The Obama Doctrine and its unstable ‘equilibrium’
For an administration seeking to withdraw from the decade of costly conflict in the region and look to the East, the President’s solution has been haphazard
For a President who has shunned the ideological constraints of his predecessors, Obama’s embracement of a doctrinal vision of his Middle East policy in a wide-ranging interview with Thomas Friedman for The New York Times came at a late hour of a presidency marked more by pragmatic flexibility and restrained caution than a clear strategic vision of the U.S.’s role in the Middle East.
For an administration seeking to withdraw from the decade of costly conflict in the region and look to the East, the President’s solution has been haphazard, far ranging, and circumstantial including: from embracing the uprisings in the region as signs that the Arab world was democratically transforming; to embracing Recip Erdogan’s more assertive regional role; to “leading from behind” in the operation to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi; to seeking to contain crises in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria.
Iran an anomaly
Iran though has been an anomaly in terms of sustained pro-active engagement by the White House. From the start of Obama’s presidency when he both publicly engaged the Iranian people and penned a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, the President has hoped that engagement instead of isolation could both resolve Iran’s nuclear program and incentivize Iran to be a more responsible actor in the region. Obama’s initially emphasized that such negotiations were only intended to avoid a military escalation and to counter-nuclear proliferation, but as the negotiations deepened and regional circumstances have compelled the administration to indirectly work with Iran in countering-ISIS, the President has become more and more enraptured with the idea of engagement with Iran. Globally, this engagement has been sustained by his “openings” with Cuba and Myanmar.
Obama believes that improved relations with Tehran at the cost of increased tensions with his relations with Riyadh and Israel could bring a new “equilibrium” to the region’s politics and incentivize critically regional states to focus on taking collective ownership of their common security challenges and work together, without relying on the U.S. to take ownership of the problems and thus avoid the need to work together.
In this new “Obama doctrine,” the President has betted his legacy on the idea that engagement can reset America’s relations without impacting too substantially America’s national interests. In a sense, this wager is the antithesis of President Bush’s foreign policy of unilateral confrontation. Obama believes in the long-term, these risks will reap strategic rewards even if his allies remain deeply skeptical.
However, one must ask whether such a doctrine is fundamentally sound?
An economically freer Iran
First, it’s unclear whether the administration has a clear sense of what the U.S.’s core strategic interests in the region are. A more workable region where everyone lives in peace may be a great goal, but isn’t as the President stated, the means to advancing the U.S.’s national interests in the region. Such a regional vision may indeed be in the interest of the U.S., but equally, could lead to a region that is fundamentally antithetical to the U.S.’s interests and its allies. Such risks need to be given more weight and consideration.
For an administration seeking to withdraw from the decade of costly conflict in the region and look to the East, the President’s solution has been haphazardAndrew Bowen
Second, “equilibrium” is better said than acted upon in practice. At present, with Iran meddling in four Arab capitals and with combative rhetoric and actions more focused on confrontation with the GCC and the U.S. than accommodation and cooperation, it’s hard to see how an economically freer Iran with a regime in its current ideological make up will suddenly be incentivized to act in concert with its neighbors and form a better relationship with the U.S. At no point in the U.S. negotiations with Tehran, Iran has been pressed to make substantial concessions on its regional behavior. A deal with Iran is more likely to lead instead to an increasingly unequal balance of power in the region where Iran is at a growing advantage comparatively to the GCC, Egypt, and Israel.
Third, to achieve a true balance of power that would incentivize Iran to act more responsibly in the region, Washington will have to seriously invest in strengthening its allies in the Gulf. So far these assurances have been largely symbolic, most recently with a commitment to hold a GCC summit at Camp David in the spring to enhance U.S.-GCC cooperation and some vague commitments about upgrading the U.S.’s security commitment to Gulf States and to Egypt. Obama has taken a few small steps, including releasing the remainder of U.S. defense aide to Egypt. However, as evidenced by Yemen, Syria, and Iraq where Obama’s inconsistent rhetoric and actions have weakened trust in the U.S. as a reliable strategic partner, such support will need to be more than symbolic talk to both improve the U.S.’s relations with the GCC and to achieve a real “equilibrium.”
Without then a clear concept of the U.S.’s national interests, President Obama’s doctrine lacks a clear strategic guide for what this “equilibrium” will accomplish in practice. But, even if such interests are more clearly identified, this “equilibrium” is frankly both unsound and unstable in its actual practice. Such a doctrine may be a nice rhetorical flourish to sell the Iran deal to domestic critics of the deal, but in practice, Iran more likely will use this opening as an opportunity to advance its interests at the expense of the U.S. and its allies and will leave the region even less stable. At the same time, the GCC will increasingly have to rely on their own collective defense initiatives (as evidenced by Yemen) to try to secure their interests. While it’s unlikely that the administration at this point will shift from its engagement with Iran as it did with other initiatives in the region, Obama still has an opportunity at the very least to leave a legacy of enhanced security cooperation with the GCC even if he leaves office with a region less amenable to U.S. interests as a result of an unsound doctrine.
Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, DC.