This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

Current Situation

With the exception of Afghanistan, during his first administration Obama focused on tactical security and politically symbolic issues, such as the elimination of Osama bin Laden and counterterrorism policies employed from the Sahel in Africa to Pakistan. This shift to “small ball,” or as some might describe it, “Little America” policy was a conscious choice to differentiate himself from the interventionist politics of George W. Bush and was to be the precursor to a “pivot” out of the Middle East toward Asia. However, though the United States cannot solve the problems of the Middle East, neither can it escape them. Now, in the autonomous Sunni regions of what used to be Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State (ISIS) has demonstrated the bankruptcy of this Little America approach. Though Bush-style intervention does not work, neither does trying to ignore strategic problems.

Yet in certain instances, Obama’s approach should be applauded, but more for what it avoided than what it accomplished. Egypt, Yemen, and Libya are three cases in point. Obama may not have fully understood the ins and outs of these situations, but he understood that the United States had very little control over what would eventually happen on the ground and hence he limited U.S. action. 

In Egypt, Obama had little to do with Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. Wanting no part of a family dynasty, the Egyptian army allowed Mubarak to fall. The question remained: who would ultimately lead? Given that the military/security apparatus has been the backbone of the Egyptian political system for centuries and that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt has a history of implosions, smart money was on the military. Coupled with Saudi and Emirati support for the military and opposition to the MB, U.S. influence mattered little, and it was simply important that Washington not run afoul of its Gulf allies. In a signature accomplishment, the administration navigated the fall of the Mubarak family, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the subsequent triumph of the military with U.S.-Egyptian relations more or less intact.

In Yemen, the Obama administration moved from initial support for Ali Abdullah Saleh to sponsorship of Saleh’s vice president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, to hopes for “reconciliation” to shore up a unified or federalized Yemen. The stated U.S. policy had far more to do with wishful thinking than the reality on the ground; Yemen has never been nor will it ever be a nation state. But Washington’s only real strategic interest in Yemen is the stability and security of Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf. Realistically, the United States can only hope to keep al-Qa‘ida in check there and to contain other forms of chaos. Obama’s policy of avoiding large-scale intervention paid off. The administration committed limited resources and focused on Yemen as a security problem by working to eliminate Anwar al-Awlaki and elements of al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and it strictly circumscribed the role of the U.S. military on the ground. Now as the world awaits the possible breakup of Yemen into three or four separate entities, Obama’s minimalist policy looks reasonably astute. The administration’s conservative approach to involvement prevented deeper entanglement in a no-win situation, a significant accomplishment.

Libya can be seen as another foreign policy “wise call.”  Libya was a precarious colonial creation that Muammar el-Qaddafi held together through patronage and terror. Continued control by Qaddafi meant crushing the rebellion. In “leading from behind,” the Obama administration provided vital support to removing Qaddafi. The aftermath is chaotic, but Libya minus Qaddafi was always going to be chaotic. Though the present situation has innumerable security problems related to the rise of radical Islamic groups, Qaddafi’s Libya had until recently posed an enormous security problem as a sponsor of state-based terrorism. While there are no solutions to the situation, a bloodbath and humanitarian crisis on a massive scale were avoided. Now Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan can either work out a mutually beneficial federalist arrangement or not. Obama managed to keep U.S. entanglement there to a minimum, but unfortunately for him he will likely be remembered in terms of the Benghazi attack and the country’s ongoing security problems rather than what the coalition prevented and how his policies prevented even deeper U.S. involvement.

Though Obama deserves some respect for his “conservative” policies toward Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, his antipathy toward entanglement—in a sense his anti-Bush non-involvement bias—has exacerbated the situation in the Levant.

In the summer of 2012, the president ignored the secretaries of defense and state, interpreted intelligence assessments to suit preconceived ideas, and used budget-concerned senior Pentagon officials to retreat from the red line that he drew with Assad in which he threatened force if the regime used chemical weapons. For political cover, the administration hid behind opinion polls and a call for Congressional support, which guaranteed a lack of meaningful action.

Obama’s main accomplishment has been to avoid new large-scale U.S. military intervention in the Levant, but he pursued this policy while overlooking both short-term and long-term implications. These implications include allowing Assad to survive; supporting Iranian interests in Iraq and generally enhancing the power of the Islamic Republic; undermining the more moderate rebel groups in Syria, which empowered ISIS and violent Sunni extremist groups; and snubbing U.S. allies in the Arabian Gulf. This final implication is particularly important to U.S. strategic interests, as these states are critical to the well-being of the global economy, and their cooperation and support on energy policy has allowed the United States to weather the second largest economic crisis in the past century with its global influence more or less intact.

Though the current bombing campaign against ISIS is hardly a real strategy, it may contain the seeds of one. Increased military support for the moderate opponents of the Syrian regime and the removal of Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq may constitute a policy reboot. Perhaps the administration finally recognized that it ignores the plight of the Sunnis in the Levant at the peril of its broader interests in the region. The destruction of Sunni Iraq, the abandonment of the Sunni tribes of the Iraqi Sahwa, and the broken promises of support to rebels fighting the Assad regime have combined to push multiple disparate groups within the Sunni community into the arms of radical extremist elements.

It is not clear at this time that the administration’s campaign against ISIS includes recognizing the legitimate interests of Sunni groups currently allied with ISIS. Peeling them away likely requires not only the removal of Assad but also autonomy for a Sunni region that includes western Iraq. The United States cannot eradicate the radical elements in ISIS; only indigenous Sunni elements can do that, and that will not happen if the administration continues to view the region in terms of an artificial 100-year-old colonial construct. This realization is critical because U.S. strategic interests are not related to the survival of the Iranian-supported regimes in Damascus and Baghdad but rather to those that oppose them in the Arabian Gulf.

