Resolved: Current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East undermines our national security.
Today, we’ll be discussing the “pro” side of this complex issue in depth.
Initially note that “current” U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East policy is highly varied – unlike during the Bush era, Obama has eschewed a one-size-fits-all policy in favor of a mixture of traditionally “hardline” and “softline” measures. For this reason, the pro has a litany of options for criticizing these policies from a variety of angles. We’ll begin with the “too hardline” arguments, move to the “too softline” arguments, and finally discuss specific criticisms at the end.
In the most general sense, Glenn Greenwald explains the ways in which Obama’s “hawkish” policies are damaging to national security:
Glenn Greenwald, “Grading Obama’s Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy, January 23, 2012.
President Obama's achievements and setbacks can be roughly understood as ones of means and ends, respectively. When it comes to pursuit of his foreign-policy aims, he has proven himself a far shrewder and more efficient technocratic manager than his predecessor. He has used diplomacy and covert sabotage to effectively isolate Iran, managed alliances to overthrow Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi, executed ruthless attacks to weaken al Qaeda, consolidated the power to wage wars and to detain and kill without congressional (or judicial) interference, strengthened ties with key allies in the Middle East (including Israel), and has generally been much smarter and more subtle than George W. Bush about using American power against the nation's perceived enemies and on behalf of its allies. But the goals to which that shrewdness has been applied have been extremely ill-advised. A core promise of the Obama presidency -- to improve America's standing in the world -- has been thwarted, as the nation is now viewed as unfavorably in the Muslim world, if not more so, as it was during the Bush years. Obama's steadfast support for Arab dictators, his ongoing subservience to the Israeli government, and his penchant for violence, aggression, and civilian slaughter in that region are the culprits. The war in Afghanistan, which he escalated, remains a disaster. Serious tensions with Pakistan -- which even Bush was smart enough to avoid -- are more dangerous than ever; along with the collapse of any prospects for an Israeli/Palestinian peace agreement, that is probably his worst foreign-policy failure. One achievement commonly credited to Obama -- the ending of the Iraq War -- was actually negotiated by Bush and forced on Obama by his failure to convince the Iraqis to let U.S. forces remain, and thus does not belong in the success category. In sum, Obama has deftly and intelligently pursued ignominious and ignoble foreign-policy goals.
Here, Greenwald is criticizing several Obama policies:
1. Support for dictators in the Middle East (including those deposed during the Arab Spring, even though he pivoted toward supporting the protesters as it became clearer that they were going to emerge victorious).
2. Close ties to Israel and insistence on concessions that doomed the peace process.
3. Surges in Afghanistan.
4. Drone strikes and other military activity in Pakistan.
The warrant for all these arguments is just that Obama is doing things that breed resentment in the Arab world. That resentment can become a catalyst for extremist hatred of the United States and thus is not in the best national security interest. Civilian casualties resulting from US counter-terrorism in the region are arguably rallying points for terrorist recruitment and lack of cooperation between Middle Eastern governments and the United States.
One of the clearest examples (mentioned above but discussed here in more detail) is Obama’s embrace of drone strikes as a primary counter-terrorism strategy:
Allison Good, “Middle East experts urge changes to Obama’s Yemen policies,” Foreign Policy, June 27, 2012.
A group of 27 foreign policy, security, and Middle East experts sent a letter to … Obama on this week criticizing the administration's counterterrorism-focused approach to Yemen and urging … "achieving a successful democratic transition" … Although the United States has "drastically increased the number of drone strikes" against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) … this strategy "jeopardizes our long-term national security goals." A comprehensive focus on Yemen's economic and political problems, it continues, "will better serve the stability of Yemen and, accordingly, our national security interests, rather than ... direct military involvement." The letter, spearheaded by the Yemen Policy Initiative, a dialogue organized by the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), outlines several diplomatic, political, economic, humanitarian, and security policy recommendations that include increasing assistance to democracy-building institutions, working with the international community to immediately address Yemen's "food security needs," sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Yemeni capital Sanaa, and rethinking the strategy of drone strikes, which the signatories argue "could strengthen the appeal of extremist groups."
