George W. Bush failed as a president not because of his Middle East policy, but because of the global financial meltdown in the spring and fall of 2008. Bush hadn’t a clue as to the long-term effects of US de-industrialization and the vast accumulation of debt as its very risky replacement. The same could be said for President Bill Clinton before him, but at least Clinton “lucked out” without a US originated global collapse.
So far, over the last seven years, President Obama has weathered the financial storms, but with the most costly and tepid recovery since before WWII. All three of these modern presidents have been unable to raise the living standards or the employment prospects of the American working classes. Debt as an answer to long-term joblessness (full and part-time) has failed miserably in the past and will most certainly do so in the future. Obama’s luck could be the next president’s ultimate dilemma. However, Obama’s economic “luck” (if a one-percent growth rate is lucky) could also deteriorate in the face of an obvious global recessionary tilt. This tilt could bring all the current debts (and they are massive) home to roost.
However, Obama’s failure is not about economics. It is his foreign policy which has become his ultimate undoing. Unlike nearly every president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Obama understood the necessity for a just international order that could be the essential alternative to blind realism and a loose, shifting balance of global power. Obama’s great failure is that he couldn’t synthesize these necessary ingredients in order to achieve a long-lasting international peace. International organizations, laws and treaties, and respect among nations were all emphasized by Obama. But they failed to materialize because they are impossible to enhance and sustain without the multi-polar structure of an agreeable and workable global balance of power. International order — i.e., the global desire for peace — is tantamount to impossible within a unipolar, bipolar or even triad construction. The Cold War ended nuclear bi-polarity partially through the use of a third party, China. The current unipolar world, the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is now in the process of being dissolved. It is being replaced by a new bi-polarity involving China and Russia on one side, and the US within the Atlantic community on the other. Back to square one?
Balance of power and national sovereignty still remain essential to a sustainable international order. However, international order is not world government. The global challenges of the 21st century are, indeed, global, and they require a context of universal cooperation. This is especially true in terms of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and all forms of environmental degradation. But Europe remains divided east and west, because the end of the Cold War simply did not unite the continent. This problem has festered now for twenty-five years and has become a serious impediment to an even bigger problem — the complete regional breakdown of the Middle East. President Obama has failed to understand the vital connection between international order and a truly flexible, yet stable, regional and global balance of power.
The area of the Levant has become a contested zone between Iran and the Sunni Arab states. Obama’s policy of withdrawal (causing a serious vacuum) and his Iranian nuclear appeasement have only made matters worse. Now the region could become a geopolitical competition as Russia, and maybe China, choose to add their own geopolitical weight against the Sunni populations of Syria and Iraq. The necessity for this action is like an international chess move on the new global bipolar board.
Obama has also failed to understand another very important thing: ISIS is a vast Sunni cultural response to the Shiite imperial project emanating from the Iranian revolution, within the theological construct of its Islamic Republic based in Tehran. Both ISIS and Iran threaten the states of the Sunni Arab world and the very essential religious subjectivity of multitudes of Sunnis throughout the world. Until a just, fair and long-lasting regional balance of power is established, extremism will continue to intensify within this world as fear and paranoia replace reason and order. But a new Middle East balance of power appears impossible within the present context of international bipolarity. And this is precisely where President Obama has failed to provide any visionary leadership.
The Russian invasion and annexation of the Ukraine was a direct result of the reality and natural perception of a conventional imbalance in Europe. A unipolar Europe could only be tolerated up to a certain point, and then it hit its natural limit. But the new crisis in Europe was never destined to remain solely in Europe. President Putin of Russia needed leverage on the US in order to achieve some kind of conclusive European understanding with the Atlantic community. The Middle East seemed the perfect place to apply that leverage. In the final analysis, Putin’s actions in the Ukraine and in Syria have worked to counter the long NATO expansion eastward.
By his failure to connect the Iran nuclear negotiations with the conventional balance within the wider region, Obama has alienated all his Middle East allies (Israel included) and sowed the seeds of a pan-Sunni jihadist response to the utter Shiite weight of Iran and the “new Iraq”. President George W. Bush had given the vast Sunni population a sense of hope through political inclusion along with the defeat of the jihadists. But Obama took away that hope and began serious negotiations with Iran. This worked to unite the Baath Party of Iraq with the remnants of al-Qaeda, and over time they emerged in both Syria and Iraq as ISIS.
Russia, through its proximity to the region, its large Muslim minority population, and its need to alter the European balance poised near its borders, decided to act. By entering the Syrian civil war on the side of Assad, they have entered into a war against the Sunnis which has triggered a global terrorist response within the soft underbelly of the Atlantic community. Whether intended or not, Europe must now cooperate with the Russian leadership in order to solve Syria.
But in order to solve Syria, Assad must go! There is no way around this obvious fact. So the question becomes: Who or what replaces Assad? Can the Baath regime in Syria outlast its president? France has no answers, and neither do the Americans. The Russians have no street credibility within the Syrian war zone, and it isn’t even clear where their military adventure is going to lead. But the leverage they have applied in Syria has created the worst crisis in Europe since the end of the last world war. ISIS believes it is fighting a holy war against the apostates of a Shiite Persian empire based in Iran. They also believe that Russia, France and the rest of Europe, as well as the US, are all on the side of Tehran. And most Sunnis, while not completely on the side of ISIS, believe the same of the West and Russia.
