U.S. President Barack Obama entered office with a commitment to end his country’s over-expansive involvement in the Middle East. In the twilight months of his presidency, however, he faces the stark reality that the United States and its partners’ security cannot be guaranteed with a hands-off approach to regional problems.
Obama’s legacy may not be so much defined by a rapprochement with Iran or a free-trade tilt to Asia, but how he responds to the challenge of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the wake of the Paris attacks, and what risks he is willing to take to secure America’s future and prosperity. Events, which often shape opinion polls and drive Obama’s foreign policy more than strategic design and intent, may force him to take more risks than he initially expected.
While it is too early to say to what degree he will go to respond, it is hard to see how, with deepening Russian and French involvement in the anti-ISIS campaign and a public outcry at home, Obama could sit on the sidelines when the security of the United States and its allies is threatened.
Obama risks leaving a legacy defined more by inaction than pro-active and sustained American leadership to confront common global challengesAndrew Bowen
The most hawkish response so far has been a call to send U.S. ground forces into Syria and Iraq. For Obama, who has defined his legacy on ending two wars in the Middle East, he is unlikely to take such an option - even if it is necessary - based on his stated proclivity against such an option, and the risks he faces in response from his Democratic Party base.
Washington arguably has placed too big a bet on trying to suspend Iran’s nuclear program without investing time and resources to confront larger challenges to international security: ISIS and Iran’s regional behavior.
These two challenges are arguably interrelated. Tehran’s expansive behavior, from Yemen to Syria, helped stoke the sectarianism that has helped fuel ISIS. Iran’s mismanagement of Iraq, and its support of the Syrian regime, have enabled ISIS to form a state in both countries.
A more sustainable path would be to reinvigorate ties with regional and international partners, and enhance current assets employed, including expanding military options. One critical area is the need to rebuild and strengthen the critical alliances that have underwritten security in the region since the end of the Cold War. Obama has devoted too many resources and time to building new relations with Iran, at the expense of maintaining strong partnerships with America’s longstanding regional allies.
In the aftermath of Paris, Obama should reinvigorate cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan against the common threat of global extremism. Washington should enhance its support for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in its efforts to resolve Yemen’s civil war. Yemen’s future stability is essential for ensuring that the state does not become a deepening outpost for ISIS.
Washington should more robustly support Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in his efforts to bring stability and economic prosperity to his country, and also to address the deepening crisis in the Sinai. The United States should also continue to back efforts to resolve Libya’s civil war, and work with Egypt and the UAE to roll back ISIS’s territorial expansion.
Washington should increase diplomatic pressure to make the Vienna talks a sustainable path for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s eventual departure from power. Equally, more pressure needs to be put on Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s government to make meaningful reforms to empower Sunni communities in Iraq. Without inclusive governance in Syria or Iraq, ISIS’s reign of terror will be seen by some as a better alternative to sectarian rule from Damascus and Baghdad.
Washington needs to deepen its support for GCC security through enhanced military cooperation and deepening investment in member states’ counter-insurgency capabilities. Without such action, Obama risks leaving a legacy defined more by inaction than pro-active and sustained American leadership to confront common global challenges.
Andrew Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.
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