The recruitment argument appears again here. The drones debate is, obviously, widely varied and very in-depth but much of it boils down to the possibility of civilian casualties resulting from drone strikes and the culture of fear drone patrols create. Seeing the U.S. as uncaring and as responsible for the deaths of innocents, people adopt radical revenge ideologies, perpetuating terrorism.
There are also some sticky due process issues associated with drones that could create bad precedents for international law and domestically.
Anne-Marie Slaughter explains:
Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Grading Obama’s Foreign Policy,” January 23, 2012.
Finally, for all of Obama's success using drones, the ultimate light, nimble and adaptable weapon, many of the precedents the United States setting with drone attacks will come back to haunt us. Now is the time to begin to develop an international consensus around rules governing drones and other means of individualized 21st-century warfare. Exulting in victory over the killing of individual terrorist suspects may feel good, but this is precisely the issue on which we need less celebration and more of the cool, cerebral analysis that the president is known for.
Aside from just radicalizing the Middle East, the murky legal doctrines governing drone use (and the seeming lack of caring on the part of the American public about the impacts of this legal gray area) open the U.S. to significant international criticism, undermining soft power. Soft power is arguably indispensable for maintaining U.S. influence abroad and for fostering international consensus on issues that affect our national security.
Much more could be said, of course, about Obama’s drone strikes policies. If you’d like to delve more deeply into this aspect of the resolution, check out the targeted killings analysis we did for the March/April topic last year. You can find it here:
As I previously mentioned, however, there are as many, if not more, criticisms of the Obama administration as “too softline.” Obama’s foreign policy approach, despite how definitive it is on terror, is often criticized for failing to take a clear stance on other Middle East issues. Mike Brownfield explains:
Mike Brownfield, “Morning Bell: Middle East Crumbles Around Obama Foreign Policy,” Heritage Foundation, The Foundry, February 8, 2012
The international rogue that is Iran continues to rise, along with its threat to the world. Thousands are dead in Syria under a brutal dictator while the international community is serving up effete condemnations. America’s ally Israel appears ready to take matters into its own hands in order to ensure its survival, while prospects for peace with Palestine remain dim. U.S. citizens are trapped in Egypt as anti-Western Islamists seek to consolidate their power. And Iraq’s once-peaceful prospects have been marred by one terrorist attack after another after America’s military forces departed. Obama has failed at every turn to safeguard U.S. interests in the region or take effective proactive initiatives to deal with threat of rising extremism and spiraling violence that could lead to regional conflict.
In other words, current U.S. foreign policy can be characterized as reactive versus proactive. The wait-and-see approach Obama has taken on Syria, Israel-Iran conflict, and Iraq arguably run the risk that, if the United States is forced by circumstance to clarify its policy on either, it will be too late to truly shape the outcome. This can be potentially dangerous, especially as conflicts, once they go from cold to hot, are difficult to de-escalate or deter.
Michael Singh elaborates:
Michael Singh, “It’s not just the sparks that caused this fire in the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, September 18, 2012.
At such a pivotal moment, it is important that we correctly understand what is happening and why, and mount the appropriate policy response. We must in particular avoid the temptation … to disengage with the Middle East in frustration over the persistence of anti-Americanism and chaos there. The Middle East remains a region which is vital to U.S. interests … Since the beginning of the Arab uprisings, the Obama administration has adopted a passive, hesitant approach to events, conveying the sense that America is increasingly disengaged, indifferent, or both when it comes to the Middle East. This can be seen in the disconnect between rhetoric and action on Syria, diffidence in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, "leading from behind" in Libya, and even in the talk of a "pivot" to Asia in our foreign policy. The result has been a diminution rather than an enhancement in both U.S. influence and -- despite strenuous efforts to avoid disputes with new governments in the region -- our popularity. Going forward, the United States should not lose our hope for a positive future in the Middle East or confidence in our own ability to shape outcomes there. However, we should be clear-eyed about the challenges that we face and the long timetable which lies before us to accomplish what we set out to achieve. Foreign policy has three fundamental objectives -- to promote American security, prosperity, and to advance U.S. values. This should be the starting point for successful policy in the region -- firmly and unapologetically advocate our interests, help governments to reform politically and economically, and support and work with parties within and without the region who share our interests and values.
