Fixing the Obama doctrine in the Middle East

The US must do more in Asia, as that is where most of the future economic growth...

Dr. John C. Hulsman

Published: Updated:

As this column has consistently argued, at the highest Olympian strategic level, there is absolutely nothing wrong the with Obama administration’s general foreign policy strategy for dealing with our new multipolar world.

The US must do more in Asia, as that is where most of the future economic growth—as well as much of the coming geostrategic risk – comes from. It must accept that the Europeans must do more on their own in their own regional backyard, from Ukraine to Libya to the refugee crisis, and take charge of more of their own security.

And finally, in the Middle East, the US must avoid being drawn into another unwinnable ground war, where Washington ends up failing, unwittingly destroying the fabric of fragile states at great cost, leaving them vulnerable to the likes of ISIS.

In general, with the notable and important exception of Asia, the President is also broadly correct in that the US should do less and do it better in a multipolar world, where structurally it remains by far the greatest power, but with others gaining on it in relative terms, if from a long way back.

Still somehow wrong

But if the President is broadly right about exhibiting a new restraint in American foreign policy, as well as highlighting Asia at the relative expense of Europe and the Middle East, foreign policy – like love and dancing – is all about timing and degree.

Yes, beginning to transition America into playing more of an off-shore balancing role in the Middle East – where it functions as a life insurance policy if the region truly blows up again, but leaves the day-to-day regional balance of power there to sort most things out (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel) – is wise.

That does mean bringing the Iranians in from the cold, as the administration duly did with the recently concluded nuclear deal with Tehran. It does mean trying to keep an autocratic and mercurial President Erdogan of Turkey on the reservation, frustrating as that often is. But the further we descend from Mt. Olympus to the tactical policy level, the more Obama’s general foreign policy precepts are placed in peril.

It is alright to bring enemies into the regional system, as well as to keep straying allies within it. But long-standing partners, who are still far more likely to practically help the United States across a range of issues, cannot be ignored. And, to a large extent, in terms of the countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), that is precisely what the White House has done. The President’s upcoming trip to the GCC meeting in Riyadh on April 21st could not come at a better time to fix the Obama doctrine.

Policy grist for the strategy mill

The good news is that this micro-level of policy making confirms the broader strategic adage that, at present, the GCC countries – across a range of issues – remain far more likely to practically work with the Americans than do old enemies such as Iran, recently brought back into the regional fold. The GCC meeting is designed to focus on developing a common strategy for defeating ISIS, as well as enhancing defense and security cooperation in general between the Gulf states and America.

These are fruitful policy issues to be working on, precisely if the overall goal is to shore up alliances that America has neglected. The beauty of ISIS is that everyone hates them. There is not a single recognised state in the Middle East that supports the horrors the caliphate is perpetrating.

The GCC meeting is designed to focus on developing a common strategy for defeating ISIS as well as enhancing defense and security cooperation between the Gulf states and America

Dr. John C. Hulsman

The problem remains that the states in the region—as well as America—may not hate them enough, making removing Raqqa enough of a priority. But this is an issue where the GCC states and the White House broadly see eye to eye, and where enhanced cooperation on both sides makes eminent sense. It is also an excellent real world example of practically why the GCC countries and America still need each other strategically.

Over the vaguely worded defence and security cooperation issue, there is even more grounds to be hopeful. In a region on fire, defence sales are bound to expand, and America by a long way makes the best military equipment in the world.

There is a natural policy synergy between relatively rich states looking to arm themselves in a time a strategic uncertainty and the world’s most advanced weapons supplier. Again, in practical terms the US and the GCC still need each other.

Finally, the President must spell out privately to the GCC countries that the US is morphing into an off-shore balancer, not an isolationist country.

If longstanding allies in the GCC were threatened by any external force, the Obama administration, particularly in the wake of the Iran deal, must make it plain that such a scenario is precisely what would compel America as off-shore balancer to act with alacrity, and come to its allies’ defence.

Again, the US would do so based on its own longstanding national interests. Again, when it comes down to practical policy issues, the two sides still very much need each other.

Fixing things with allies

So away with the theology of the Obama doctrine. Instead the way forward to fix things with America’s allies is to concentrate on the practical policy issues that still draw the GCC countries and America together. The more the President can focus on this micro-strategy in Riyadh, the better for the future of the Gulf Arab alliance with America.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (www.john-hulsman.com), a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

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