November PFD "Con" Analysis - Middle East

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November PFD "Con" Analysis - Middle East

Postby lsabino » Fri Oct 05, 2012 10:46 am

We recently posted our in-depth discussion of the “pro” side of the November PFD topic,

Resolved: Current U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East undermines our national security.

Today, we’re discussing the equally complex and robust “con” side of the argument. It’d not surprising that this issue is controversial and polarizing: much has happened in the Middle East recently and the actions of the United States now are likely to seriously implicate the geopolitical situation for years to come.

Many scholars, however, support the administration’s foreign policy approach to the Middle East. As Michele Flournoy, Colin H. Kahl, and Marc Lynch explain:

Michele A. Flournoy, Colin H. Kahl, and Marc Lynch, “Romney’s Empty Foreign Policy Agenda,” CNN, Last Updated October 2, 2012.
While Romney has consistently appeared unsteady and unready to handle unfolding events, Obama has effectively managed the tumult of the Arab Spring, demonstrating strategic patience and confident leadership. As millions flooded the streets of Arab capitals, Obama recognized that the United States should endorse their demands for democratic change and took the lead in helping to broker a peaceful transition in Egypt. When Moammar Qaddafi turned his guns on peaceful protesters, Obama led an international coalition that saved tens of thousands of civilians in Benghazi, supported the opposition as it overthrew a brutal regime and helped pave the way toward a new Libya. And in the face of President Bashar al-Assad's brutality in Syria, the administration is leading international efforts to isolate and sanction the regime, push back against Russian intransigence at the United Nations and work with European and regional partners to empower the opposition.


If you caught our “pro” analysis, this characterization may seem surprising to you, and it underscores an important point about the Middle East foreign policy debate. Many of the current foreign policy actions can objectively be viewed in a number of different, even contradictory ways. In this case, the authors are focusing on what Obama’s administration did do:
ultimately endorsed democracy as an intrinsic good in transitions, built coalitions to isolate brutal dictators, etc. This multilateral approach (seek international consensus before acting) has a number of supporters, as does the studied, cerebral approach this administration takes to foreign policy.

For more on this particular question, including an argument for the consistency of Obama Middle East foreign policy, see:

Robert Kagan, “Grading Obama’s Foreign Policy,: Foreign Policy January 23, 2012.

For a more general analysis, see:

Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Grading Obama’s Foreign Policy,” January 23, 2012.

Many have also praised the much-criticized restraint in Obama’s foreign policy for its balanced approach, potentially avoiding serious entanglements:

Aaron David Miller, “Mitt Romney’s Terrible Wall Street Journal Op-Ed,” Foreign Policy, October 1, 2012.
Obama accomplished three critically important things in this region for which Romney will not (but should) give him credit. First, he became a more focused and more disciplined version of Bush 43 when it came to counterterrorism policy: He killed Osama bin Laden, pulverized al Qaeda, and has so far prevented another attack on the continental United States. Protecting the homeland is the organizing principle of a nation's foreign policy. If you can't do that, you really don't need a foreign policy. Second, Obama committed himself to (and is succeeding in) extricating America from the two longest wars in our history -- wars that were among our most pointless, given what we sacrificed and what we've gotten in return. Third, he kept us out of new ones. (See Syria, Iran.) It is important to think through what your objectives are before you act and, in particular, how the application of American military power, whether alone or with others, would achieve those goals or make them worse. So far, in Syria and Iran, Obama has made the right call by not pursuing military half measures that might not work, could make the situation worse or create a slippery slope to greater U.S. involvement.


This is a useful way to view Obama’s foreign policy: as a pared-down approach that isolates the most critical goals:

1. It protects the homeland from immediate threats by concentrating drone strikes on those who would most imminently seek to attack us.
2. It pares down current costly military entanglements (Iraq and Afghanistan) that are draining the budget and producing dubious benefits.
3. It weighs heavily against new military actions that may be unsuccessful or damaging.

In effect, many advocates of these policies challenge the assumption that boots on the ground (or even air power) would be effective in Syria or Iran. Particularly without an international consensus and international help (as Obama secured in Libya through NATO), involving the U.S. military is a costly long-term investment with no guarantee of success. Making military action a last resort, something used only to prevent imminent harm to the United States or its interests abroad may seem callous when one considers the magnitude of human rights abuses by the Assad regime, but the con should focus on operationalizing the solvency question. Often, pro authors make a huge logical leap that any conflict would resolve quickly and bloodlessly and would definitely make things better. Iraq and Afghanistan prove that this is almost never the case.

Moreover, Miller and Flournoy et al. both argue that there is a serious flaw in the idea that Obama is doing nothing on Syria and Iran. He’s imposing sanctions, ramping up international pressure, etc. These things can be effective in and of themselves – sanctions isolate dictatorships and damage their ability to access resources that could be critical to the maintenance of whatever behavior the international community seeks to modify.

