According to Hillary Clinton, the current US president has made serious mistakes in both Syria and Iraq, as well as in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. Although she left out many of the details, Mrs. Clinton’s criticism could probably best be characterized by paraphrasing her husband’s immortal election slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid”. To understand Obama’s utter lack of an adequate Middle East policy, one need only replace the word “economy” with the word “region” (It’s the region, Mr. President).
Barack Obama is not an unintelligent man. On the contrary, he might just be one of the smartest presidents this country has ever had. But bookish intellectuals without much experience don’t translate very well on the stage of world politics. In the Middle East, its not the smarts that matter all that much, it’s toughness and cunning combined with a vision and the audacity of action that can lead directly to success. The Middle East isn’t just a chess match. It’s a combination of chess, poker, dominoes and a good old-fashioned fistfight. What the US needs is a top-notch strategic thinker, a leader who has a destination in mind for his/her foreign policy, the support of key allies, the respect of the UN Security Council, and the trust of the American people to carry out the presidential vision. This current president has none of those attributes.
Most glaring is the lack of support from key allies. Whether in Cairo, Jerusalem, Amman or Riyadh, America’s friends in the region don’t have a clue as to where President Obama is leading them. Since 2009, with the advent of the inexperienced young president, US foreign policy in the Middle East has been fitful and directionless. Yes, the president campaigned on the promise of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that is not a policy in and of itself. Instead it became the recipe for a vacuum. And in the Middle East, vacuums become open invitations for the hegemonic designs of overly ambitious actors.
As an example, consider Iran. With the fall of Saddam Hussein and the US tilt toward the Shiites in Iraq, the Sunni backlash was inevitable. Before he left office, however, President Bush had gone a long way toward fixing that problem. Obama didn’t inherit a fiasco. On the contrary, with American tutelage the Shiite PM and the Sunni community were well on their way toward democratic success. But Obama was eager to remove himself from the region. And remove himself from the region, he did. Without the firm guidance of either the US president or American troops on the ground, the Shiite PM of Iraq turned to Iran for support. Tehran obliged its Arab sectarian partners with all elements of state-to-state support. Iranian regional aspiration then linked Baghdad with Damascus in a new and burgeoning Shiite empire. This became the root of a fiasco that can be firmly placed at the feet of only one man, Barack Hussein Obama.
While the Syrian revolution had its beginnings in domestic affairs, it soon metastasized into a regional Sunni “proxy war” backlash. As Assad’s war crimes multiplied, Obama hesitated. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf states were attempting to roll back the Shiite government in Damascus in order to punish the empire of Iran. But Washington wouldn’t help. What had started out as a promising Syrian democratic revolution turned extreme under the direction of the Wahhabi Gulf states and the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey. Although the US president had declared that “Assad must go”, the Obama administration fumbled the ball. The US red line became blurred. As the death count mounted (200,000 and counting), US inaction has paved the way for the rise of a militant anti-Western Sunni Islamist movement, which has erased the borders of the Levant and posed a far greater threat to US security than the old al-Qaeda ever did.
ISIL is a regional Sunni reaction to an American vacuum which had been initially filled by Iran. As Obama fiddled, the Middle East burned. The president’s political spinmasters can’t place the blame on the Republicans; the sequencing of the events just don’t match. The ISIL phenomenon would never have happened with US boots on the ground in Iraq, with support for the democratic forces in Syria through targeted airstrikes, and with the continued application of George W. Bush’s democratic vision for the region. It’s the region, Mr. President.
ISIL’s designs and Iran’s hegemony must both be stopped, and only a regional solution will suffice. Iraq cannot be hermetically sealed from Syria because Sunni-Shiite war has erased nearly all the borders of the modern Levant (is Jordan next?). The Sunnis of Iraq can only be persuaded when they are certain that Iranian expansion has been turned back. This cannot happen with Assad in power in Syria. The same is true for the Iranian nuclear negotiations. I’ve advocated a regional solution to these negotiations for the last two-and-a-half years. Now more than ever, America’s friends in the Middle East will be watching to see if the Obama administration attempts to hermetically seal these negotiations from the broader context. The president has said that “no deal would be better than a bad deal”. But any deal that leaves the sanction regime in tatters without addressing the future of the region could backfire, and that would open a Pandora’s box of greater chaos and/or nuclear proliferation.
The impression among America’s allies in the Middle East is that the Obama administration has, either through ineptitude or tacit design, tilted its foreign policy toward Iran. Either way, the policy is not working because, in the final analysis, the Shiites are not strong enough to win an inter-Muslim holy war against the Sunnis. ISIL will draw in tens of thousands of foreign fighters before it is through. This cannot be good for Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Iran. Only Hamas might benefit.
It is time for a grand vision leading to a “Grand Bargain”. But the US cannot accomplish anything without the support of the full UN Security Council. That is probably why Obama hesitated over Syria in the first place. He didn’t have the support of Russia or China. But the times have now changed dramatically, and neither Russia nor China (both with Muslim extremist problems of their own) can possibly be comfortable with ISIL. Maybe ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “reset button” with Russia was a good thing after all. Maybe peace in Europe, and a “Grand Bargain” for the Middle East should become the new organizing principle for a new American foreign policy. And what will be the Obama legacy in foreign affairs? He will either have to change course soon or risk becoming the lamest of all lame ducks. It’s the region, Mr. President, the region! No more excuses; the Middle East is your responsibility. You broke it, you fix it.