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A Contribution to the Debate on President Obama’s Mideast Policies

Did President Obama’s policy to refrain from plunging the US into the swamp of Syria’s civil war proved to be the right choice?

The problem with this question is that it focuses the attention on only one part of the issue. The issue here is the general strategy of the Obama administration in Syria. US military role, promoted or rejected, should only be one potential choice in the proposed components of any strategy. Discussing the prudence of policies related to one single part of an approach, torn out of its whole, is misleading and reveals a deep misconception about the role of military power.

Somehow, the concepts which emerged during the administration of President George W. Bush are still haunting us all and represent an unintentional standard that is illicitly shaping our critic of Obama’s Middle East policies. We asses success or failure based on using or resisting the use of military power, as if a policy is equivalent only to how we deal with this one single part of what should be otherwise a comprehensive approach. The success of a policy, or in other words the policy itself, should be judged on how effective it is as a whole, not by only if it used or avoided the use of the military.

If Obama’s Middle East policies are a failure, as we frankly think they are, it is not due to his reluctance to use military force in that region. In fact, we oppose the easiness by which US foreign policy has become kind of “militarized”. But while we agree with the President that the US should not use its military force in Syria’s civil war, we still think that his overall approach to this difficult crisis was an utter failure.

Both the critics and supporters of Mr. Obama mention his reluctance to use military force in Syria as the central point in explaining their positions either of criticism or support. But again, we cannot say that the President got 10 on the score of refraining from putting America’s military on harm’s way but got zero on his general concept. For there are no two separate scores. There is but one: How to influence the course of a crisis in a way that serves general interests and values all the while refraining from any quick rush to use the military.

The President should not be blamed for the Syrian civil war. He did not cause it. He just stood almost paralyzed when it was sliding from bad to worse. And this was not because he wanted it to slide. This was because he lacked the proper concept to deal with it and remained always a prisoner of his own belief that things should “start” from a rejection of using military force as a cardinal principle, not from approaching the crisis, methodologically speaking, as a whole, hence shaping his policy on it as a whole. Avoiding military involvement replaced approaching the crisis in a way that includes reducing the prospects of using military forces.

We have the luxury of criticizing the president in hindsight. And in hindsight, all are philosophers. Yet, the President was informed at each moment, and not retrospectively, that he had a different choice. However, he chose to go on partial approaches and refused to grasp the crisis as a whole. The reason that made him unable to see all sides of the issue was that he was single-mindedly focused on avoiding the use of the military, he made this, not asserting and preserving US influence, the only job that occupies his screen. In all the moments when the President was told of choices, he immediately thought of one thing: not to use military force, while he was supposed to think differently: how to solve the problem in a way that does not invite, now or later, the use of this force in any reckless manner as was done before him.

It is a perfect historical example of times when tactics grow in mind and swallow their own strategies. In all the moments of his two terms, when the Middle East was bursting in flames, President Obama showed us silently the extent to which George W Bush still defines US foreign policy. The President was acting under the shadows of Bush’s tragic failures, and was possessed with avoiding his predecessor’s choices, even if this would lead to similar failures, but from the opposite path.

Why are these reflections mentioned here? Because we see Syria’s transitional negotiations emerging slowly but on very shaky grounds, and based on abandoning what the President himself committed the US to, like “Assad has to leave”. Brush aside for a moment what we all know of worrying trends among some Syrian opposition groups. Leave aside as well what we all know of the cruel dictatorial nature of Assad. The strategy is to pacify Syria under a pluralist system that guarantees the right to live in dignity to all Syrians, minorities and majority.

This process is starting amidst a regional conflict, international intervention, continuing mutual killings and an overwhelming presence of religious radicalism and sectarian hatred. In a sense, this is not a particular feature to this particular civil war. Any civil war has more or less similar elements. We have gone down this road In Yugoslavia and Africa. Yet, in both cases a limited use of military force was introduced to the admix of methods applied, through UN, NATO or the AUO to reach successful solutions.

ISIL should not be looked at as the crux of the crisis. It is but a byproduct. Yet, the assumption that ISIL will defeat itself is as risky as other assumptions echoing recently in the current debate about the US policy on the Middle East. We will here provide the reader with some examples of views that sound very convincing at the surface but reflect a strategic myopia and a serious flaws in the methodology of looking at the US foreign policy. The following statements were published recently by a much respected US academic specialized in foreign policy and national security issues in the US:

* “As long as they (regional powers) believe that the United States will take care of the Islamic State, the regional powers have every incentive to free ride and minimize their own commitments, costs, and risks, and to pursue their own agendas rather than focusing on ISIS”.

* “Washington needs to convince them that the U.S. is going to do less. When they realize that America is not going to ride to their rescue, the regional powers will have to take the lead in tackling ISIS because their own survival and security will be on the line”.

*“Instead of fearing Russian or Iranian involvement in this conflict, American policymakers should welcome it. Far better for them, rather than the United States, to pay the price in blood and treasure of battling the Islamic State”.

* “Russia and China fear a northward Islamist extremist thrust that will menace their interests in Central Asia. But the American and NATO military presence there means that Moscow and Beijing are able to stand back while the U.S. shields them from the danger”.

All this ultimately amounts to a contemporary phrasing of the old times isolationism. What makes it unrealistic is that it is echoing in a moment when the world grows smaller. Furthermore, it represents US actions as actions done to serve others in the world who better serve themselves, or as filling vacuum which could benignly be filled by others.

The “impressive” part comes when the writer, with all due respect, compares the US with Britain. “Obama placed America’s Middle East conflicts in a wider strategic perspective. Against the background of China’s rapid rise and America’s own fiscal and economic crisis, he rightly asked what sense there is in borrowing money from China to fight in the Middle East at a time when U.S. power is in relative decline. He understood that America’s wars in the Islamic world would have the same effect of weakening U.S. power that the Boer War had for Britain at the beginning of the 20th century—or that intervention in Afghanistan had for the Soviet Union”, he wrote.

In other words, President Obama was right to place his Middle East policy in the context of confronting China’s rise and this is why he should reduce the US role in the region in favor of a Chinese and a Russian role there. It is peculiar to see the way to avoid Britain weakened power example by voluntarily weakening US power.

The fact that regional powers will move when the US tells them it would not is exactly what happened already. We saw it in Yemen, we saw it in Syria and we will continue to see it so long as the US is resigning its leadership role under any context. So why blame the Arabs or the Iranians because they are fighting their differences out? What is forgotten here is that this very fight is the problem. ISIL is but a byproduct. How can we solve the problem of two camps fighting each other? By convincing them that the US will do nothing so that they can take care of their problems by themselves? But that is what they do. That is the problem, not its solution.

As usual, President Obama says many things some of them are right and some are wrong. One of the right things he recently talked about is the importance of US global leadership. The question in the case of the Middle East is: How to play a leadership role without adventurism, excesses or total withdrawal?

The President failed to answer this question. He does not possess a concept that provides the right way forward. Let us see if the next administration will be able to.

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