Dynamics and Drivers

The Gulf states viewed the policies of the Bush administration as little short of disastrous. Obama has done little to improve their view of U.S. policy. From an Arab Gulf perspective, U.S. policy is undermining roughly 30 years of cooperation that benefited the West and the pro-Western states of the region. Beginning with Iraq in 2003, U.S. blunders have magnified the power and influence of Iran.

The current bombing campaign and support for the “acceptable” rebels on the ground in Syria appear to be what was advocated for in 2012 and 2013. It was argued then that such support would undermine Assad and the more radical jihadi groups fighting for control of the Syrian rebel movement. At that time, the president clung to the anti-Bush approach. He has now fallen into the trap of too little, too late. Will he do what is necessary to regain the initiative?

The campaign against ISIS and the protection of the Kurds is the first indication that Obama is beginning to heed the advice of his Gulf allies, but it also contains a fundamental contradiction: the current bombing campaign indirectly supports Iran and its clients in Damascus and Baghdad. Read moreover, the president’s apparent awakening to the need to support the moderate Syrian opposition merely underscores to Gulf Arabs how U.S. policies fluctuate. Most suspect that Obama is merely awaiting the next political opportunity to pull back from his commitments.

The nuclear negotiations with Iran compound this problem. As Obama pushes toward a deal with Iran that would in effect allow it to retain a nuclear weapons breakout capability, albeit with certain time buffers, the Gulf states are concerned that as with his Syrian red line, Obama’s guarantees are suspect. In fact, over the longer term a nuclear deal will likely be unenforceable without the realistic threat of military force—an unlikely Obama option. The Saudis have made it clear that they will demand the right to develop nuclear capabilities equal to that of Iran. Western promises notwithstanding, the Arab Gulf will want its own independent capability as insurance. Thus even an agreement with Iran along the lines currently being negotiated appears to insure that multiple states in the region will move toward a breakout capability—hardly an improvement in the regional security situation.

To believe that Iran and the Gulf Arabs would build on an American brokered nuclear agreement and arrive at a constructive working relationship might be an admirable hope, but it greatly underestimates the visceral hostility with which the Gulf Arab states and Iran view each other.

Read moreover, Gulf Arab participation in the campaign against ISIS is not unconditional. The Gulf states’ strategic aim is to see the most radical elements eliminated and then empowerment for the indigenous Sunni groups in both Syria and Iraq, either as major power holders in a new deal in Damascus (after Assad’s departure) and Baghdad, or at least in control of a major autonomous part of Syria and western Iraq.

In addition, too much is being made of the recent so-called policy rapprochement between Obama and the Arabian Gulf. Given that policies under Bush and Obama have consistently undermined what the Gulf Arabs view as their strategic interests, they do not take the administration’s new “commitment” at face value. The Gulf Arabs are aware that there are fundamental differences between their goals for the Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq and the situation that the United States would be willing to accept. Knowing that Obama has his own agenda and has reneged on promises in the past, they will take what the administration offers while pursuing their own strategic interests.

Obama’s Policies, the Next Two Years, and the Legacy

If the current bombing campaign represents a shift from the hands-off policies of the past to a more strategic approach—and that is not yet clear—then time is limited for the administration to see positive results, much less get credit for them. The strategic mistakes of the Bush administration in 2003 have only festered into a broader regional crisis that is further complicated by the collapse of the colonial political construct in the Levant. There are going to be no breakthroughs in the next two years that rescue Obama from the perception of having pursued failed policies.

In the longer term, the next five to ten years, Obama will likely be perceived as the president who allowed Iran to acquire nuclear weapons capability replete with delivery systems and further upset the balance of power in the region. When given an opportunity to undermine Iran or its allies, the administration has backed away. The main example of this is Syria in 2013 and 2014, but the nuclear issue will probably be even more problematic. Powerful interests in Iran view the acquisition of nuclear weapons or, at a minimum, the acquisition of all the components required for nuclear weapons capability as fundamental to Iran’s national interests. They assess that Obama’s red lines will be sufficiently malleable that whatever agreement is reached will not end Iranian progress toward nuclear capability. The Arabs will likely answer in kind.

Among the Gulf states, trust and cooperation will be increasingly conditional during Obama’s final two years. Wholeheartedly embracing U.S. policy constitutes an unacceptable level of risk. This raises an interesting question: At this point, taking the long view, what contribution could Obama make?

There may yet be an opportunity for Obama to make a real contribution for which he will likely get little credit. First and foremost, the administration could forge ahead with a new way of thinking about the region. It could recognize that the states of the Levant, in particular Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, were artificial colonial creations. Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad have returned to their historical roles as local power centers at best. The ethnic, confessional, and political divides that are evident in any administrative map of the Ottoman Levant have reemerged from Beirut to Basra. In turn, the United States must reshape its foreign policy apparatus to deal with autonomous zones and non-state actors—some as partners, some as enemies.

U.S. policies in the Levant and the Gulf must be reassessed such that they go beyond the reductionist thinking of the past—of excessive focus on nation building, democracy, and free market reforms or that the United States can withdraw from the region and yet protect its global interests. U.S. policy also requires a new, open-minded reevaluation of the efficacy, stability, and political legitimacy of traditional regimes—the monarchies and emirates of the region and how they can evolve and what roles they can play.

Obama’s legacy is not likely to recover from the current morass in Middle East policy, but he can become a segue for remolding how the United States thinks about the region in terms of political, economic, social, and cultural ties. The president can focus his long game not on unachievable fantasies but on creating a more practical and realistic approach to the region and policy development. Of course, such a change is a long shot that will require considerable rethinking and policy effort; just being the anti-Bush has certainly proven not to be enough.

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