Grading Obama’s Middle East Strategy (Sensibly): Part I
A Sensible Grading of Obama’s Middle East Strategy, As Opposed to Republican Nonsense: Part I: Introduction, Muslim World Reset, Iraq, Israel/Palestine
If you can’t understand that Obama’s overall Middle East strategy is starting to work, you don’t know what you’re talking about
Other articles in this series:
The cocks who crow “failure” every time the sun rises about the Obama Administration’s overall Middle East strategy—and we will be hearing their mindless crowing at its highest decibels since the competition within the Republican Party for the Party’s presidential nomination is now officially underway—have no sense of strategy themselves and dangerously substitute tactical-here-and-nows and pointless posturing for real strategy. That’s not to say some of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policies aren't lacking, but overall the Administration has more progress and sound approaches to point to than failures and mismanagement. Below, all of the Obama Administration’s major Middle East policies are broken down and given a letter grade. Here, then, is a look at all the major efforts of the Obama Administration in the Middle East, and as it covers a lot of territory this has been broken up into three parts, this being Part I and covering the U.S.-Muslim world reset, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine.
A tense triumvirate in September, 2009- Doug Mills/The New York Times
AMMAN — Well, here we are again. Far too many “experts,” from the far left to (especially) those who lean right and even many non-Americans, are ready to claim that Obama is practically starting the apocalypse with his foreign policy. While hysterical, laughable claims about possible nuclear war over Ukraine and many other issues fall into this category, the Middle East situation in particular inspires a remarkable number of myopic and dim-witted exclamations not only from the Republican White House hopefuls, but also many in the commentariat and the Twitteratti. Never mind the track record of this commentary-class who are naysaying Obama’s moves (and to a degree lack thereof, but more on that later), and never mind that the generally ill-informed Twitteratti emerge practically every day with some new hysterics that that there is barely time to call them out on their hysterics of old. These Chicken Littles of all levels proclaim that the sky is falling so often, that one must marvel that there is any sky left for us to enjoy at this point if even a fraction of their panic-mongering can be taken seriously. What is particularly amusing is that many of the people who are blaming Obama for the imminent collapse of the world order and Pax Americana are the same people who blame him for U.S. economic woes, as if things were great in January 2009 and America was not in the midst of the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression. Still even more amusing and amazing are that many of these people are both the people who led America into the Great Recession and into invading Iraq.
Having said this, I will am quite happy to repeat that I find the Obama Administration’s foreign policy to be far from perfect, and have made some of my own disagreements with it quite vocally and publicly on matters from Syria to Israel/Palestine, among others. So I write this neither as an apologist nor as a hater, but as someone who has studied the Middle East for much of the past fifteen years (including some studying abroad in the region and, most recently, actually living in the Middle East). Rather from a position of ideology, I simply try to look at each situation, country, organization, etc. in light of whatever current issue is at hand, and try to see who is trying to make things better, who is disrupting for less-than-altruistic reasons, and how successful these various parties are in their efforts and whether or not such efforts actually help people or hurt people in both the short and long-terms.
A few basic points, though, need to be reiterated before we launch into a discussion here:
Obama took office in January, 2009, and had to deal with a Middle East that had become an overall festering disaster from the actions of the Bush Administration but also from the terrible policies of local rulers, from Hosni Mubarak in Egypt to Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to (the recently departed) King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and also from the actions of a number of other foreign patrons, like Russia. While some of the American disasters had been partly mitigated by some competent self-correction (see Secretary of Defense Gates, General Petraeus, and the 2007 “Surge”), it is still undeniable that Obama inherited a situation in the Middle East that was probably worse than any previous American president ever had to deal with before. And those who say the situation got worse for a while under his watch may be right, but that is a statement of fact that in no way includes presiding over with responsibility, as this would be like blaming Lincoln for the Civil War or FDR for WWII. Rather, events were in motion and grievances raw and waiting to explode long before January 2009, it just took some time until after that for it all to boil over.
