Ready to Fight

Obama might be risk averse, but there are at least five scenarios in which he might use military force in the Middle East.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama is clearly not prepared to use military force to confront Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Crimea, nor most likely in Ukraine should Russia try to gobble up more territory there. Neither is a vital enough interest to warrant intervention.

But what would President Obama consider vital? Under what circumstances would he actually use force to protect and further U.S. interests?

To hear Obama’s critics tell it — the ones who believe his foreign policy has been a complete failure and abdication of America’s moral and strategic responsibilities — there aren’t many risk-ready scenarios for this risk-averse president. Of course, there are the obvious candidates: aliens invading earth, vampires or zombies (or maybe terrorists) threatening the White House, or Putin attacking Western Europe.

But in all fairness, surely there are threats and challenges that would persuade the president to declare an interest so vital that he’d be prepared to project American power in a serious and sustained manner — despite the temper of the times, in which the American public is wary of doing too much abroad, particularly doing dumb or unnecessary things. North Korean aggression against the south or another U.S. ally in Asia is one case in which the use of force would be likely, as would a territorial or maritime dispute in Asia that drags America into a fight. Beyond that, the region in which some kind of kinetic activity is most likely is — that’s right, you guessed it — the Middle East.

Here are fives scenarios in which Obama might use force in the region.

An attack on the continental United States, almost certainly by some Middle East group. Protecting the homeland is the organizing principle of any nation’s foreign policy. If you cannot protect the homeland, you don’t need a foreign policy. Counterterrorism has already proven to be the one area where Obama has been most risk ready. Indeed, he’s been much more relentless and aggressive on this front than his predecessor.

Is there any doubt that this president would use force to preempt, if there was actionable intelligence, or retaliate for another attack against continental America, assuming it could be determined what state or transnational group was responsible? While there’s always the possibility that a non-Middle East terrorist group would plan an attack on the homeland (see the European fascists attempting to spark a nuclear war in The Sum of All Fears), the likely source of an attack remains a group based in the region that is angriest at America: the Arab/Muslim world.

Bottom line: Steady green light for military action to retaliate or preempt

Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Obama has gone to great lengths to avoid having to take military action. But with the Syrian chemical weapons deal not working as planned and Putin gobbling up Ukraine, Obama simply cannot afford to see another U.S. adversary cross another red line — and in this case, see Iran get the bomb on his watch.

He’s hoping that the interim agreement will lead to a comprehensive one that’s good enough to avoid this. Should the talks collapse or fail to produce a compelling comprehensive accord, the war drums would likely begin to beat again, almost certainly in Israel. There would be enormous pressure on the Israeli prime minister to do something — and should Iran retaliate directly against Israel with missiles rather than indirectly through Hezbollah’s high trajectory weapons or proxy terror), the odds are pretty high that Washington would join with strikes of its own against Iranian targets.

Bottom line: Flashing yellow light for a unilateral U.S. strike against Iran; steady green if Tehran hits Israel directly in the wake of an Israeli strike.

Iran closing the Straits of Hormuz. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies describes any number of scenarios in which Iran might try to interfere with shipping in the straits. These range from trying to raise insurance premiums by intimidating oil tankers to trying to close the straits themselves. Should Iran mine or fire on tankers to do the latter, Washington would almost certainly counter with a combined air and naval campaign designed to thwart this effort.

After all, 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil flows through the straits, and a disruption in that supply would wreak havoc on world energy prices. Iran has previously threatened to close the straits as a means of trying to get sanctions lifted. The presence of U.S. military personnel in the Gulf makes it unlikely Iran could pull it off, but it also significantly raises the probability of military confrontation if Iran managed to do it.

Bottom Line: Steady green light for whatever it takes to keep the straits open.

Striking Syria. Obama has gone to great lengths to avoid militarizing the U.S. role in Syria. And he has taken tremendous heat from Republicans, much of the American media, Saudis, and various Europeans for doing so. Syria has proven to be a moral, humanitarian, and even strategic disaster for the United States. But intervention in a never-ending civil war isn’t a U.S. vital interest.

Still, several factors are coming together that might presage a more muscular U.S. response. Putin is in the doghouse on Ukraine; the Syrian opposition is losing ground; and the June 30 deadline in an already-flawed process of implementing the chemical weapons agreement is approaching. Should President Bashar al-Assad cease implementation of the agreement altogether or use chemical weapons again, the pressure will remount for a U.S. strike. And this time, Obama may want to respond by using limited military force by using limited military force in order to stick it to Putin and beat back his Republican critics.

The downside of course would be if Putin were to up the ante after a U.S. strike by actually supplying the Syrians with S300 anti-aircraft missiles and other military equipment.

Bottom Line: Red light turning to flashing yellow.

Protecting U.S. allies. No Arab state has the capacity to do what Saddam Hussein did to Kuwait. Syria is not in a position to frontally threaten Jordan, and while there are plenty of scenarios in which Iran might use proxies to stir up trouble among the Shiites in Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, a frontal assault by Tehran is highly unlikely.

In the event that Iran did choose to attack Saudi Arabia or Israel directly, however, Washington would come to either ally’s defense, including by using military force against Iran directly.

Bottom Line: There’d be green lights flashing all over the sit room.

Should we be happy or sad about these bottom lines? Do we have a disciplined president or a weak one? Stay tuned. There’s plenty of time left on the presidential clock. The world’s not yet finished with Barack Obama. Nor is he with it.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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