Obama’s inheritance in the Middle East

Every four years, American think tanks churn out reports about domestic and international challenges

Hisham Melhem
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It is an old and well-established cyclical Washington ritual. Every four years, scholars, policy wonks and former officials at American think tanks labor to churn out reports and policy papers about the domestic and international challenges awaiting the new president, laden with policy recommendations and alternative options, designed in part to propel them back to power, through Washington’s infamous “revolving door.” On rare occasions, the authors of these reports get the chance to translate their proposals and recommendations into policies, but for the most part these reports are part of the intellectual exercises, debates and ideological competitions among political parties and various interest groups. These reports acquire more weight during open elections or after economic crises or following international conflicts involving the United States, when significant policy shifts, corrective approaches or even radical alternatives maybe requited.

The new president will inherit from President Obama a not so brave world where an assertive Russia is wreaking havoc in the Ukraine and Syria and an emboldened Iran is bent on putting states like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen firmly in its political orbit. At the end of Obama’s tenure, his pivot to Asia is not reassuring to America’s traditional allies (the Philippines wants to end America’s military presence in two years) and is not deterring China from intimidating the allies while controlling and militarizing disputed islands and creating exclusion zones and airspaces. An exhausted European Union is facing, in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker the EU’s highest official, “an existential crisis” brought about in part by the influx of a huge wave of refugees and migrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa and frequently visited by Middle Eastern inspired terrorism and increasingly susceptible to the political machinations of Russian President Vladimir Putin.


Inheriting the wind

Judging by the plethora of published and soon to be published reports, and on conferences designed to provide a road map out of the Middle East wilderness for the new president, there is almost a consensus that Obama’s timid leadership style should be avoided and replaced with a more assertive approach, particularly in the Middle East to deter Russia and Iran. Even those who support the nuclear deal with Iran would hasten to say that the agreement did not moderate the Islamic Republic’s regional policies, but in fact the nuclear deal may have encouraged Tehran to be more aggressive, particularly in Syria and Yemen. And while the two-year-old international air campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is finally achieving significant successes, there are ample concerns that even the liberation of Mosul will likely be a pyrrhic victory, thus deepening Iraq’s corrosive identity politics. While the primary responsibility for the fraying of the mostly majority Arab states falls on the political, intellectual and economic classes in those states, and their abject failure to create viable civil states, undergirded by political empowerment and economic development, it is also true that the US military interventions in Iraq and Libya have contributed to the unraveling of the region. Obama’s dithering and contradictory approaches to the war in Syria, his refusal to stop the atrocities committed against Syrian civilians by the Assad regime and its Iranian and Russian allies, his initial denial of ISIS’ threat and his refusal to deter Iran’s regional rampages and extract a price from Russia for its butchery in Syria and finally his abandonment of the cause of upholding human rights have created immense problems for his successor.

Syria, the new president’s problem from hell

Last week, the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP), which usually supports President Obama’s policies, issued a lengthy report titled “Leveraging US Power in the Middle East; Advocating Strengthening Regional Partnerships and in A Departure From Obama’s Policy” calling for targeted limited military action to stop the military depredations of the Assad regime and Russia against Syrian civilians. “The next administration should be prepared to use US airpower to protect civilians from regime barrel bombs and support moderate opposition elements.” And in another noted departure, the report states boldly that the nuclear agreement of 2015 “does not make Iran a regional partner for the United States” and in fact “Iran continues to pose a threat to US interests and values in the Middle East and around the world.”

The new American president will inherit a crumbling region, half of it in a state of conflagration and the other half struggling to protect itself from flames

Hisham Melhem

Beyond addressing the immediate challenges of Syria and Iran, the CAP report calls for organizing a regional conference by early 2018 “on a shared long-term vision for the Middle East.” It proposes long term initiatives to “renew US engagement on pluralism, values, and universal human rights.” The report’s recommendations related to security, economic development and political empowerment are thoughtful and practical. It stresses the need for the countries of the region to own their problems and to define their security needs but not solely in a negative way as a reaction to Iran or political Islamist groups. More importantly, it calls on the next administration to “resist the temptation towards fatalism regarding the region’s political currents and reach out directly to the people of the region, particularly those who advance universal values.”

