Obama Has a Strategy in the Middle East, and It's Working

President Obama in Cairo, 2009 / AP
November 12, 2015

The Obama administration is "operating on a crisis basis" in the Middle East, says Leon Panetta, and doesn’t "have any kind of larger strategy" for the region. The president’s recent actions there, including the deployment of 50 special operations troops to Syria, are too incremental and "will not work," says Fareed Zakaria. Indeed, the situation in that country has "spiraled out of control," according to Vox’s Max Fisher in a post headlined "Unfixable: How Obama Lost Syria."

And that’s what liberal critics are saying! The tone on the right is even more harsh—and why shouldn’t it be? Headlines this week from the region inform us that new footage shows about 200 children being shot to death by members of the Islamic State while lying in a row, faces in the dirt; that a Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt was quite likely downed with the use of military grade explosives; and that Russian airstrikes in Syria in support of the Assad regime have increased in intensity. It is Wednesday.

Zooming out, we see Assad in power, the Islamic State not going anywhere, Yemen still the focus of a regional proxy war, and a nuclear deal with Iran that has only empowered hardliners there.

The natural question thus seems to be: Why doesn’t Obama change course? Other presidents have shifted their approaches when confronted with failure—Carter’s late foreign policy and Bush’s Iraq surge both spring to mind. Why not Obama?

One answer to this question we ought to take seriously is that the president thinks things are, on the whole, going just fine.

Consider that if the primary goal of the president is not a certain outcome on the ground, but rather the reset of the American posture in the region from that of a dominant power to that of one nation among many partners collaborating where possible, and, when conflict can’t be avoided, erring on the side of minimalist interventions—well, from the perspective of the Oval Office, it would be possible to conclude that no change of course is required.

This possibility is why I’m not persuaded of Panetta’s charge that the administration lacks a "larger strategy." It seems entirely possible to explain what might seem to be incompetence as simply the consequence of having as the primary focus of our regional strategy the reduction of the American role.

Evidence for this possibility can be detected through a Kremlinological look at the administration’s own public statements, including the repeated insistence that "local partners" will do the fighting on the ground against the Islamic State, which, in turn, will only "ultimately" be destroyed, as well as the unconventional assertion by Ben Rhodes earlier this year that the avoidance of military casualties is itself a goal of American national strategy. Much of the evidence rounded up by Michael Doran in his excellent essay on the strategy behind the Iran deal points in the general direction I propose. And others have made plausible arguments that the administration has engineered a transition from a Middle Eastern "Pax Americana" system to one where "offshore balancing" prevails—even though such an assessment understates the extent to which responsible outcomes on the ground don’t matter nearly as much to the White House as the nature of the American posture itself.

The most persuasive proof is a form of reductio ad absurdum—denying this assessment seems to require the conclusion that the president and his advisors are profoundly foolish. It seems more likely that they are simply ruthless ideologues.

From their point of view, it is surely lamentable that the region hasn’t responded better to the withdrawal of American power. But there was always going to be a period of transition, and that the shift is somewhat traumatic is not necessarily a surprise. Calls for America to reinsert its military are shortsighted: after all, the presence of the American military in support of corrupt Sunni regimes like Saudi Arabia’s contributed mightily to the targeting of the United States by extremists, and the removal of Saddam led ultimately to the existence of the Islamic State. Our enmity with Iran’s revolutionary government goes back to our backing of the Shah and the ouster of Mossadegh, and anyway, the fact that we are allied with toxic Sunni regimes (not to mention apartheid Israel) but hostile to a religious Shia regime is irrational, at best. Violence may currently be surging, but the death tolls conveyed in lurid headlines must be seen in the context of truly grave global threats, like climate change. Those threats require our best attention, as does the rebuilding of the American economy, and we are better served by working to construct a more equitable and just society at home before taking unilateral, aggressive, and risky actions abroad.

This analysis may be wrong in part or in whole, but it is internally coherent, and if accepted it points to the strategy more or less exactly like the one being pursued. If America is usually part of the regional problem, and if its efforts are better employed elsewhere, then the strategic goal should be to reduce the amount of America in the region. In the administration’s first term, centrist voices in the cabinet would have resisted such an approach—but they are gone now.

The shift in our regional posture has, of course, provoked opposition from hardliners (American hardliners, that is) including conservative politicians and elements of the Pentagon’s leadership, whose actions over the years have empowered Middle Eastern hardliners like the Iranian mullahs. Thus this domestic opposition is also, in a sense, the enemy, and resisting this wing of American politics at home will give moderates in countries like Iran the space to gain influence over time.

This worldview is why Obama isn’t going to change course any time soon, absent a major loss of American life in a terrorist attack and the domestic political pressures that will create. Even then, the response is likely to be conducted with an eye to keeping military engagements highly limited, as with token actions taken in recent weeks in the campaign against the Islamic State. Indeed, seen in this light, incremental deployments of a few dozen troops to Syria need no longer be seen as foolish gestures that are destined to fail, but rather as more or less successful delaying actions meant to placate domestic political opposition.

As with Obamacare, the "achievement" in all this is to be found less in any one specific policy outcome than in a broad leftward shifting of the conversation, and in the creation of a new normal for January 20, 2017, in which the re-establishment of more sensible policy in the Middle East will be extremely difficult.