Is America’s moment in the Middle East at an end?
President Obama does not like to fly solo missions in foreign forays
I ended last week’s article by saying that history may judge that President Obama, through his dithering and passivity, and his failure to deliver on his threats and his constant harping on the limits of American power, ‘has presided over the termination of America’s long and unique moment in the Middle East.’
The cover of the new issue of Foreign Affairs journal proclaims ‘The Post-American Middle East’, without a question mark. The editors and contributors were more charitable towards the President than my recent essays, and in fact the lead article spoke of the need for a ‘mature withdrawal’ from the Middle East, while advising the President on how to conduct a ‘constructive pullback’ from the region.
There were more nuanced assessments of how the United States should pursue counterterrorism in a changing Middle East and how to keep the military sword dangling over Iran to ensure its implementation of the nuclear deal. There was also the ‘realist’ approach to ISIS, which bemoaned the use of military force, and proclaiming that containment of ISIS is more likely to succeed, especially if the United States is not in the lead. Political realism, in this context means that ‘it would be far better for U.S. policymakers to treat the group as a minor problem that deserves only modest attention’.
The President’s supporters claim that the push for ‘retrenchment’ from the Middle East reflects the mood of most Americans, who are exhausted by the burden of unending wars, the protracted civil conflicts and atavistic sectarian strife they can never fathom. President Obama, by temperament and political philosophy – the belief that almost all conflicts can be mediated diplomatically, the skepticism of the utility of military force (except the safe use of drones), and the implicit conviction that America’s days of doing great deeds alone are behind her- put him too at that intersection. For almost seven years President Obama has been reinforcing this mood. The parochialism and small-mindedness of the Republicans and their ideological rigidity and refusal to cooperate with Obama on foreign policy challenges - such as their unwillingness to authorize the air campaign against ISIS - have given the president another reason not to be decisive.
President Obama does not like to fly solo missions in foreign forays. He likes ‘partners’ as co-pilots and wingmen to protect his flankHisham Melhem
The disengagement refrain goes like this; we have been fighting in Afghanistan for 14 years and we have yet to get a well-trained national Afghan force. The Taliban briefly occupied the city of Kunduz, al Qaeda is resurgent and ISIS is establishing itself in the country. And to add insult to injury, diplomats in the American embassy in Kabul are forced to use helicopters to and from the airport. And by the way, poppy production has decreased this year, but only because of natural causes and not because of our efforts. Iraq? We cannot leave Iraq, but we cannot stay there either. The political class in Baghdad is beyond redemption, and challenging Iran is impossible, because Iran has geography, history and Shiism on its side, and we have none of that. Libya? We got ourselves involved militarily, but we ignored the politics. Syria? Well, we always discuss Syria and reach the same conclusion, that there are no attractive options short of costly military intervention.
The recent Benghazi hearing spectacle, in which former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was subjected to another tough inquisition by the Republicans in the House of Representatives about her role as Secretary of State in the tragic killing of four Americans in Benghazi three years ago, is a case in point. For eleven hours the aggressive questioning was partisan in the extreme and focused almost exclusively on damaging Clinton’s political viability as a candidate for the presidency, by trying to show that she had been derelict in her duty to provide enough security to the diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
However, Libya was invisible. No one bothered to ask even the pro forma questions about what’s going on in Libya today? Or what can we do to help reconciliation? It is as if the United States had no role whatsoever in the unraveling of the country. No one is interested in the inheritance of Libya. Three years ago Obama infamously led from behind, and as soon as Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown he said goodbye to Libya. To ease the burden of abandoning Libya that must have continued to haunt him, Obama engages periodically in contrition, admitting that ‘our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind’.
The indifference and ambivalence expressed by many Americans towards the wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen say a lot about the failure of President Obama and congressional leaders of both parties to adequately explain to the American people the threats of these conflicts not only on our friends and allies in the region and beyond, but also potentially on the American homeland.