The crises of the “Arab Spring” and its offshoot situations in Libya, Yemen, and most of all Syria had little to do with anything Obama did, and those trying to place primary blame for any of these local revolutions and wars are way off the mark. Locals were just as surprised as Americans at the Arab Spring, as well.
As far as Israel/Palestine, Obama inherited a Bibi Netanyahu who had little-to-no desire to take the steps necessary for peace and an emasculated Palestinian Authority led by an emasculated Mahmoud Abbas, with the emasculation largely by Israeli design not just over the past few years but over decades.
Now that we have reminded people that the Middle East was not Vancouver or Switzerland before Obama took office, we have to think about what Obama’s major goals have been for U.S. policy in the region, why he has these goals, and how successful he has been in moving towards or fulfilling these goals. We can then give a letter “grade” on each of these for Obama and his Administration’s efforts so far.
In no particular order, let’s go through these major goals:
Resetting U.S. relations with the Muslim world
I think we all remember Obama’s lofty Cairo address at Al-Azhar University, merely months into his presidency. At that point, Muslims were still in the “he’s not George W. Bush, he’s black, and his father was raised in a Muslim family” mode. However, escalation of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan (a.k.a. Obama’s “surge”), Obama’s (wise) overall policy of not shying away from the use of drones in principle to go after terrorists training, plotting, and operating in ungoverned spaces, the taking out of Osama bin Laden by violating Pakistani sovereignty, still failing to fulfill his promise to close the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay over six years into his presidency, and lack of progress for the Palestinians achieving statehood combined with continued (and increasing) U.S. support of Israel have all led (unfairly, but quite understandably) to a feeling among Muslims that there was little to distinguish between George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The fact is that the lofty rhetoric and high idealism of the (now somewhat infamous) Cairo speech was not matched with much of the action that Muslim publics wanted to see from a U.S. President: an end to drone strikes and military operations, the closing of Guantánamo, and real, substantive pressure on Israel and a lessening of U.S. support for Israel on behalf of Palestinians. While it was not realistic to expect any U.S. president to take away most of or all military options for dealing with terrorists in many of the weak states of the Muslim world, based on his own rhetoric Obama would have to be guilty of raising expectations on both Guantánamo and on Israel and the Palestinians far beyond what he has delivered and far below the amount of effort that should have come after such a speech.
Grade: D+ overall; more recently: C-
We don’t give Mr. Obama an F here because we are talking about the Muslim “world,” which, although mostly the people, also includes leaders and governments. This is because, despite his unpopularity on the street-level, the coalition he has put together to confront ISIS includes several Middle Eastern Muslim nations not just financing operations, as has been standard operating procedure in the past, but actually taking part in hostilities in a significant way. So one can say that recently, Obama has shown to have increased his ability to work with Muslims leader, if not endear himself to their people. In this way, then, Obama resembles George W. Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, who was able to include a wide array of regional Muslim nations in the 1990-91 Gulf War, more George W. was able to include in his 2003 misadventure. So even if Obama remains deeply unpopular among Muslims publics in many parts of the world, he deserves credit from getting more out of Muslim leaders recently than his predecessor.
