Why Yemen’s Collapse Dooms Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy
Look at a map of the Arabian Peninsula and the surrounding region while taking into account recent headlines and you’ll see that both sides in the war between Shiite and Sunni radicals are defeating the United States. That is, radical Islamist forces (both sets of them) are winning and the United States is losing. We ...
Look at a map of the Arabian Peninsula and the surrounding region while taking into account recent headlines and you’ll see that both sides in the war between Shiite and Sunni radicals are defeating the United States. That is, radical Islamist forces (both sets of them) are winning and the United States is losing. We are in one of the most significant crises we have faced in the Middle East because the White House has managed to discourage and weaken all of our allies and at the same time provide opportunities to all of our enemies.
To list just a few of the dire circumstances:
- Forces hostile to the United States and allied with Iran, the Houthis, now have the upper hand in their battle with al Qaeda for control of Yemen, and the erstwhile South Yemen threatens to rise again. A pro-U.S. government fell and has been replaced by chaos.
- Saudi Arabia, having just undergone a monarchical succession, is in peril, “caught between a Shiite pincer emanating from Iran to the northeast and Yemen to the southwest” as my Shadow colleague Dov Zakheim wrote.
- The Islamic State has for years been seeding the Kingdom with sympathizers bolstered by jihadist Saudis coming and going between Syria and Iraq and then home, and as late as summer 2014 private Saudi funds may have been aiding the Islamic State and other radical forces in Syria. It is easy to imagine the Islamic State headquarters abuzz with plans for entering Saudi Arabia in force. The Islamic State controls a de facto state across Iraq and Syria from which it threatens the entire region.
- Al Qaeda is far from decimated and has more outposts and advantages than ever before.
This means the most important U.S. interests in the region are in peril. It is within the realm of possibility that the Saudi kingdom could fall to both the Islamic and the Shiite forces surrounding it even though these forces are locked in the centuries-old contest between Shiite and Sunni. And if the Kingdom falls, Israel and Egypt are alone.
Significantly, Iran stands to score a double victory in the cold war it launched with the United States over 25 years ago. Unless the Congress checks the Obama administration, the Iranians might well win the nuclear contest with the United States this year. But it could win the conventional forces contest with the United States even sooner, although it would be sharing that victory with Sunni radical forces like the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
It is almost impossible to imagine a way for Obama to leave office without being seen as having presided over a catastrophe that let our greatest enemies rise to perhaps unalterable victories. The catastrophe: a nuclear Iran and its proxies surrounding what’s left of Saudi Arabia after the Islamic State and al Qeada forces disfigure and dismember it.
The Middle East is the most important region in the world to the United States along with Europe in terms of U.S. security. Obama might have dodged a bullet with Ukraine (we’ll see) because Putin, like the Soviets, operates according to Realpolitik which America can understand even when it doesn’t agree with it. Putin’s aims are relatively limited: he wants respect, a cowed near-abroad, and, above all, to stay in power. He does not want the international system fundamentally changed.
But Obama will not be so lucky in the Middle East. Here the aims of our enemies are far more expansive and consequential. Among those in power, the rational mind is not always dominant. Sometimes they follow reason but often mysticism and blood vendetta determine their goals. Kill or be killed is about the best way to understand them.
How did we get to this point? How did the “peace president” preside over an increase in the quantity and severity of conflicts in the most strategically important parts of the world for the United States?
Plenty of blame falls on those who commit aggression and terror, but since we’ve been a great power and a superpower our presidents have had to face these things. All of them faced down our enemies with strength and power, both moral and material. Even Carter got wise to the dangers, albeit late in his presidency.
The best model is Reagan, who showed strength and determination while bolstering our allies, and therefore his eight years in the White House saw the United States advancing and our enemies retreating.
Obama has been in office over six years and it is undeniable that we have been retreating and our enemies have been advancing. There is a reason for that: his foreign policy is predicated on the notion that an assertive and ascendant United States is the cause of conflict. He has been proved wrong, and the fall of Yemen is the latest demonstration of his errors in judgment.
I’d like to say I think there is time in his presidency to reverse things, but I don’t know that he is willing to do what is necessary.
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images