This is a common criticism of Obama’s response to the Arab Spring. Many analysts believe that his refusal to advocate for American interests throughout the transitional period and reluctance to shape the outcomes has caused a serious dip in the U.S.’s influence and popularity with burgeoning governments that perceive abandonment and indifference.
Jeffrey Goldberg, quoting Shadi Hamid from Brookings, clarifies the impact of perceived indifference:
Jeffrey Goldberg, “Hunt for Obama’s Middle East Policy Comes Up Empty,”Bloomberg, October 1, 2012.
Yet all we have from Obama is passivity, which is a recurring theme in the administration’s approach to the Middle East. So is “aggressive hedging,” a term used by the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid to describe Obama’s strange reluctance to clearly choose sides in the uprisings of the Arab Spring. “There’s a widespread perception in the region that Obama is a weak, somewhat feckless president,” Hamid, who runs the Brookings Doha Center, told me. “Bush may have been hated, but he was also feared, and what we’ve learned in the Middle East is that fear, sometimes at least, can be a good thing. Obama’s aggressive hedging has alienated both sides of the Arab divide. Autocrats, particularly in the Gulf, think Obama naively supports Arab revolutionaries, while Arab protesters and revolutionaries seem to think the opposite.” Leaders across the Middle East don’t take Obama’s threats seriously. Neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the Arab leaders of the Gulf countries believe he’ll act militarily against Iran’s nuclear program in his second term.
This is perhaps the clearest explanation of the case against Obama’s hedging: that he’s essentially produced the worst of all worlds. By failing to take a side or many any particular demands, he alienates both sides of the conflict and guts the credibility of any threats because they aren’t backed up with action. In short, Obama’s policy potentially short-circuits U.S. influence in the Middle East at a time when we potentially need it the most.
Jamie M. Fly discusses some concrete impacts to this claim:
Jamie M. Fly, “Obama is Unwilling to Lead the U.S. Response to the Arab Spring,” U.S. News and World Report, September 27, 2012
This was even more apparent in the revolutions that evolved into civil wars. In Libya, after some initial reluctance to get involved, the president pivoted and authorized a military effort to protect civilians that eventually led to the demise of Muammar Qadhafi. The administration's desire to overlearn the lessons of Iraq led to a hands off approach to postconflict Libya. The nascent Libyan government was essentially left on its own, with little assistance to rein in the militias and weapons proliferation that came as a result of NATO's air operation and the president's refusal to put boots on the ground. In Syria, the United States has stood by as tens of thousands have been killed, not willing to back up President Obama's demands that Bashar al-Assad step down with American action. The common thread that weaves together the U.S. response to the Arab Spring has thus been unwillingness by the Obama administration to assertively lead. The people of the region, from the streets to the halls of power, have far too often been left to question America's commitment to their cause and to wonder what U.S. policy is toward their countries. This has created a vacuum in which other actors have attempted to fill the void, often in ways that do not comport with U.S. interests. It also has weakened America's standing in the region and in the broader world and created costs that the United States will likely have to deal with for years to come. As one Syrian near the besieged city of Aleppo told The Washington Post in August, "America will pay a price for this. America is going to lose the friendship of Syrians, and no one will trust them anymore. Already we don't trust them at all."
Thus, the “hands-off” approach created an uncomfortable middle ground where the U.S. did enough to involve itself but not quite enough to ensure that involvement promoted American security interests in the region. Worse, other actors have taken advantage of this lukewarm stance and attempted to shape the conflict (Turkey and Russia in Syria, for example) in such ways as may damage U.S. interests.
For a more in-depth discussion of a similar argument, see:
Michael Rubin, “Obama Speaks Often But Does Little on Mideast Foreign Policy,” US News and World Report, September 27, 2012.
