Why Obama’s bet on letting our friends and enemies slug it out in the Middle East is so risky.
- 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.
In 1914, Louis D. Brandeis produced a collection of essays called Other People’s Money And How the Bankers Use It. It was an attack on the financial power elite that helped propel Brandeis two years later to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court and contributed a phrase to the English lexicon. In the years since, “other people’s money” has become a useful way of characterizing how to leverage resources that a person, company, or country does not actually control in order to help achieve a goal, presumably at a lower cost.
Throughout his presidency, U.S. President Barack Obama has sought to harness the same principle to achieve America’s foreign policy objectives. Wary of the high costs of war (as illustrated by the unhappy interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan he was elected to end), a central principle of Obama’s plan in this regard has been something that could be characterized as “Other People’s Armies” (OPA) — encouraging other countries to fight or help fight those conflicts we might have waded into alone or largely alone in the past.
At its best, it is a sound idea that recognizes the limits of American power, the often thankless, frustrating experience of being the world’s policeman, and the reasonable expectation that other nations should clean up their own messes. But the idea is not without its own limitations. There are multiple deep risks associated with defaulting to this approach. They include the inability to influence outcomes so that they advance or protect vital U.S. interests, the problems associated with having allied armies inadequate to tackling the problem at hand trying and then failing to achieve a goal that might have been achievable with greater U.S. involvement, and the danger of being forced by expediency to support or align ourselves with bad actors, thus making matters materially worse for us and our allies.
At the recent GCC Summit at Camp David, the president once again made OPA a centerpiece of his appeal to our traditional Gulf Arab allies to help secure the region. According to conversations with a number of participants close to the discussions, this idea was central to another core Obama approach to addressing the region’s manifold problems: the establishment of an “equilibrium” in the region between Arab and Iranian-aligned forces as well as one between extremist and moderate actors. Indeed, the notion of “other people’s armies” was illustrated by the president’s explicit urging of our allies to further develop their own special forces capacity to help manage threats, rather than having to rely on the United States, and as a potential counterbalance to the role played by groups like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Of course, this was not the first time this idea of redistributing the burden of managing global crises has manifested itself during the Obama presidency. It is a recurrent theme, embraced not just by the president but by a broad, bipartisan group of American voters, from GOP leaders like Sen. Rand Paul to the anti-war left of the Democratic Party. It is actually an idea that dates far back in American history: Let the world take care of its problems; we have enough to deal with on our plate right here at home. Further, often, when the idea is ignored, and we do get involved overseas, not only do tragedies ensue but we also end up frustrated, unappreciated for our efforts, and with new, unanticipated, costly and lasting burdens. (That’s one reason why the United States has 800 foreign military bases while every other country combined has about 30.)
Obama has framed his commitment to shifting the burden of foreign military interventions away from the United States in multiple ways during the course of his presidency. He has said, “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” In the same speech (delivered at West Point in 2014) he tried to suggest that his views were balanced between the recognition of the need to intervene and the need for restraint. But re-reading the speech, it is clear he is making a case for less involvement. He stated, “Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences.” He argued passionately, offering a host of examples to support his view against wrong-headed wars.
He then described the narrow circumstances in which the United States will take military action and followed that up with his alternative approaches. He said, “When crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us — then the threshold for military action must be higher.” In such circumstances he argued, the key is partnerships. He spoke of the need for “multilateral military action,” to “work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.” He said the key to fighting terrorism is “to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” In the speech, he also touted the effectiveness of his approach against terrorists, against Russia in Ukraine, in Syria… more on this in a moment.
Similarly, in a speech at National Defense University in 2013, President Obama spoke of the importance of transitioning to the Afghan government responsibility for maintaining its own defense; how U.S. support for security forces in Yemen that at the time (and since) was an example of a successful application of his approach; our success in working with African nations to push back on al-Shabab, and so on. In that speech as well, the focus was on the steps being taken to rein in and refocus America’s use of power.
Again, it is hard to fault the impulse. The question that arises when one moves to what is essentially the Obama-ization of the Nixon doctrine is: How are we doing? (Nixon had a similar policy reaction to the costs of Vietnam.) Is the new approach working by reducing risks, costs, advancing our interests, strengthening our allies, and defeating our enemies? Because the true measure of such an approach is not just whether it produces lower costs in the short-term, it is whether it does so on a sustainable basis — or whether we are simply setting ourselves up for greater costs when inadequate or ineffective policies produce crises we can no longer avoid.
The situation in the Middle East today is the critical test of this approach — in terms of where we stand regarding the conflicts we have withdrawn from in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the one that brought us to the region to combat terrorists, to the growing threats in the region, such as the long-simmering, now boiling over tension between Sunnis and Shiites due to Iran’s expansion. All of these things hung over the discussions that took place at Camp David. In fact, they did so in several ways. They did because the president’s policies have colored the situation on the ground across the region. They did because they have led to a natural rethinking of our relationships with our allies in the region. And they did because the jury is still out on the long-term impact the new approach is likely to have.
While noting these issues, it is important to state that all who were in attendance at Camp David with whom I have spoken have said the discussions were productive and cordial, growing more congenial as they progressed throughout the day. The GCC leaders came away feeling good that the president was committed to their security and that new steps would be taken to expedite their access to military equipment, and support they might need to counter-balance Iran’s initiatives across the Middle East. Further, the gathering itself was widely seen as a good idea — articles about snubs due to the absence of some top officials aside — and considered essential even if the president is truly committed to regional partnerships.