Ending U.S. combat involvement in Iraq while maintaining the U.S. role of a key ally and supporter of Iraq
Here is a goal that no one should be surprised about: Illinois state senator Obama, U.S. Senator Obama, Democratic presidential primary candidate Obama, and Democratic presidential nominee Obama all made it clear his goal was to end the Iraq War, specifically to end the U.S. combat role there. The fact that he opposed it more vocally than, and before, Hillary Clinton, who had voted for the authorization to use force in Iraq, was arguably the issue which most distinguished Obama from Clinton, and which propelled him to a Democratic primary victory over her. I will state here that I was, in much of the period before he was elected President, concerned about this position of his. While it was clear to me that Iraq had been a disaster and that the decision to invade was wrong, I felt that we owed the Iraqi people a lot for invading them erroneously and destroying their society through a combination of carelessness, incompetence, stupidity, and hubris. Yet before Obama was running for president, we had been able to improve the security situation greatly through some major changes in leadership and the accompanying “Surge,” as I have noted a few times before, but there was still a lot to be done and while I was more and more doubting the ability of the U.S. to achieve its goals in Iraq, I had not yet come to the position where I was comfortable with a withdrawal of U.S. forces from a combat role. In other words, I didn’t even want to go into the store, but having broken the merchandise once we were in the store, I felt we had to fix things and couldn’t just leave (see Colin Powell’s so-called “Pottery Barn” doctrine). In some ways, Obama struck me as a bit naïve and idealistic in his articulated foreign policy, and that was one of many reasons why I was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. I was particularly nervous that he was going to pick a vice presidential candidate who was very light on national-level and foreign policy experience, someone like Virginia Governor Tim Kaine or others who were rumored top picks at the time. John McCain’s long experience as a moderate “maverick” Republican who was willing to stand up to his party and to do so often, allowed me to consider voting for him at this juncture, in the summer of 2008. But when Obama nominated Joe Biden as his vice president, my fears of a radical, naïve foreign policy were assuaged and I felt the pick sent a clear signal that Obama would not do anything too quickly and too drastically in Iraq that would cause a catastrophic, sudden power vacuum. Conversely, McCain’s picking of the almost cartoonishly buffoonish neophyte Sarah Palin to be his vice presidential nominee made it clear to me that the aging maverick was unfit for the presidency.
As events in Iraq continued to show no serious political progress despite our security gains, the Bush Administration and the Iraqi government, in the midst of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign to determine Bush’s successor, completed negotiations and agreed on a withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. And let’s just repeat that tidbit from the last sentence, for all the world and especially American conservatives to see: the administration of George W. Bush committed the U.S. to withdrawing its combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, which is exactly the same time frame in which Obama would eventually do just that. Years later, Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of State in 2008 and a major player in the negotiations, maintained that the Administration’s intention was for that deadline to be renegotiated and/or for a “residual force for our training with the Iraqis,” but the Bush Administration—again, this is key—found itself unable to come to agreement with the exact same issue the Obama Administration found was its primary obstacle to negotiating for this same residual force: immunity of U.S. troops from prosecution by the Iraqi government, standard in any such agreement, known as status of forces agreements (SOFAs). And what is not to be missed here is that the Bush Administration, in agreeing to the 2011 withdrawal timeline mere months before it would be out of office, punted the responsibility to changing that agreement to what it actually intended it to be to the next president’s administration. So basically, regardless of any intent to change or add onto the Bush Administration’s 2008 agreement later—and betting on a future round of negotiations is always a risky bet since you cannot ever guarantee the same leaders or conditions—the Bush Administration still set the stage and the timetable for a withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops by 2008 through its own choice, through its own actions, by failing to obtain any agreement on a residual U.S. force because the Iraqi government would not agree to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution (which is exactly why the Obama Administration was unable to come to agreement on the very same issue!). By putting the onus on a future administration to either undo or change the agreement they had negotiated just before leaving office, those senior Bush Administration officials involved in the 2008 agreement who are criticizing Obama’s not coming to SOFA agreement on a residual force in Iraq are criticizing Obama’s team for what they themselves were unable to do. It is impossible to take any such criticism coming from them seriously, which can only be considered absurd or hypocritical at best.