For a more robust analysis of this argument applied to Iraq and Afghanistan, see:
Jamie Fly, ”Grading Obama’s Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy, January 23, 2012.
Although we’ve touched on these already, this “soft” Middle East policy’s detractors discuss some specific scenarios that might be worth considering as contentions. One of the timeliest is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad, the besieged president, is using large-scale violence to maintain a tenuous hold on power in the face of rebel opposition. Jeffrey Goldberg explains:
Jeffrey Goldberg, “Hunt for Obama’s Middle East Policy Comes Up Empty,” Bloomberg, October 1, 2012.
Which brings me to the baffling subject of Syria. Like many observers of the Obama administration, I’ve been confused by its unwillingness to take even the relatively modest steps required to bring about a decisive end to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. More than 30,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising … and untold numbers have been wounded, tortured or raped. The Syrians who are rebelling are in dire need of the sort of support that the U.S. can best provide. The U.S. has the capability to efficiently neutralize Syria’s air defenses and impose a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s attack helicopters. And as Michael Doran and Max Boot pointed out … only the U.S. can lead a multinational effort to establish safe corridors between the Turkish border and the besieged city of Aleppo. If Aleppo was under the stable and permanent control of Syria’s rebels, it would spell the end of Assad’s regime and its appalling brutality. … In Syria, the national-security interests are profound. ... Assad is a prime supporter of terrorism … and his regime represents Iran’s only meaningful Arab ally. The overriding concern of the Obama administration in the Middle East is the defanging of Iran. Nothing would isolate Iran -- and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah -- more than the removal of the Assad regime and its replacement by a government drawn from Syria’s Sunni majority. Ensuring that Muslim extremists don’t dominate the next Syrian government is another compelling reason to increase U.S. involvement.
Thus, the disengaged stance on Syria allows:
1. Human rights abuses on a massive scale.
2. Terrorist safe havens supported by Assad.
3. Isolation of Iran.
4. The new government to be indifferent or hostile to the United States.
The second is Egypt. Egypt, recently in political transition after Arab Spring protests led to the ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak, is beginning a shaky transition under the new president, Mohamed Morsi. Recent protests (ostensibly in response to an American-made fringe film insulting the Muslim prophet) initially received only a lukewarm condemnation from Morsi despite potentially endangering U.S. embassy personnel. Mike Brownfield elaborates on the importance of handling this situation decisively:
Mike Brownfield, “Morning Bell: Middle East Crumbles Around Obama Foreign Policy,” Heritage Foundation, The Foundry, February 8, 2012
Finally, in Egypt, officials there published a list of 43 people, including 19 Americans, accused of interfering in Egypt’s internal politics. They are not allowed to leave the country and could soon be brought to trial on claims that they illegally funded political groups in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. Heritage’s James Phillips explains that “they have become hostages in a much larger struggle: the struggle for freedom in Egypt against an unholy alliance between Egypt’s transitional military government and the Islamist political parties who will soon assume power.” President Obama and members of his Cabinet tried to reach Egyptian leaders on the matter, but in the words of Lorne Craner, head of the pro-democracy organization IRI, “things are getting worse . . . We are all scratching our heads over here. I did two tours at State and one at the [National Security Council]. If the president called someone, something gets worked out.” But as was the case under President Jimmy Carter, the White House appears helpless while Americans are held captive. None of these crises occurs in a vacuum — except for the vacuum of a cogent U.S. strategy for dealing with these ever-worsening conditions. Since President Obama took office, he has pursued a diplomatic strategy of charm and restraint: attempting to broker peace between Israel and Palestine, engaging with Syria and Iran, and withdrawing from Iraq. Now we are seeing the results.
Egypt is important strategically as well – it’s one of the largest Middle Eastern countries and has historically been situated in a geographically and politically important position for brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace and tamping down North African radicals. A loss of Egypt could be devastating for U.S. influence, particularly because they’ve always been an ally in the region and may cease to be without quick, decisive action.
