The world is waiting to see the signals regarding what direction that President Barack Obama’s foreign policy will take in his administration’s second term in office. This is a fact reflected by dozens of analyses and opeds published over the past few days following the announcement of his presidential election victory, particularly with regards to the Middle East and the intensifying situation in Syria.
It is ironic that in just one day, two political analysts – one in London and another in Washington – wrote completely opposing opeds regarding US involvement in international affairs, particularly regarding the Middle East. This reflects the ongoing state of uncertainty and controversy that is present in America’s foreign policy approach. In a Washington Post article carried by Asharq Al-Awsat on Monday, US writer David Ignatius wore about the foreign policy tests facing the Obama administration, calling for an abandonment of the cautious approach that the president followed during his firm term in office which has been described as “leading from behind” in relations to a number of pressing foreign issues. He said that Obama should instead lead from the front, particularly in the Middle East which Ignatius described as the region where “presidents make their legacies and shed their tears.”
Whilst in The Independent, a British writer with long experience in the Middle East, Patrick Cockburn, wrote a piece inspired by the game of snakes and ladders. Cockburn wrote that snakes exceed ladders for the US in the Middle East, and that in light of the complexities in the Middle East and West Asia, it would be better for the US and other foreign powers to avoid getting involved there.
It is clear that the axis of controversy is revolving around the Obama administration’s approach to international disputes during its first term in office following its involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, with this approach being described as “leading from behind”. Libya was a model of this approach under NATO cover, and this saw intervention from afar and a quick withdrawal immediately following Gaddafi’s fall. Critics of this approach have said that it contributed to creating a vacuum following the collapse of the regime that was filled by undisciplined armed militias, as well as the appearance of jihadists with extremist views. At the time same time, it would have been possible – through direct assistance – to rebuild the new state’s security forces as occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan within the framework of direct intervention that characterized the policy of former President George W. Bush. So there has been a huge human and financial cost behind Obama’s cautious approach since he first entered the White House.
Of course, everybody is now looking at Syria, where the fire that is raging in the country has seemingly reached a dangerous point where it is threatening to expand outside Syria’s borders, which is something that has dangerous regional and international implications. So will the US administration continue to follow the approach of “leading from behind”, leaving other NATO partners to take a leadership role along the lines of what happened in Libya?
If we take into account that each crisis is unique in terms of its implications, it is striking that there is a similarity in the manner in which the Syrian and Libyan regimes responded with systematic violence towards its people’s demands regarding freedoms and living standards. However there are also stark differences in terms of geography, regional entanglements and risks which means that the manner that each crisis is dealt with must be different. This explains the American and Western caution in the previous period, and why it granted the Damascus regime numerous opportunities, all of which al-Assad failed to take advantage of.
Will this change? Evidence indicates that this has been happening for months, and this depends largely on the ability of the opposition and revolutionary forces to present itself as a responsible entity that is capable of overcoming differences and representing all components of Syrian society, as well as securing a strong presence on the ground. This will determine the size and form of the assistance that is likely to continue in an indirect manner. Unless there are dramatic developments on the ground, we do not expect the Obama administration to change its approach of “leading from behind” towards crises, which it followed during its first term, because its priority now is the US economy.