Around the same time the 2008 Bush Administration agreement to withdraw from Iraq was finalized, I was starting to become comfortable with the idea of a gradual, eventual withdrawal from Iraq, and with Biden’s selection as VP, Obama’s subsequent elaboration on his ideas on Iraq, and the selection of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State once Obama had been elected, I became more confident that Obama’s team would not conduct a withdrawal hastily or irresponsibly. Still, I was torn on the issue of a withdrawal itself, but as Obama’s early years in the White House unfolded and the security situation in Iraq improved without any major political agreements being forged by Iraq’s Shiite political leadership—led by Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri Kemal al-Maliki—with the Sunni or Kurdish minorities, agreements that would be key in creating any lasting stability in Iraq, I became convinced that there was little more that U.S. forces could accomplish in Iraq. Having helped establish a dramatic improvement in security in 2007 with the surge compared to the previous year, and seeing each year U.S. forces remained in Iraq have a significant reduction in violence and Iraqi civilian casualties, the U.S. had succeeded in giving Iraq and its leaders the security space necessary to negotiate politically without concurrent violence dictating terms to those threatened by such violence. Even once U.S. forces had totally withdrawn in December 2011—and the withdrawal had been going on since 2010—the year 2012 saw virtually the same level of dramatically improved security as 2011 and 2010, with all three years being the safest in Iraq since before the 2003 U.S. invasion. Yet Maliki, Prime Minister since before the 2007 “Surge,” and his supporters squandered very real, very workable opportunities from during and after the surge over the course of over five years—which is more time in office than some U.S. presidents—and set the stage for rebellion in 2013 instead of reconciliation, as I have previously written. If Maliki was not going to use the massive gains in security in from 2007-2011, while American troops were still in Iraq, to make the necessary compromises in order to calm down angry Sunnis and Kurds and to put Iraq on the path away from sectarian division and civil war and towards stability and reconciliation, what was the point of having U.S. troops there anymore, shoring up a government that was unwilling to govern in the interests of all Iraqis? If anything, having U.S. forces there to support and protect his government when he was unwilling to compromise gave Maliki more cover to avoid reaching out to Sunnis and Kurds.
So by the time the Obama Administration completed the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 2011, I had come to agree that, having spent blood and treasure to give Iraqi politicians breathing room to make politics work—the explicit stated objective of the “Surge”—while having seen no serious effort at politics on the part of Iraq’s government, having seen that our leverage and influence (being eclipsed by Iran) was clearly no longer high enough in Iraq produce meaningful results, and having seen Iraq clearly align itself with Iran over America, it made sense to get out. The “Surge” and subsequent maintaining and improving of its security gains may not have 100% fulfilled our moral and ethical responsibility for all the damage we caused and contributed to in Iraq from 2003-2006, but in 2011 especially it was clear there was no point in staying at all, especially if Maliki would not give U.S. troops immunity. So the right decision had been made, but the Bush Administration deserved some credit as well for agreeing to the initial timetable to which Obama stuck. And, as will be discussed below, he handled the ISIS in Iraq debacle in a way that very much aided Iraq’s long-term interests.
Obama withdrew from Iraq and was ahead of the curve compared to many in realizing American troops could not bring about the politics necessary to stabilize Iraq, but he did so in a responsible, gradual way that no sane person could say caused a drastic power vacuum or directly caused Iraq’s more recent woes. Just like Bush (and like any U.S. president would have), he chose not to agree to allow a U.S. residual non-combat force to stay and train/support Iraqi forces when Maliki would not grant them immunity. Nothing to complain about here, and I agree that a residual force would have been better but that is 100% on Maliki not granting immunity and having already committed to his Iranian allies that he would see our troops out in 2011. We will come to ISIS (and Obama’s mild military reengagement in Iraq) and Syria as separate issues.
Here, one may be tempted to make more of the efforts of the Obama Administration than they actually represent, but at the same time we should not minimize them.
To be sure, Obama has publicly and in speeches, beginning especially with his big Cairo speech (see above) months into his presidency, highlighted the plight of Palestinians and the need for Israeli settlements to stop expanding into what is supposed to the core of a Palestinian state. Obama tried (perhaps too hard), and failed, to get Israel to agree to a full stop, or freeze, in settlement construction early in his presidency as a way to build up badly needed faith on the Palestinian side that Israelis were serious about negotiations, instead meekly settling for a “partial” Israeli freeze from late 2009 through much of 2010 after applying no substantive pressure to Israel beyond speeches and meetings. Even while the Obama Administration was trying shore up support for the talks, Israel announced the construction of 1,600 settlement housing units to be built on illegally occupied, disputed land in East Jerusalem (which was occupied in 1967 along with the West Bank and Gaza and which Israel has held in defiance of multiple binding resolutions of the United Nations Security Council over the decades since, beginning with the unanimously-agreed-upon Resolution 242 that included a “yes” vote of the U.S.). Moreover, this announcement came as Biden was visiting Israel to lead the charge for making the peace talks happen. This is equivalent of two people negotiating over splitting a pizza, and one side eating slices the other is claiming during negotiations, and eating this pizza right in front of the sponsor of the negotiations. Even after the partial freeze was agreed to, Israel continued building in in East Jerusalem and allowed thousands of announced “exceptions” and some unannounced exceptions that were in violation of even the limited freeze to which it had agreed. In addition, Israel also allowed a much higher than usual number of settlements to be approved before it agreed to the partial freeze so that, even while new construction was not authorized for some time, the pace of building hardly changed at all, and the pace only increased greatly after the nominal freeze.