These reports are written mostly by scholars and former officials who served in former President Bill Clinton’s administration and some of their recommendations on Syria and Iran, particularly those in the CAP’s report echoes those of former Secretary of State and the Democratic nominee for the presidency Hillary Clinton. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is co-chairing the Atlantic Council’s team working on the report with Stephen Hadley, former National Security advisor to President George W. Bush, told the Washington Post that the immediate task in Syria is to “alleviate the horrors that are being visited on the population.” Hadley went further, saying the US should strongly consider “using standoff weapons, like cruise missiles, to neutralize [Assad’s] air force so that he cannot fly.”

Not surprisingly, Iran’s apologists and the juvenile left pounced on all the authors of these reports accusing them of war mongering, just for proposing safe zones and the limited use of military force to protect Syrian civilians. Some even accused President Obama of pursuing regime change in Syria, a stupid charge that has no basis in reality. The hypocrisy of this pseudo left reaches new levels of depravity when they totally avoid any mention of Russia and the Syrian regime’s barbarism against the civilians of Syria. The total rejection of the use of American military force to protect civilians is utterly naïve and dangerous. The US invasion of Iraq was a historic blunder, but it should not be used as an excuse to prevent the use of military force to protect civilians. The use of American military force in recent decades saved Kuwait from the clutches of Saddam Hussein, and protected the Iraqi Kurds from his chemical weapons. America’s air power saved countless civilian lives in Bosnia and Kosovo, in a region where the US has no security or economic interests. Even President Obama who is reluctant to use military force, beyond air power had to send Special Forces to save thousands of civilian Yazidis from the marauders of ISIS in Iraq in 2014.

The elusive deliverance

These reports and recommendations were written in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton administration. Less than ten days before the elections, Clinton is once again the target of a renewed FBI investigation into her infamous emails. Going into the last stretch of the race Clinton is still ahead of Donald Trump, but the distance between them is shrinking, although most opinion polls still point to a Clinton victory. But, if Clinton ekes out a narrow victory, and the Republicans maintained control of even one chamber of Congress, she will be hobbled for a long time by a Republican Party determined to keep her under pressure. Hillary’s first year in office will be consumed by endless squabbles with Congress regarding the approval of her cabinet and the Supreme Court vacancy. Even, without a hostile congress, a Clinton presidency will be forced to deal with Obama’s considerable unfinished domestic business, particularly the deeply flawed Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Internationally, Clinton will be preoccupied with shoring up NATO and America’s alliances in Asia. Russia, Iran and the Assad regime know that, and one would assume that they will double their aggression to finish the resistance in Aleppo. Already, it may be too late to save Aleppo, by the time Clinton is sworn in come January.

Then, there is the old nagging question about Clinton’s credibility to deliver on her promises. Publicly, Clinton has consistently called for a more muscular role against Assad, including the establishment of No Fly zones and creating safe zones on the ground to protect civilians. But in private, Clinton expresses a more cautious approach. In a closed speech in 2013 Clinton admitted that creating a No Fly zone will be difficult and will require attacking Syria’s air defense systems, which means “you are going to kill a lot of Syrians” according to a document released by WikiLeaks. Clinton also knows, that the military equation today is radically different than what it was in 2013, given Russia’s military intervention last year. At best and assuming that the stars are in perfect alignment, there is a narrowing window for Clinton to make a positive difference in the region, if important actors are either willing to cooperate or are compelled by force or the threat of force to be part of the solution.

The new American president will inherit a crumbling region, half of it in a state of conflagration and the other half struggling to protect itself from the flames. One is at a loss to sort out the numerous combatants let alone know clearly what they want ultimately from what seems to be generational struggles where only time and total exhaustion could deliver the region from its collective death wish.


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

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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