The third is Libya. In Libya, dictator Moammar Qaddafi was recently ousted (and killed) by pro-democracy militias. The U.S. took part in a NATO air campaign (led by France) to secure Libya so that Qaddafi’s violent attempts to stay in power wouldn’t escalate out of control. Recently, Libyan militias (potentially taking part in a wider protest about the aforementioned American film and potentially participating in a coordinated Al Qaeda attack) attacked a U.S. embassy resulting in the deaths of American personnel. Notably, this attack resulted in the death of U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, one of the first U.S. ambassadors killed abroad in a very long time. Richard Cohen explains how current U.S. policy is creating a dangerous spiral in Libya:
Richard Cohen, “The Price of Obama’s Leading From Behind,” The Washington Post, September 17, 2012.
What lessons can be learned from events in Libya? That nothing good will come out of the Arab Spring? … In other words, is this what happens when the United States is “leading from behind”? This phrase, you might remember, was coined in reference to Barack Obama’s reluctance to take the lead in the NATO air campaign that toppled the dictatorship of Moammar Gaddafi. And that operation, in which the French seized the initiative, was mounted to save Benghazi, the city where the insurrection started and the one where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed last week. Benghazi was saved from Gaddafi’s bloody reprisals, but not from mayhem. The notion that the United States can lead from behind is pitiful, the sorry concoction of an Obama administration that mistakes dulcet passivity for a foreign policy. The view from behind now has to be awfully depressing. Where once Obama could see the gallant tails of the French, the British, the Italians and some others, there is now no one. ... NATO’s warplanes have returned to base and Libya, a tribal society, was left to fend for itself. It has not fended all that well. Until recent events offered a rebuke, the Obama administration treated its toe-in-the-water response to the threats uttered by Gaddafi as an unalloyed success. The dictator had been ousted (and subsequently killed), no Americans had died in the effort and the wisdom of doing as little as possible was proclaimed a sterling triumph. Had the United States taken the lead, however, someone might have been paying more attention to events there and trying to forge a government out of heavily armed militias. After all, it’s not as if all of Libya was sacking the U.S. legation; it was a well-armed few. Much of the rest of the country was appalled by what happened and the president of the national congress, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, offered an apology and vowed to find the terrorists and, as always, bring them to justice.
That is, the strategy of leading behind has a major flaw: it’s impossible to then take over after the fact. Moreover, abdicating responsibility to shape and rebuild post-conflict Libya allows radicalized minority factions (and potentially terrorist groups) to take advantage of weak rule of law in Libya. This could be potentially disastrous – allowing Libya to become a safe haven for groups wishing to inflict serious harm on the U.S. and its allies would be a difficult problem to contain and, more importantly, one that could have potentially been avoided.
There are other criticisms, of course – U.S. policy has been criticized as either too supportive or not supportive enough of Israel versus Iran and the peace process. These criticisms are largely addressed above but are not currently quite as timely as those of the Arab Spring.
Finally, as a midpoint between “softline” and “hardline” criticisms, there’s a decidedly more moixed view. Danielle Pletka explains:
Danielle Pletka, “Grading Obama’s Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy, January 23, 2012.
Any short analysis of Barack Obama's successes and failures in foreign policy must necessarily be incomplete. Is it enough to weigh his undeniable good judgment in ordering Navy SEALS to take out Osama bin Laden against his vacillation when faced with the Arab Spring? His willingness to face reality vis-à-vis Iran versus his paralyzing missteps in promoting Israeli-Palestinian dialogue? Surely not. But at the heart of what must, by the standards the president set for himself, be judged a failure, is what seems to be Obama's worst sin: The president's foreign policy lacks a guiding set of principles. Why surge troops into Afghanistan only to draw them down before the mission is complete? Why condemn Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya for his crimes against his own people and remain almost indifferent to the same crimes when committed by Bashar al-Assad in Syria? Why knock off a dozen al Qaeda terrorists from the air, and release another group from Guantánamo? The answer, of course, is politics. Politics matters to any sane politician; but when politics suffers no competition from principle, the nation's foreign policy is rudderless. It is why our allies mistrust us, our adversaries underestimate us, and why we no longer seek to shape a better world, but instead to retreat from it.
