As Brussels descended into chaos and lockdown after the latest ISIS atrocities, President Obama was seen dancing the tango in Argentina. There is nothing wrong with the American president’s historic re-opening of relations with Cuba and then Argentina. In different ways, both nations have been isolated from the west for too long.
Cuba hasn’t seen an American leader since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928, despite it being just 90 miles from Florida. And Argentina has been in economic isolation for more than a decade. The arrival in office of a new president Mauricio Macri has opened the way to diplomatic and commercial rapprochement.
We shouldn’t be surprised about Obama’s Latin American initiatives. In his case, it is anything and anywhere other than the Middle East. As the president made clear in his recent series of interviews with Atlantic magazine, he has little time for the leaders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Iran, Israel and the Palestinians. In other words, anyone in the troublesome Middle East. Indeed, a presidency that began with Obama committing to remove US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, in super quick time ends with his administration focusing on the Americas.
Obama has moved American policy a long way from the ‘Carter doctrine’. Amid the misery caused in the US by oil embargoes and soaring energy prices, Carter declared the Middle East a region of strategic importance to the US.
Technological advances and the oil fracking revolution of the Obama years means that the US is once again heading towards self-sufficiency. Dependency on the oil rich Gulf countries no longer has the same pull on US foreign policy as it had in the final three decades of the 20th century and since.
Obama’s disinterest and pullback from the Middle East is having devastating consequences. If the US still had 50,000 troops deployed in Iraq, control of airports, airspace and some port facilities, it is hard to imagine that ISIS would have marched into northern Iraq and captured cities and oil facilities, which created the wealth that has allowed it to export terrorism. It is that wealth which has made Libya toxic, sending extremism to the experimental democracy in Tunisia, and the establishment of ISIS cells in Paris and Brussels.
Obama’s main diplomatic mission in the Middle East was to constrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and open up Tehran to commerce. But that initiative has been at the expense of relations with Congress, which disliked the Iranian deal, and Netanyahu’s [pictured below with Obama] government, which publicly campaigned against it. It is no coincidence that talks on a two-state solution to the core dispute between Israel and the Palestinians came to a stuttering halt as the Iran negotiations were reaching their conclusion.
America’s neglect in the Middle East has been everyone else’s problem. It allowed Russia to consolidate its hold on Syria and its puppet Bashar al-Assad, despite the death and destruction he has visited on its own people. Just as critically, it helped to gift ISIS Mosul, oilfields and the huge income generated. One can understand Obama’s reluctance to spill more American blood in the Middle East after the long campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. But we also know that seeking to dislodge and destroy ISIS from the air, with limited special forces on the ground, is ineffectual.
Allowing Islamic State to prosper in Syria and northern Iraq has had disastrous consequences. Beyond the oil revenues and the training facilities, ISIS is spreading a vicious form of Sunni jihadi power across the globe. The terrorists now have a sanctuary close to the border of Turkey, are entrenched in Libya and are able to shut down European cities as they have done in Paris and Brussels. They are also partly responsible for the biggest movement of refugees across Europe since the Second World War, with more than one million refugees already transferred to the EU.
Most of these are ordinary Syrian and Afghan families fleeing violence and taking their opportunity for better life. But poor border controls and security checks in Europe and a lack of intelligence sharing means that embedded among this tide seeking a better life are returning jihadists. Not only is this group hostile to Western values (which is bad enough) but, as we know from the Paris and Brussels attacks, it is also battle hardened and has skills along with automatic weapons and explosives.
In their last year in office, American presidents, finding it difficult to achieve domestic goals, often turn to foreign policy. Obama has followed this course with his opening to Cuba. A more valuable and lasting impact could have been made with boots on the ground in the territory controlled by Islamic State.
He has left it too late, leaving his successor, whoever it may be, with some big decisions to make in the Near East. There will be more on that as the US campaign gets down to brass tacks.