Advocates also answer some of the common criticisms of current foreign policy. First, Israel:

Michele A. Flournoy, Colin H. Kahl, and Marc Lynch, “Romney’s Empty Foreign Policy Agenda,” CNN, Last Updated October 2, 2012.
Romney likes to criticize the president's handling of Israel and Iran and to recycle tired attacks on his record on Israel. But he repeatedly sidesteps the facts, ignoring Obama's unprecedented efforts to make our closest ally in the Middle East more secure. Under Obama's leadership, Israel has received record levels of security assistance, including aid for rocket defenses that have saved Israeli lives, and our defense and intelligence cooperation has never been better.


Aaron David Miller elaborates:

Aaron David Miller, “Mitt Romney’s Terrible Wall Street Journal Op-Ed,” Foreign Policy, October 1, 2012.
Romney has part of this right. Obama wrestled with Benjamin Netanyahu on the wrong issue -- settlements -- with no strategy or sense for how to use this tactic to achieve the ultimate goal: an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. And there's no doubt that on an emotional level, even though Bibi is hardly an easy guy to get along with, Barack Obama isn't Bill Clinton or George W. Bush when it comes to bonding with Israel. And frankly, this is a serious problem. But to imply that Obama is willfully dismissing or trivializing Israeli concerns on Iran, let alone throwing Israel under the bus, just doesn't wash. With the exception of Britain, the United States probably has a closer relationship with Israel than any other nation. Even so, our interests -- given that there are two of us -- can't always align perfectly. And we need to deal honestly with one another when they don't. Should Romney become president, the personal relationship between Netanyahu and the president would improve. But who's to say that Romney's instincts to ignore the Palestinian issue or give Israel greater leeway on striking Iran's nuclear sites are the best policies for Israel? Indeed, the governor is hardly Israel's salvation. Dollars to donuts, I'd bet that within a reasonable period of time, Netanyahu would also find a way to annoy Romney and vice versa.


Two arguments:

1. Obama’s insistence that there be some daylight between the U.S. and Israel is more rhetorical than practical. It hasn’t affected security or intelligence programs which actually form the cornerstone of the relationship.
2. Measuring the relationship by how well the U.S. gives Israel exactly what it wants is a bad metric for assessing how it affects our national security. U.S. relationships should be complementary and should recognize that what’s in Israel’s best interest may not always be what’s in ours.

Second, Iran:

Michele A. Flournoy, Colin H. Kahl, and Marc Lynch, “Romney’s Empty Foreign Policy Agenda,” CNN, Last Updated October 2, 2012.
The president has forged an international coalition to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Under the most crippling sanctions ever imposed, Tehran's economy is floundering and has never been more isolated. Obama has repeatedly vowed to use all instruments of national power to ensure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, taking no option off the table. Beyond Romney's cowboy rhetoric, there are zero actual policy differences with Obama on Iran -- unless Romney thinks it's time to rush to war. Everything else he says he would do -- crippling sanctions, a credible military option -- the president is already doing.


This argument echoes the one above: conflating Obama’s restrained approach with no approach at all is flawed because it ignores the serious foreign policy measures Obama is taking on Iran and overstates the importance of hot conflict in resolving the nuclear issue.

Third, Syria:

Marina Ottaway, “Obama’s Approach to the Arab Spring Protects U.S. Interests,” U.S. News and World Report, September 27, 2012.
The real question thus is whether Obama's actions are safeguarding U.S. interests in the Middle East post-uprisings. The answer is by and large yes. He was right to accept the results of elections in Tunisia and Egypt even if they brought to power Islamist parties. The rise of Islamists is a fact on the ground the United States cannot change, and it is important to keep channels of communications to those governments open, particularly because the ruling Ennahda party in Tunisia and the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt appear to be learning quickly that governing requires pragmatism, not ideology. Obama's pressure on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi after the attack on the embassy had a sobering effect on Egypt, which is now accepting its responsibility to protect diplomatic missions. And the Libyan government has been extremely cooperative since the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens—the problem there is not ill will but lack of control over the country. The real question concerns the use of force, most notably with Syria and Iran. The lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan are sobering. Iraq is free of Saddam Hussein, but closer to Iran then to the United States. The Taliban operates freely in Afghanistan, including among troops the United States is training. Intervention in Iran may eventually be needed to keep it from becoming a nuclear power. Obama is right not to use it in Syria to determine a political outcome.


This is a more general argument, but persuasively applied to Syria. The basic premise: The U.S. has little control over which party ends up elected in democratic processes, nor should we try lest we abdicate our position as champion of democracy abroad. In Syria, the U.S. may intervene and inadvertently succeed in making a case against itself (via civilian casualties). There is arguably no direct geopolitical cost to more violence in Syria and a high potential it would get worse with more intervention.