Despite such disingenuous behavior on Israel’s part, at no time did the Obama Administration publicly even raise the prospect of reducing Israeli’s billions in military aid. In fact, throughout Obama’s entire presidency, U.S. aid has increased every year Obama has been in office, with the exception of a minor reduction in 2013 due to mandatory across-the-bard budget cuts imposed by the sequestration process, the outcome of Congressional inability to agree on a budget. And yet, when the recent hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for Israeli and joint U.S.-Israeli missile defense systems, including the highly effective Iron Dome system used to great effect against Hamas and others’ rockets in the Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014, is considered part of U.S. foreign aid to Israel (it is formally part of the U.S. defense budget and not classified as foreign aid), 2013, like every other year, saw an increase in aid. In addition, the Obama Administration has made many moves to block actions against Israel in the United Nations Security Council before they even came to light, and was the only “no” vote (which also served as a veto, given the U.S. position as a permanent veto-wielding member of the Security Council) against a resolution condemning Israeli settlements at a crucial juncture in February 2011 after talks between Israeli and Palestinians had broken down. Rather than pressure Israel substantively to stop settlement expansion and begin substantive talks, with its veto the U.S. instead encouraged Israel’s course of intransigence, occupation, and settlement expansion, even as it publicly condemned such action but only with mere words. The veto was not only hypocritical, it undermined the stated policy of every U.S. president since 1967 beginning with Lyndon Johnson and needlessly undermined the Obama Administration’s own concurrent efforts. Even with well over three more years of Israeli defiance on the settlements issue, the most substantive action the Obama Administration has taken to date was to merely delay for a short period of time some arms shipments last summer at the height of Israel’s grossly disproportionate assault on Gaza.
In other words, Obama sent Benjamin Netanyahu, then (and still) the Prime Minister of Israel, a clear message: “Go back on your agreements, play words game and with technicalities, completely undermine the spirit of an agreement, provoke the Palestinians by building on land you are supposed to be negotiating over, and we will complain publicly but still happily, freely, and increasingly give you lots of money and assistance, as well as diplomatic cover. I am too timid politically to actually threaten anything substantive against you even if you disrespect my Administration and even my Vice President personally, so, though you are the junior partner in the relationship, feel free to do anything you want, to ignore what me and my team say, and to not worry about your billions in U.S. aid. In fact, get ready for that aid to increase…”
Now, this is not what the Obama Administration intended to convey. It certainly did not say this, and there has been a valiant effort first by Obama then especially by Secretary of State John Kerry to try to help Israel see that its settlement policy not only harms Palestinians but also harms Israel’s interests by keeping millions of West Bank Palestinians under Israeli control and forcing the Israeli Jewish-majority democratic state of Israel to either become an Arab-majority country that outvotes Israel’s Jewish minority or to become a non-democratic, apartheid-like state which denies equal rights to the Arabs under its control in order to preserve Jewish control of the government. Other options that would forcibly remove millions of Palestinians from the West Bank or Israel would cause Israel major problems with the international community and seem not highly possible in implementation or probable.