This failure is especially disturbing now, given the rise of a new vein of nativism and xenophobia represented by the leading Republican candidate for the Presidency, Donald Trump and made doubly venomous by social media. Nativism, which is the cousin of chauvinism, is manifesting itself in the rise of flagrant anti-immigrant sentiments expressed not only by Trump, but also by some of the other Republican contenders. Trump’s trumped up claims that 200 thousand young strong Syrian men are on their way to America as refugees is breathtaking. ‘This could be the greatest Trojan horse. This could make the Trojan horse look like peanuts if these people turned out to be a lot of ISIS.’ Ted Cruz, the other unhinged Republican candidate said that accepting roughly 10,000 Syrian refugees is ‘nothing short of crazy’, because Jihadists could come along with them to ‘to murder innocent Americans.’ Such is the political and electoral discourse in America circa 2015.
President Obama does not like to fly solo missions in foreign forays. He likes ‘partners’ as co-pilots and wingmen to protect his flank. He would like to empower regional powers, say in the Middle East and Europe to share the burden and take things into their own hands. The problem with this approach is that the regional powers have their own competing agendas and may lack the leadership pull, and get themselves in conflicts they know how to start but not how to end.
By what he does and does not do, President Obama - who seems to have lost intellectual curiosity about the Middle East and any previous emotional attachment to it - is gradually packing in preparation of (mostly) going home. The Russians are coming back, militarily and diplomatically to Syria, Iraq and Egypt, in part because of the vacuum America is leaving behind. Russian President Putin has managed to make himself more indispensable for a resolution of the conflict in Syria than ever before, and he is consolidating his position in Iraq and Egypt. President Obama is resigning to cooperating with Putin in Syria, and Putin knows it.
Assad in Moscow
There are those in the U.S. administration, as well as in some Arab quarters who would like to see Assad’s (apparently solo) visit to Moscow to meet President Putin, leading eventually to a political outcome without Assad. Some of those briefed about the reports of the Moscow meeting were told that one of Putin’s talking points in the briefings he provided to some of the regional leaders – who briefed in turn the Americans- is that one of the objectives of the higher Russian profile in Syria is to check the unbearable Iranian heavy handedness and influence in the country. It is too early to say with any certainty if Putin meant what he said. Or he is trying to tell people what they would like to hear. But for the U.S. and some of its Arab and regional allies, it is in the long term interest of Russia to have a unitary Syrian state governed from Damascus by a secular Arab leader. This is different from Iran’s vision of a weak Syria dominated by competing groups all beholding to Tehran.
An offer they could refuse
President Obama was never serious about getting rid of Assad, and his calls on him to step down and not to cross the red line were meant as strong scolding not to be followed up with action if the Syrian President as many predicted was not in the mood to cooperate in his demise. According to informed sources, an Arab State offered to send a contingent of Special Forces to Syria to cooperate with U.S. forces and the Syrian opposition groups in hunting the helicopters bearing the barrel bombs that have been terrorizing the Syrian people. . The ruler behind the offer was shocked when told that there are no current plans that could accommodate his offer.
From Bosnia to Syria
There are many reasons for the failure of the U.S. in Afghanistan and Libya. They include Hubris, losing interest, and precipitous withdrawals. The U.S. left Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the thuggish warlords that were her allies during the struggle against Soviet occupation. There were no political follow up or economic investment. Shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban, the U.S. began to lose interest in Afghanistan and began the preparation for the invasion of Iraq, a decision that doomed America’s missions in both countries. Failure in Libya was not inevitable. We barely showed up before we bid them goodbye.
In the 1990’s Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars were killed by Serb militias, sometime en mass because of their ethnic and religious background. It is crucial to remember that these were the first such killings on European soil since the Nazi Holocaust. To their eternal shame powerful European countries refused to intervene to stop the killing. It is as if the war on European Jewry did not occur only few decades earlier. In America many were outraged and demanded action; secularist liberals, Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups lobbied for an American intervention. Finally, former President Bill Clinton reluctantly had to act militarily. Moral outrage is what compelled the President of the United State to intervene militarily in a European war to stop the killing of civilians. What makes that intervention unique is that the U.S. had no discernable economic or strategic interests whatsoever in Bosnia and Kosovo.
It is estimated that In the course of the three year Bosnian War approximately 100,000 people were killed. By contrast, in Syria more than 250,000, the majority of them civilians, have been murdered. In Syria the primary killing machine belongs to a state. And yet we don’t see a similar and compelling moral outrage in America regarding the Syrian victims, similar to the outrage caused by the Bosnian massacres. It is infinitely painful to note that at the time the United States is slowly but surely disengaging from the Middle East, Syrians are still being killed en mass, and we are still asking where is the outrage?
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