems can very quickly spread to the doorsteps of our allies or to those of our own homes. We watched the spread of al Qaeda to the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. IS can now be found in Afghanistan and Boko Haram in Nigeria has pledged to collaborate with this new hot brand name in the terrorist marketplace. IS fighters recruited from Europe or the United States (see the case this week of the two Illinois National Guardsmen) will certainly return home and spread mayhem if their threat is not extinguished on the battlefields of the Middle East. Further, critical allies from Israel to Jordan are at risk from this unrest. And were their positions made more precarious it would obligate the United States to a much deeper and more costly involvement in the region.
Finally, there are big geopolitical factors at stake. Not only would prolonged chaos and weakened governments make it ever harder to manage and contain the threats produced in the region, but ultimately when these wars end, national governments will emerge, and American influence with them will be directly linked to how constructive our perceived role was in creating and then supporting them. (And to the extent that we are disengaged or otherwise rendered impotent, our influence over the nature of those governments will be diminished or, as seems quite possible, eliminated entirely.) And if our influence diminishes, that of others will certainly grow (as it already has). That may seem unimportant now but in the long run, with the new rivalries and challenges of the 21st century unfolding as they might, giving up influence in this strategically important corner of the world — and letting others gain that influence — could have very unhappy ramifications.
So even though the Obama administration is clearly not responsible for most of the root and many of the exacerbating causes of the current melee in the Middle East, it is also true that it does not have the luxury of walking away from this upheaval/these conflicts, or the room to employ halfway measures, reactive or largely improvised initiatives that exist without benefit of any broader strategy. And unfortunately for America, for our allies, for the region, and for the world, those are the three primary approaches that have been employed by this White House.
These approaches have contributed materially to the situation we now face. The situation in Iraq was stabilizing and markedly improving in the last two years of the Bush administration, thanks to the surge, attention to the Sunnis, and the active week-to-week involvement of the president and senior officials in the details of trying to fix a situation — let’s be blunt, a catastrophe — of which they were the authors. That includes trying to manage their really bad choice as prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. It was no Jeffersonian paradise. But the trend line was in the right direction when they left office. President Obama’s decision to rush to the exits (which took the form of not really doing what was necessary to produce the kind of Status of Forces Agreement that would have enabled a prolonged American troop presence) undid this. The inattentiveness to the mismanagement of Maliki’s government and the rise of unrest and later IS among the Sunnis exacerbated this.
Of course, the president’s fiasco of indecision, reversed decisions, and ignoring the recommendations of his team regarding addressing the growing unrest in Syria contributed to this. Sluggish and confused reactions to the Arab Spring were compounded by a major mishandling and dangerous weakening of the vital relationship the United States had with Egypt. Obama’s ambivalence about taking action and then doing what was necessary to produce successful outcomes in Libya was yet another such mismanaged effort that created more problems than it solved.
It is an irony of the Obama years that although he raised hopes of a new, better era in regional relations with a speech he gave in the heart of the Arab world in Cairo, that ultimately his only real efforts to change relations “for the better” in the region were not with Arabs at all but with Persians. The administration’s good first-term toughness toward Iran on nuclear sanctions was followed by a second-term hunger for a nuclear deal that was so great that everyone from Tehran to Toledo, Ohio, now believes that the United States wants the deal more than the Iranians do and has lost negotiating leverage as a result. This shift, which was not accompanied by sufficient coordination with our important regional allies from Israel to the Gulf that might allay their concerns about a deal or a U.S.-Iran rapprochement, became more troubling to those allies (and to students of the region) as Iran became the one country in the Middle East to actually make gains thanks to the growing chaos. It has done so in Yemen, through its ever-closer ties with Baghdad and the Iraqi government’s dependency on Iranian ground troops and advisors and weapons to help combat IS, and it has increased its influence on the regime in Syria (where Assad now looks like to outlast Obama in office).
The indignant comments of American Gen. Lloyd Austin this week denouncing the idea that he might ever command troops that would fight alongside Shiite militias after their treatment of Americans during the Iraq War were moving. But they rang hollow given that they hung on a semantic deception. The world knows that America is providing air support for Iranian-led, Shiite-militia-backed, Iraqi-supported forces in the war against IS in that country. They know that for all the talk of America’s coalition, Iran is gaining more influence in Baghdad because they are willing to put boots on the ground. That is why it is not Austin but Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani who is celebrated as a hero in and around the Shiite and even in the Kurdish regions of Iraq. Do not think this reality, denials aside, has not fed the growing and acute distrust of the Obama administration among some of our most vital allies in the Gulf, in Egypt, and elsewhere. Do not think it did not lead them to the awareness that they would have to take action on their own in Yemen to counterbalance Iran’s gains. The United States has since scrambled to paper this over by arguing Washington is supporting both the fight against the Houthis in Yemen and not really working too closely with Iran in Iraq. (The retreat of Shiite militias, allegedly because of their discomfort with working alongside the United States, rings suspicious to me and a bit too conveniently orchestrated. We may not “coordinate” with the Iranians but we sure do play an active game of telephone with them through Iraqi interlocutors … at least.)