Thus, to America’s credit, it has tried being a friend to Israeli in emphatically pressuring it with public speeches and in private meetings, including some unpleasant and animated meetings between Kerry and Netanyahu during the last round of failed talks which precipitated the violent confrontation in Gaza last summer. Senior U.S. officials—including Kerry and, apparently privately, Obama—and many others—Including Tzipi Livni, one of Israel’s own chief negotiators—have made it clear, as I have pointed out, that Netanyahu and the Israeli government bear the majority of responsibility for the lack of progress in peace talks with the Palestinians. So, let’s be clear: that is not Obama’s fault, nor that of his Administration.
What Obama can be blamed for is for not using any of his real leverage with Netanyahu and Israeli hardliners: the what is now well over $3 billion in annual aid to Israel and the U.S. veto power of what would be binding United Nations Security Council resolutions against Israeli actions regarding settlements and its occupation and control of Palestinian territory. All carrot and no stick over a long period of time is not a recipe for success. By leaving this leverage untouched and essentially rewarding Israel for its stubbornness and settlement expansion, the Obama Administration, despite any words or speeches, has encouraged Israel’s (self-)destructive policies, empowered Israeli’s right-wingers, and weakened Israel’s left, a left which is more serious about peace. In a very similar way, U.S. actions have also undermined Palestinians moderates like Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyad and empowered extremists like Hamas, as I have previously pointed out.
While, again, Netanyahu and the Israeli government are the most responsible for driving the dynamics, U.S. policy has not helped, and, overall, has only made things worse. And even as senior Israeli officials outlandishly disrespected Kerry when he was in the midst of leading talks in 2014, even as Netanyahu just delivered a major speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress—wholly unprecedented because both a foreign head of state was invited by the American domestic opposition (Republicans) without the involvement or approval of the White House or the State Department in a blatant violation of protocol (a violation publicly criticized by over 180 former Israeli security officials for damaging Israel’s relationship with the U.S.) and because this foreign head of state delivered an insulting-to-Obama, not to mention misleading speech before a formal session of Congress to rally support against the Obama Administration’s own policy on Iran (Netanyahu foolishly wants more sanctions on Iran and illogically opposes Obama’s sound framework for, and attempt at reaching, a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, while Obama wants to hold off while negotiations are taking place and close the deal outline by the framework—one must wonder how much abuse and disrespect the Obama Administration is willing to suffer at the hands of Netanyahu’s Israeli government before there are any real consequences or penalty. Because in addition to undermining the whole Israeli-Palestinian peace process by holding back so timidly and encouraging unending chutzpah on the part of Netanyahu, such non-action on Obama’s part undermines the office of the presidency and American standing in the world, as well as humiliates Obama personally, when all can see how America’s supposedly closest “ally” mistreats it when there are serious disagreements on policy and that there are no substantive consequences for such mistreatment.
Obama deserves some credit for robust public diplomacy consistently condemning Israeli settlement expansion and even condemning the tactics used in Gaza last summer, and as well as the verbal efforts during many private meetings between senior Israeli and American officials including Netanyahu, Obama, and Kerry. That is why an “F” grade is not given here. But, at a crucial time during this conflict when every year without an agreement makes getting to an agreement dramatically harder, not using America’s veto power or billions of dollars in annual aid to Israel as leverage while relying just on words to pressure Israel into saving itself and treating Palestinians humanely has clearly been ineffective throughout the more than six years of Obama’s presidency. To keep doing the same thing over and over again with the same approach is to invite the same result, a result that has not helped defuse a very unstable situation and serves only to increase tension and bloodshed. Basically, Obama has literally failed to put U.S. money where his mouth is, and the interests of America, Israel, and Palestinians have all suffered as a result. In addition, humiliating treatment by Netanyahu & Co. with no serious response from Team Obama has diminished the prestige of and respect for the office of the presidency, not to mention Obama himself.
That’s it for Part I, in the next two parts: first the Obama Administration’s policies on the Syrian Civil War, then (overall) Arab Spring, ISIS, reducing America’s dependency on Mideast oil, and Iran (saving the more positive for last). If you think your site or another would be a good place for this content please do not hesitate to reach out to me! Please feel free to share and repost on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (you can follow me there at @bfry1981)