The bifurcated, dual nature of current U.S. policy is in and of itself a criticism. The idea that Obama has been too passive in some areas and too aggressive in others indicates that there is no guiding set of principles over current U.S. foreign policy. This approach leaves the U.S. open to international criticism and fails to provide a robust deterrent to those who would threaten our interests.
Why, then, does any of this matter? We’ll end with a Jeffrey Goldberg quote that summarizes the strategic importance of the Middle East to national security in the United States:
Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Middle East: Goodbye to All That,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 5, 2012.
It’s inarguable that Asia is crucial to America’s economic future. “China already represents the most important national security issue we face,” says R. Nicholas Burns, a former under secretary of state for political affairs. Yet Burns, like others, regrets the Obama team’s use of the term “pivot,” which “implies a turn away, that we were going to leave NATO and Europe and our Middle East allies behind.” The U.S., however, has turned away. The Obama administration has put no emphasis on Mideast peacemaking; America’s allies in the region see its position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions as ambiguous; and in Afghanistan, the administration is looking for the exit at a hurried pace. Obama “led from behind” in Libya and has resisted calls to push more actively for the ouster of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. This effort to de-emphasize the region represents a significant departure in U.S. strategy, according to Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution. “After the entire collapse of international order and security 70 years ago, the way we established order and security was to take responsibility for three regions—Asia, Europe, and the Middle East,” Kagan says. “That is what the definition of a superpower is. We consciously adopted a global role.” And that’s why the U.S.’s current retreat from the Mideast will only be temporary—which is a good thing. America has at least four core interests across the greater Middle East, and each one requires constant monitoring and a readiness to intervene. The first is energy. The notion that America will ever be truly energy-independent is chimerical. Even if the U.S. soon manages to produce all the fossil fuel energy it needs for itself, the world economy would be devastated if South Korea, Japan, and China were suddenly cut off from Mideast oil. So the U.S. will need to continue safeguarding the security of the Persian Gulf, barring one unlikely development: “The only thing that could change this would be burden-sharing with China with respect to keeping open the Strait of Hormuz,” says Andrew Exum, a Middle East expert at the Center for a New American Security. “When you see Chinese ships protecting trade routes through the Strait, maybe we can stop worrying as much.” The second interest is the security of Israel. “There are broad domestic constituencies for support for Israel, and no politician can ignore that,” Exum says. Nothing on the horizon suggests that America will be radically scaling back its relationship with Israel. Quite the opposite: Next year could be the year the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program reaches a boiling point (if it doesn’t before November). Which brings us to the third concern: nuclear proliferation. Israel is a nuclear power; Iran is seeking to become a nuclear power; and Pakistan, at the edge of the greater Middle East, is a particularly unstable nuclear power (and one that could easily transfer nuclear technology to other states in the region that are fearful of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or could simply lose control of its nuclear arsenal). The primary foreign policy task of an American president in the post-Sept. 11 era is to prevent jihadist organizations from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. It’s therefore impossible to ignore a region in which this acquisition would most likely take place. As for terrorism, the threat to the U.S. posed by the central al-Qaeda organization (currently headquartered in territory controlled by our ostensible ally, Pakistan) is dramatically lower than it was 11 years ago. Yet contrary to what Ron Paul might claim, no counterterrorism expert believes that a comprehensive American withdrawal from the Mideast would bring about an end to anti-American jihadist terrorism. There will be no ground invasions of Muslim countries in the near future; Iraq and Afghanistan have immunized the U.S.—its people and its government—against that level of interventionism. Yet it’s naïve to think that abandoning American responsibilities in the region would lead to anything but the further empowerment of radical ideologues. The Middle East is a continual source of woe. There is something seductive about the notion of pivoting away from it toward … well, anything, really. Yet it will be a terrible mistake for the U.S. to avert its eyes simply because what it sees constitutes nothing but trouble.
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