Meanwhile, the Iran nuclear talks have obviously also taken a toll on the deteriorating relationship with Israel. Now, as noted above, Benjamin Netanyahu is no walk in the park as a partner. But it is also undeniable that the White House has poured gasoline on the flames that have all but incinerated the traditional foundations of the relationship. Whatever the next 21 months may bring — and a further deterioration of the relationship is likely — it’s no exaggeration to say that the relationship between the leaders of the United States and Israel is at a historic low.
In fact, you can say what you want about the origins of the current mess in the Middle East, but the fact that America’s relations with every important country in the region are worse with the exception of Iran is telling.
Bad choices, mismanagement, and faulty diplomacy are not the primary causes of America’s problems of its own making in the region. The biggest culprit is strategic incoherence. We don’t seem to have a clear view of our interests or a vision for the future of the region fostered in collaboration with our allies there and elsewhere. “Leave it to the folks on the ground” is no more a U.S. foreign-policy strategy than is “don’t do stupid shit.” It is a modality at best and in fact, it is really an abrogation of responsibility when so many of these relationships do have trade, investment, political, military, and other elements that give the United States leverage that it could and should use to advance its interests. Our relations with other major powers likewise should provide us with such tools if we were to do the diplomatic heavy lifting to produce coordinated efforts. (And arguing that’s what we are doing in Iran is not compelling when we are not doing it with regard to the region’s many other problems or when we have done it to ill-effect in places like Libya or Syria.)
It would be so easy for the president to say, “I seek stability in the Middle East. I seek to preserve American interests from the security of our allies to our security at home, from commercial ties to global economic concerns. I intend to do this by establishing a new alliance with our traditional allies that will help ensure them the stability they need to rebuild and that will provide a necessary deterrent against adventurism by others in the region like Iran. If we can make progress containing the Iranian nuclear threat and that produces some better dialogue with that country, that’s for the better. But we recognize the many remaining threats Iran poses from its support of terrorists like Hezbollah and Hamas to its cyberattacks against American targets. Only its cessation of such activities and removal of such threats will elevate its status further. And in no circumstances will we depart from seeking regional balance.”
But those words alone would not be enough. They would need to be backed up with actions — meaningful ones. We should not be naïve. We need to push back hard on the idea that somehow Iran is about to become our friend. The nuclear threat is just one the many threats it poses and not the greatest one. Geopolitically, our failings and inaction have created a sense among countries of the region to seek other support from other big powers. From Egypt to Israel to the Gulf, virtually every country in the region is (ironically) pivoting to Asia — to China and to India and, where possible, to Japan and Southeast Asia. And Russian influence is growing too in Cairo, in Tel Aviv, and in Tehran. Better burden-sharing is fine. Greatly reduced influence not so much. In the region that means rebuilding old alliances through attention to our partners’ needs, through actions, not words, through listening, not offering up placating speeches. Further, we must recognize that in some conflicts unless we are willing to commit some number of boots on the ground (and the fight against IS is one such conflict) we will not be seen to be truly leading, truly committed, and others who are willing to make such commitments (like the Iranians) will gain.
Should we aggressively seek diplomatic solutions to the fights in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya? Yes. But we will only be successful if our opponents know that they will pay a high price that would be inflicted by a committed coalition that includes the resources and genuine engagement of the leaders of the richest and most powerful nation on Earth alongside regional leaders it clearly trusts and empowers to take the lead on regional issues. And the negotiations will only work if we practice the kind of diplomacy that is not impeded by artificial deadlines and undercut by messages that we need the deal more than the other side does.
So, by all means, let’s acknowledge the complex origins of the current crisis. But let’s not minimize that the failure to be more effective in addressing it can and almost certainly will lead to major losses for American interests in the region. Further and finally, this is a moment that requires great vigilance and should be producing much greater multilateral action by the United States and our allies and within the U.N. Having effectively every country in the region at war is as likely to lead to escalation as it is to solutions. More so. We are not far from seeing the conflicts connect into what could be the biggest conflagration the world has seen since August 1945. And even if that does not happen, prolonged chaos will feed into the spread of extremism in Africa, Asia, and the spread of terrorism in Europe and North America. The stakes could not be higher. And it is clear, even if we recognize America’s limited ability to impact what is happening on the ground, that we have an urgent obligation to try and to try to do so in new ways. Because what we have done for the past six years is just not working and in fact is making the world’s worst situation worse.
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