President Barack H. Obama inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush the two longest and seemingly unwinnable wars in U.S. history. Candidate Obama projected himself as the anti-war crusader who will extricate America from Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact Obama won the nomination of his own party mainly because of his early opposition to that ‘stupid’ war in Iraq that his opponent in 2008 Hillary Clinton supported. It must be painful in the extreme, for this President who prides himself on his pragmatic realism in the conduct of foreign policy – grounded in his constant awareness of America’s limits of power- to face his own limits of power as a leader who will be forced, after two terms in office to bequeath to his successor the two unfinished wars.
Obama’s legacy in the Middle East will be defined and deeply scarred by the region’s inconclusive wars; the horrific bloodshed and dismantlement of Syria, the rise of the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) the latest and most vicious of apocalyptic movements in modern times , the inheritance of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the continuing struggle against what was left of al-Qaeda’s branches. Listening to the President’s speech last Thursday announcing his intention to keep 5,500 troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, and stressing that, ‘this isn’t the first time those adjustments have been made; this won’t probably be the last.’ I was struck that ‘making adjustments’, and limited incremental alterations forced on him by determined enemies, instead of making bold moves, had been at the core of his approaches to theses wars. When faced with stark choices to settle these wars; disengage or escalate, Obama demurs.
The ghosts of Iraq were hanging over Obama’s decision on Afghanistan. He saw in the brief takeover of the city of Kunduz by the resurgent Taliban a potential repeat of the disastrous fall of Mosul in June 2014 in the hands of ISIS, a pivotal setback that forced Obama to redeploy 3000 Special Forces and advisors to Iraq and later to begin the air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Jarring reality that the next president will face, when he or she makes the decision to withdraw the troops from Iraq and Afghanistan or end the aerial war in Syria is that the end will not be considered victory or even approximation of success. More likely the terms of disengagement will be set mostly by America’s enemies and/or domestic forces seeking an immediate exit. The nature of these conflicts, mostly unconventional counter-insurgencies, where non-state actors resort to asymmetric warfare supported by states fighting each other through proxies, when combined with lack of domestic support make achieving military victory in the traditional sense very elusive. The last time the U.S. achieved such a victory was the war against Iraq in 1991.
Russian irredentism, Chinese hegemony
Divining the legacy of a leader while in power or even immediately after his reign ends, is usually fraught with risks. But after almost seven years in office, and with his signature domestic achievement the Affordable Care Act relatively secure and the nuclear agreement with Iran, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action surviving the Republican congress, two ‘legacy’ defining victories for the President and his supporters, one can make a preliminary attempt at defining the contours of Obama’s legacy knowing that most legacies change with the passage of time. Beyond the Middle East, Obama’s legacy will be marred by his timid response to Putin’s brazen irredentism towards the Ukraine, leading to the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Eastern Ukraine by irregular Russian forces. Even before the Ukraine debacle the whole ‘reset’ policy towards Russia was collapsing. Despite his poor economy and a shrinking GDP, brought about mainly by declining oil prices, Putin threw the Gauntlet in Obama’s face by dispatching his air force and Special Forces beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union, this time to Syria and engaged in combat on behalf of the regime of the Syrian dictator Assad, for the first time since the ‘war of attrition’ between Egypt and Israel (1969-70).
Obama, through his dithering, his lack of resolve and by his willful blindness and inaction, has presided over the termination of America’s long and unique moment in the Middle EastHisham Melhem
While Russia went on a rampage in the Ukraine and Syria with impunity, China was pursuing equally aggressive policies in the South China Sea enlarging and building islands and sandbanks in disputed waters and turning them into military zones equipped with air strips, combat aircraft and radar sites. Claiming sovereignty over these islands and their territorial waters would endanger international trade unless the U.S. and its allies mount an effective challenge to China’s claims. Putin’s bold moves in Syria, have already changed the security and political dynamics in the region. Putin speaks openly and derisively of the ‘weakness of the American position’ in Syria. For President Obama to take comfort in the fact that Russia’s economy is weak, or that Putin is being forced to rush to the aid of a besieged client is not a consolation for the tormented Syrian people and does not negate the fact that Putin has put the American President in an embarrassing position. And yet the Obama administration does not treat these aggressive moves as dangerous, and still believes that diplomatic engagement is the only solution. Even when Putin’s air force was being readied for combat American officials were planning to ask Putin about his true intentions and to explore ways for cooperation with Russia in Syria.
