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The U.S. is crippled in the Middle East

Saturday 29 November 2014



The next time a presidential campaign tries to convince you that its candidate has foreign policy experience by virtue of having spent a few years overseas as a child, remember Barack Obama. Among post-World War II administrations, his is one of the worst on foreign affairs, in a frequently abysmal field.

During his six years in office, Obama has often appeared to regard foreign policy as an imposition. His approach has generally been to avoid knotty crises, or to accept short-term solutions that leave problems unresolved, so as to better focus on domestic priorities. That is how ostriches behave, and Obama’s head-in-the-sand strategy is showing its failings.

The departure of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel this week made that perfectly clear. There was much commentary on how Hagel had failed to crack the inner core of presidential advisers at the White House; of how he had failed to define a clear military policy toward ISIS; of how he had stood back and allowed the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, to take the lead on military matters. Given that the military has been leaking heavily lately in ways designed to embarrass the White House over its anti-ISIS strategy, it was not surprising that Hagel was forced from office.

But it is the accusation that the defense secretary failed to formulate an effective policy that was most bizarre. Obama has set down foreign policy conditions, or red lines, that make a coherent policy next to impossible. And the president refuses to separate himself from the one person whose job it is to coordinate and impose a direction when it comes to American foreign affairs: the national security adviser, Susan Rice.

Rice was a spirited ambassador to the United Nations. She took strong positions on the slaughter in Syria, leading many to remember her regret for having failed to urge action to stop the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 when she was in the National Security Council. Rice famously said, “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”

But since she joined the White House two years ago, she has conveniently put that vow aside, much as did her successor at the U.N., Samantha Power, the author of a much-hailed book on American inaction toward genocide. Insincerity in the defense of a career is no vice. Instead, what has gone down in flames are America’s alliances in the Middle East, so that next to Obama, even George W. Bush comes across as a great conciliator.

Recall how the earnest Norwegians of the Nobel Peace Prize committee rewarded Obama back in 2009, imagining that he ticked all the boxes in their checklist of global responsibility. That was before his indifference to the carnage in Syria would destroy his integrity, and long before he sent a letter to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reassuring him that American attacks against ISIS in Syria would not target the Assad regime’s forces, which have continued to murder Syrians with abandon.

The greater problem is that Obama’s policies in the Middle East have primarily been built not around principles or objectives, but around avoidance. After 2011 Obama felt that he could ignore what was taking place and blithely embark on a “pivot to Asia,” only to discover that the region does not obediently adapt itself to the attention spans of American presidents.

Today, that apathy has come back to bite Obama. He has deployed troops to Iraq once again; in Syria his campaign against ISIS has marginalized those rebels willing to work with the United States, undermining U.S. aims; American relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both old allies, are in a shambles, while those with Egypt have not yet recovered from the tensions raised by the Egyptian army’s forced removal of President Mohammad Morsi; Obama’s promise to advance Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations was never seriously implemented; and Obama’s opening to Iran continues to flounder, despite the president’s best efforts to find common ground with Tehran.

Virtually all these issues either took a turn for the worse or failed because Obama never gave them much time or put his personal credibility on the line to push for desirable outcomes. The president thought he had the luxury of allowing things to fester, only to realize the ensuing situations were far more damaging than he had anticipated. This was the case with the emergence of ISIS, which Obama admits he underestimated.

Politics cannot be conducted by remote control, whether in the Middle East or the United States. Obama might look back at a Democratic predecessor for a lesson. Bill Clinton had flaws, but he was a quintessential politician. When he wanted something, he got on an airplane and relentlessly pursued it. He was willing to get involved, and though he was no great foreign policy wonk, he grasped that his political effectiveness was just as dependent on what he did abroad as on what he did at home.

That kind of thinking led to the Dayton Agreement for the former Yugoslavia, the Oslo I Accord between the Palestinians and Israelis, and the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. It is also what made Jimmy Carter successfully negotiate the Camp David accords in 1978. Both Clinton and Carter were Democrats who, like Obama, initially sought to concentrate on domestic affairs, but who then adapted when foreign priorities beckoned.

Obama has two more years to do better. However, with a Republican House and Senate the likelihood that much will improve, or be allowed to improve, is not high. Hagel was a convenient scapegoat, but it will take much more than his exit for America to regain its foreign policy standing.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.


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