France now wants Russian and American cooperation in order to defeat ISIS. But the French president understands that such cooperation is not possible without the serious application of two new regional balance-of-power formulas. If Putin is to cooperate on a serious proposal for Syria, he needs feedback on some kind of new European normalization. The very future of NATO must become a part of any new Syrian orientation. But the long-term prospects for the Middle East will only remain dim unless a new multipolar world can unite. To enforce order throughout the Middle East will require many “boots on the ground”. Without an enormous UN military participation — lasting perhaps for at least a decade — a political solution for Iraq and Syria is simply impossible.
Russia can’t rebuild Syria politically. Neither can Europe or the US. Only the totality of the United Nations working in tandem with the Sunni Arab states can get the job done. Only new nation-building, within a democratic framework, can save the Levant from the extremes of the Sunni Islamic Jihadists. The same recipe is true for ISIS’s Iranian counterparts based in Tehran. Iran must be rolled back to its borders. Iraq must be a neutral and democratic state. Lebanon needs to be reconstituted through its national army and working within a united political community. And Syria must be rebuilt in the image of its initial impulse, toward a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional secular republic. In the very long run, this kind of area project will be (by necessity) global in partnership and participation. Only an organization like the UN can do this job. But it will require a new global balance of power in order to reach such a level of cooperation.
The UN as an organization has failed to provide the necessary vision of order, and the necessary balance of power, that is required for peace to flourish. Seventy-six years ago, President Roosevelt understood the need for international order, but he didn’t live long enough to help shape a proper European balance to maintain peace in the aftermath of WWII. It is even doubtful if such a balance could have been achieved. After the “big war” the difficult ideological struggle between capitalism and communism couldn’t be overcome (even by ex-allies), and a long nuclear Cold War ensued. That long ideological struggle has vanished. More recently Europe has become, at least partially, democratic. Now the world has the potential to become unified through an international order of peace, with a truly global multi-polarity leading to a long-lasting balance of power.
But nuclear weapons and their proliferation still hang over the world like the “sword of Damocles”. Because of this danger — certainly not solved by the Obama nuclear deal with Iran or the multi-faceted conventional warfare now raging within the region of the Middle East — a new international order has become a necessity against all forms of violent, religious-based extremism. Such extremism has at its core the potential for a nuclear Armageddon within a distinctly religious context. Islamic Jihadist networks, whether they be Sunni or Shiite, are precisely such a context. ISIS and revolutionary Iran are two sides of the same coin. Russia, China, India, Japan, Europe and the US must NOT choose one over the other. Instead, the Middle East must become a non-hegemonic zone, free of all weapons of mass destruction. Only yesterday the French prime minister warned his country, and all of Europe, that chemical and biological attacks against France (or others) by jihadist terrorists are a distinct possibility.
For Israel, this kind of warning is nothing new. Against Israel’s much better judgment, Obama negotiated an incomprehensible nuclear deal that will allow radical Islamic Iran to achieve a nuclear breakout time of mere days. Sometime in the near future, another US president will have to deal with the consequences of this Iranian nuclear fiasco. President Obama himself affirmed an exact nuclear time frame — of mere days — in a recent interview.
Obama also withdrew from Iraq, in total, and allowed the country to fall into Tehran’s hands. This was directly after the most successful election in Middle East history (Iraq 2010). The president’s Middle East policy has failed badly because he has sought negotiations with Tehran in the vain hope of changing its behavior. Syria, Iraq and Lebanon prove that Iran has hegemonic designs upon the region, and Israel is also directly in Tehran’s Shiite jihadist crosshairs.
Obama claims to need the support of international organizations for policy in the Middle East. This was especially true of his continued lack of action in Syria and his failure to see the success of democratic Iraq before the ill-timed US pullout. UN approval was more important to him than the results of the 2010 Iraqi election. The same was true with the Iran nuclear deal — international acceptance took precedence over regional consequences. Obama has staunchly refused to see the effects that his policy has had on the Middle East balance. But international order and organization are only as good as a stable balance of power. And that is why this president has failed so badly. He has continued the American policy of dividing Europe from Russia, all the while choosing Iranian nuclear negotiations over the balance-of-power needs of Israel and the Sunni Arab states.
For anyone who has lived in the Middle East, the specter of ISIS is indeed scary. France is now learning this fact first hand. But if Europe, Russia or the US think that Iran is now a partner, they better think a lot harder. Iran doesn’t need to be at any political table over the future of Syria, or the rest of the Levant, for that matter. For any progress within the Sunni communities to take place, Iran, like ISIS, needs to be isolated. With Iran at the Syrian table, things can only stalemate and then get worse.
The Obama presidency has failed because it has negligently disregarded both the interests of its Middle East allies and those of the Russians as well. These two actions were serious balance-of-power failures. Now all of Europe and the entire Middle East are paying the price for Obama’s mistakes. These mistakes have led the Middle East to the brink of chaos, and the spillover has placed Europe in a deep crisis. Once again we have the specter of a failed US president. This time it is because of an anachronistic, and therefore failed, US foreign policy.