Russia and China are challenging the U.S. in different ways, including enhancing their strategic cooperation. In recent months Chinese and Russian navies conducted war games in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean. A Chinese aircraft carrier has joined the enhanced Russian fleet which patrols the coast of Syria from its base in Tartous.
Yet, there are some bright spots in Obama’s foreign policy legacy. The recent Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement which covers more than 40% of world trade is a net plus for the global economy and will enhance liberal governance in Asia. Obama’s decision to begin the dismantlement of an archaic 55-year sanction regime against Cuba and begin the long process of normalizing relations was commendable and long overdue.
Words, words, words
President Obama wanted to transcend what he and his advisors saw as the political wreckage caused by President Bush in Iraq and his ill-defined ‘war on terrorism’, by having a new beginning with the Muslim world. The man, who lives by words, admires diction and has mastered the phrasing of cadence, delivered eloquent and refined speeches to entranced audiences in Ankara and Cairo. America is not, and will not be in a war with Islam he intoned. ‘I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition’. It is a measure of the failure of these lofty words to change hearts and minds that few years after they were uttered relations with Cairo are tense and cold with Turkey. In fact America’s relations with many Muslim majority states are estranged. Obama is not solely responsible for this sorry state of affairs; oppressive Muslim autocrats, cultural and political resistance to reform, Arab civil strife and rampant sectarianism and proxy wars are major causes of the current impasse.
Obama wanted to revive the peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel and to stop the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. But he was not ready to engage forcefully and creatively with an intransigent Israeli Prime Minister, and a dysfunctional and divided Palestinian leadership. When the season of Arab uprisings began, Obama supported the overall objectives of these mass movements, particularly political empowerment, economic reform and accountable governments, but Obama failed in doing so consistently. To paraphrase George Orwell, It looked as if not all demonstrators were created equal and some demonstrators were more equal than others.
Obama’s drone war against al-Qaeda brought the Reaper to its leadership, including the elimination of Osama Bin Laden. But the administration was surprised by the sudden rise of ISIS and its stunning military victories in 2014. President Obama initially dismissed ISIS’ military threat by condescendingly describing them as junior players (varsity team).
However, Obama’s historic failure to intervene more forcefully in Syria, particularly in the early stages of the non-violent uprising, and his abject betrayal of his own commitments to punish the Assad regime after it was caught using Chemical weapons against his own people, will tar his legacy forever. With the exception of Libya, where the president admitted that he failed to do the necessary political follow up to the military campaign that ousted the Qaddafi regime, Obama never owned his mistakes and blunders in Iraq, where he was so eager to withdraw American forces that he contributed to the collapse of order in that country, or in Syria where he is still living in denial and not acknowledging what his half-backed actions and inactions have wrought.
Obama’s supporters argue that his nuclear deal with Iran will secure his international legacy. At best the agreement, if fully implemented, will delay Iran’s nuclear program for 10 to 15 years. But most of the nuclear infrastructure will remain intact, and Iran will become in the not so distant future a ‘threshold’ nuclear power. In the wake of the agreement, Iran in collaboration with Russia doubled down on helping Assad remain in power and by intensifying and directly participating in Assad’s war on his own people. It is very ironic, that after the agreement with Iran, and the historic opening to Cuba, both countries dispatched Special Forces to Syria, to prop up the Assad regime.
It could very well be that history will show that President Obama through his dithering, his lack of resolve and by his willful blindness and inactions has presided over the termination of America’s long and unique moment in the Middle East.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem