A quarter of the way through his final term in office, President Obama’s foreign policy towards the Middle East lies in strategic disarray. While the Arab uprisings shook America’s conception of the region and challenged Washington’s interests, a substantive strategy to proactively respond to these changes has not been formulated. Consumed with domestic fiscal challenges and a desire to build his foreign policy legacy in Asia, Obama has concluded that disengaging the US from the Middle East is a better course than recalibration and substantive engagement to support America’s interests and allies in the region.
However, time and time again, crises in the region have confronted Obama and have necessitated an American response. Without the benefit of strategic foresight, Obama has stumbled into the pitfalls of reacting to crises in the Middle East instead of proactively exercising leadership to bring them to a resolution. Obama’s inaction has given space for other regional and international powers, notably Russia and Iran, to strengthen their respective positions in the region at the expense of US interests.
As a consequence, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Egypt, longstanding US allies, now openly question America’s commitment to their security. States that are in transition—Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Iraq—have been neglected after initial promises of economic and political support, leaving these states vulnerable to extremism and instability. Obama has repeatedly promised to invest his time and political capital in the peace process, but he has avoided defining a strategy for how the United States will move these parties to an agreement. Diplomacy with Iran has been pursued without any substantive effort to address the security concerns of Iran’s neighbors.
Syria, more so than any other case, has illustrated the weakness of American policy and the consequences of Obama’s actions. Instead of providing substantive support to the moderate Syrian opposition in the early days of the uprisings against President Assad, the United States waited over a year to help concertedly build a representative political organization, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and a separate military organization, the Supreme Military Council (SMC). Even with the formation of the SNC and the SMC, the Obama Administration failed to provide adequate funding, supplies and training to these moderate, representative groups. Obama underestimated the resilience and strength of the Assad regime.
By the summer of 2013, the recognized national opposition became largely marginalized by disunity, in-fighting, and became embroiled in competition with other local opposition groups. While the Obama administration has condemned the deepening sectarianism, Washington’s failure to support and strengthen moderate voices in Syria—so that these voices can marginalize extremist voices in the country—has led to the tearing apart of its national identity.
Syria’s neighbors have also experienced the consequences of American inaction. Facing increasing domestic pressures, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon have received limited support from the United States to alleviate these challenges. Syria’s refugee crisis is stressing the stability of a close American ally, Jordan, deepening conflict in Iraq, and igniting sectarian conflict in northern Lebanon. At the same time, Syria and Iraq have become fertile ground for jihadist groups that threaten not only the security of these states, but also that of the region. It’s not inconceivable, then, for President Obama to encounter a scenario where Syria’s civil war engulfs its neighbors.
President Obama’s response to the Assad regime’s crossing of the “red line” on Syria has also underscored the failure of the current policy. Obama faltered by first rhetorically committing to military action and then pulling back after receiving assurances, brokered by Russia, that Assad would decommission his chemical weapons. Surprising US allies in the region even further, Obama noted that any military action he would have considered would not have been aimed at tipping the balance of power against President Assad or lessening the unimaginable suffering of the Syrian people. His handling of this incident illustrated how little substance there is to President Obama’s security assurances to Syria’s neighbors and to other regional powers.
Benefiting the most from this strategic dissonance has been President Assad and his main international patron, Russia. Assad has been able to further consolidate his position in parts of the Syrian state at the expense of the Syrian opposition. Moscow’s diplomacy has ensured that any negotiation regarding the future of Syria must give Assad a place at the table where a new Syria will be formulated. Not interested in expending resources on an alternative path, the Obama Administration has largely accepted Moscow’s demands. Moscow, more so than Washington, has been more effective in these Geneva negotiations in advancing and protecting its interests in the wider Middle East.
Instead of seizing an opportunity to effectively address America’s security interests in this changing environment and to support its regional allies, Obama has hoped that pulling back could both avoid the pitfalls of his predecessor and preserve America’s wider position in the international system. But he has neglected the reality that maintaining US interests requires active engagement and cultivation. Instead of recognizing the need for proactive engagement, President Obama has haphazardly juggled disengagement with reactionary responses to crises in the region at the expense of his allies, America’s interests and the wider stability of the region.