Fourth, on the charge that current Middle East policy is doomed by its failure to articulate an organizing principle:

Micah Zenko, “Pundits Whiff on the Middle East,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 18, 2012.
Michael Gerson writes: “The largest failure of Obama’s approach to the Middle East is its apparent geopolitical randomness…In the absence of an organizing principle, flexibility becomes ambiguity.” What would be helpful for readers is if Gerson identified and described that organizing principle, which of course he does not. If that is too challenging, he could simply highlight examples of where a president pursued a uniform approach to any global region. Gerson served in the George W. Bush administration, and should be able to draw parallels from its approach to the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, or Asia. Like other “regions,” the Middle East comprises many politically, socioeconomically, culturally, and religiously diverse countries, each with distinct interests and strategies. A bumper sticker slogan or one-size-fits-some approach to the Middle East would be the opposite of attentive and thoughtful policymaking.


This argument is interesting and thoughtful: Advocates of a singular approach to the Middle East love to highlight the hypocrisy of intervening in Libya and not Syria, etc. while failing to explain what uniform approach would have been equally optimal in most situations. When debating this argument, it’s useful to press the pro on what the organizing principle of Middle East policy should be. Moreover, the diversity of the Middle East as a region is a strong reason why no single approach can work everywhere. For example, there are some very important differences between Bashar al-Assad and Moammar Qaddafi, and it’s arguably a good thing that the Obama administration decided not to rely on logical shortcuts, such as rules for dealing with entire regions but instead to focus on a case-by-case basis.

Zenko continues, addressing the criticism that Obama is “too passive” in the Middle East:
Micah Zenko, “Pundits Whiff on the Middle East,” Council on Foreign Relations, September 18, 2012.
Richard Cohen claims that the current situation in Libya resulted from the unwillingness of intervening countries to extend its military operations: “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.” Exactly what military mission would Cohen seek for NATO warplanes today? How precisely would have stand-off airpower overcome this inherent tribalism he speaks of? Last week, militiamen closed down the Benghazi airport while firing at U.S. Predator drones circling above. Presumably, they would have been less appreciative of Cohen’s warplanes performing social engineering from 15,000 feet. Cohen also argues, “Assad remains in power because the United States will not impose a no-fly zone—and really no one else can do so.” This faith in airpower is dubious. Just as a no-fly zone was never implemented above Libya, and did not play a role in the fall of Qaddafi, it would not prevent Assad from deploying the artillery, rocket, sniper, and ground forces that have kept him in power. Furthermore, non-U.S. warplanes could impose a no-fly zone over Syria tomorrow, but it would be a more difficult military mission that places their aircraft at greater risk. Those countries are unwilling to accept such a level of risk because it is not commensurate with their interests in the outcome in Syria.


This echoes the argument above, perhaps more explicitly, but it’s worth repeating because it really is the thesis of the “con” argument – More aggressive approaches fail to guarantee success and may promote dangerous quagmires for the U.S.

Finally, one defensive argument worth considering: U.S. has superpower status, which guarantees it won’t ever disadvantageously disengage from the Middle East despite minor policy changes.

Steven Cook explains:

Steven A. Cook, “Meet the New Boss,” Foreign Policy, September 14, 2012.
Egypt's newly elected leaders appear eager to present a new approach to the Arab world, but Cairo remains hobbled by a fragile political order and long decades of stagnation under Hosni Mubarak's rule. Egypt now has competitors for influence in the Arab world, including the Qataris, Saudis, and Turks. It's also important to note that despite the strain in U.S.-Egypt relations over the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, President Mohamed Morsy bowed to U.S. demands that he work to bring the situation under control. The United States has made a military and financial investment in the Middle East that no one else will match. There's good reason for that: Other powers are only too happy to benefit from the security Washington provides without bearing the cost. With all the gauzy talk of the "New Silk Road" and China's global rise, Beijing's diplomatic, political, and military roles in the Middle East have remained relatively modest even as its geostrategic and economic interests have grown. The Russians, meanwhile, have proved themselves to be demonstrably on the wrong side of history as Arabs struggle to build more just societies. Moscow's support for the Assad regime has proved that it is more interested in maintaining a toehold in the region at the Syrian port of Tartus than saving thousands of Syrian lives. And despite Morsy's planned visit to Brazil in late September, Brasilia is not a player in the Middle East. India, which has strong intelligence and military ties with Israel, also has a very low profile in the Arab world. It may be a new Middle East, but some of the old realities still hold true. Osama el-Baz, Mubarak's longtime foreign-policy troubleshooter, once remarked, "There is no alternative to the United States … yet." To date, the shift in the global distribution of power to which Baz was referring has not occurred. The United States may still struggle with the pathologies of decline -- burdensome military commitments, foreign assistance packages, and alliances -- but for better or worse, the Middle East remains well within Washington's sphere of influence. After a decade of two wars, regime change in Libya, the prospect of conflict with Iran, and general upheaval, Americans may be tired of this volatile region. But don't expect the United States to depart anytime soon. That is the price of indispensability -- and exceptionalism too.


That’s all for today! As always, feel free to submit your con cases for a free critique to lauren.sabino@ncpa.org! Questions? Disagreements? Let us know in the forums!
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