But looming behind the feel-good moments, photo ops, and press releases were some legitimate concerns. They were not just the frequently heard ones that have dogged this administration since it raised so many hopes with the soaring speeches of Obama’s first years as president about whether they would follow through on their commitments. And, not surprisingly, the questions raised in the minds of attendees cut to the core of the administration’s philosophy of achieving a kind of regional equilibrium through greater reliance on other people’s armies.
The concerns took several forms. First, while there was a general acceptance of the idea that the Iran nuclear deal would happen, there was a difference of opinion over the consequences of the lifting of sanctions. The White House seems deeply convinced that the money Iran may get will go to help boost the Iranian economy instead of being used to support their regional interventions and initiatives. The guests at Camp David did not share this view (nor do some senior former officials of the administration with whom I have spoken). For example, even if the Iranians got only $100 billion and used 90 percent to help the economy, the remaining $10 billion would have a potentially big impact in places like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Further, no one among the regional experts with whom I have recently spoken felt that the Iranians would use a fraction as low as 10 percent of the monies in support of their regional policies. This undercuts the notion of equilibrium especially when taken in conjunction with the gains Iran has made in the past few years across the region and the likely boost they will get in stature as well as economic growth post-deal. The GCC (and our other regional allies like Israel) will be playing catch up given Iran’s recent gains and momentum.
Next, and more salient in terms of the core idea of OPA mentioned at the outset, America is not seen as having a very good record in terms of managing the very partnerships on which the Obama philosophy depends. In fact, every single one of the examples of successes cited in the speeches mentioned above are actually failures to some degree or another — Yemen is a disaster, extremism is running rampant, we clearly didn’t train up the Iraqis to effectively assume responsibility for their own security, doubts loom about Afghanistan in the same vein. Further, when partners do act on their own, as the GCC did in Yemen or as Egypt and some Gulf states did in Libya, the United States has not only not really supported them (words and symbolic gestures aside), they have pushed back on them.
Finally, in the places where America was willing to augment the actions of others or work unilaterally, the results were pretty lousy — Iraq, Syria, and Libya all stand out as examples here. In these cases, the United States either committed too little or did too little, or proscribed our involvement in ways almost certain to be ineffective (limiting ourselves to involvement from the air, being far too hesitant to deploy some much needed boots on the ground), or got in and got out too fast. In the case of Iraq today, the result is that we have ended up, as has often been noted, flying air support for an Iran-led or an Iran-supported initiative that has not only failed to defeat our enemy, it has empowered forces who do not have our interests at heart. You might call that burden sharing. But if in the end, the Iranians are seen as the victors or the saviors of Shiite Iraq — or, worse, Iran and the Islamic State each end up with a slice of a divided Iraq — our allies will be more threatened than they were before and so too will be our long-term interests in the region.
That’s the point. While I am deeply sympathetic to the president’s impulse to avoid the mistakes of the Bush years, it is now clear that unilateralism, multilateralism, interventionism and/or strategic withdrawal all share one common reality — the trick is in the implementation. Too little is as bad as too much. Too cautious is as bad as too reckless. It may not feel that way at first, but if, for example, the Middle East descends into a major region-wide war and our long-term interests are at risk or we are drawn in at a more dangerous moment, we will recognize just how costly mismanaged restraint can be. Indeed, one of the risks of relying on other people’s armies is that while we may be wise to exercise caution, they may not be — and we may still pay the price either through economic costs, threats to allies, spread of unrest, or other factors.
One place this might, in fact, be seen has to do with the idea of achieving equilibrium — because while one form of equilibrium is peaceful balance, another is permanent, festering conflict. There is a kind of deadly equilibrium in Syria right now. There is one between Israel and Palestine. We can hardly afford more such “balance.”
Those who say it is high time we realize the region is not our problem must recognize that we have been lucky so far. Unrest has not impacted oil prices, but that does not mean it won’t. Unrest has not led to an arms race — but just as the Iran nuclear deal can be seen as imposing useful constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, it can also be seen as defining anew what is acceptable for other nations in terms of laying the foundations for their own nuclear weapons capability. Should the result be in a few years that the Saudis and others are near-nuclear and then they or the Iranians decide to go the next step, it should go without saying that the stakes for the world and for the United States could be very high indeed.
The current conflict in the Middle East has not yet spread its costs in dramatic ways to other regions, but when foreign fighters return home, it surely will. It has not impacted other future conflicts as it might, as it could in a decade or two when we are no longer trusted in the region but China or others hold more sway. These conflicts have not spread to Africa or South Asia or Central Asia but they easily could.
For these reasons, for all the amity and good will engendered at Camp David, for all the good intentions of the Obama administration which is dedicated to fulfill its commitment to reverse the errors of the Bush years, questions clearly remain about whether the Obama approach reflects applied wisdom or over-learned lessons, prudence or punting today’s problems until tomorrow.
Relying on other people’s armies is a great idea if you can make it work, but the past few years has once again shown that it is easier said than done. And while their victories might come at a lower cost than our own would have, we may end up having to cover the tab for the worst of their failures or defeats. That should be food for thought for the candidates now lining up to replace Obama … because one of them will be the one in office when that tab comes due, as it almost certainly will.
Photo credit: Kevin Dietsch – Pool/Getty Images