by Eric Stimson
U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in North Africa and the Middle East has suffered relentless attack due mostly to a perceived lack of aggression, but past experience suggests active intervention doesn’t always produce the best results.
(Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense)
Ever since Barack Obama became president of the United States in 2009, politicians, journalists, pundits, talking heads, and some analysts have been excoriating him relentlessly for a perceived step back from involvement in affairs in the Middle East. The Economist, which tends to take hawkish positions, is no exception; its June cover story, “Losing the Middle East,” nicely encapsulates many of its ongoing complaints about Obama’s attitude towards the region. I have gotten frustrated with these arguments, many of which make faulty assumptions and gloss over unpleasant realities, and it’s about time they give them a rest.
Even the article’s title is misleading. America can’t “lose” the Middle East; it never had it in the first place! The United States isn’t the Middle East’s colonial master. It has been intensely engaged in the region for at least three decades and is by far the most important power involved there. But it’s an ocean away, and the American people are fundamentally apathetic about it; “the Middle East” is casual shorthand for “perpetually troubled, conflict-prone area.” Accusing Obama of somehow “losing” an entire part of the world smacks of hoary, discredited Cold War rhetoric—“Roosevelt lost Poland,” “Truman lost China,” etc.
Although the article touches on several hawkish critiques of U.S. policy in the Middle East, like the charge that the United States isn’t paying enough attention to Israel, the brunt of criticism against the United States’ handling of West Asian politics concerns the vicious war in Syria and Iraq. In the face of Syria’s relentless brutalization of its own people, most famously demonstrated by the sarin gas attack of August 2013, but also by a procession of massacres, barrel bombing, and ethnic cleansing, a chorus from all sides has understandably called on Obama to intervene. Syria’s moderate rebels need more aid, they insist. No-fly zones must be enforced. Bashar al-Assad, the guilty dictator, must go. Obama’s persistent reluctance to act is a sign of gutlessness and weakness.
But have they given a little thought to what might happen if Obama were to intervene? This is no mere fight between good and evil, as horrible as Assad’s actions might be. It is a sectarian struggle, the most bitter of several in the modern Muslim world, and therefore one where U.S. interests are rather unclear. Should it aid the Sunnis, the majority sect that has suffered the most from government attacks? What if they committed ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity to avenge their cruel treatment? (They have already committed atrocities, so this is not a far-fetched possibility.) Would aid to rebels be enough to tip the balance, or would it just pour fuel onto a raging fire? Who are these “moderate rebels” anyway? The most effective rebel forces on the ground are the most religiously motivated, and therefore far from moderate. And if a moderate rebel group were somehow inflated to drive out the Alawite regime, what would happen next? Syria would be in even more chaos, with feuding rebel groups carving up the country into fiefs and enforcing the law of the gunman.
This scenario shouldn’t be too hard to imagine—just look next door, at Iraq, and recall the last decade. Iraq is a similar country to Syria—a Baathist regime, a Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd mix, overlapping histories and culture. Unseating its dictator by an American intervention in 2003 led to a prolonged, bloody occupation and a sectarian struggle that still rages. Iraq is no model of democracy, but a Shi’ite gangster state dominated by Iran and devoid of allegiance from its people. The United States invaded without a clear plan for what to do after victory and left without much interest in ensuring a stable Iraq in years to come. How would a similar intervention in Syria be any different?
Another good example might be Yemen. Saudi Arabia intervened there in March to stem the tide of Iranian influence via its proxy rebels, the Huthis, and bolster the friendly government there. But it has failed; the Huthis are in control of much of the country and the bombing campaign has only spread ruin and ill will toward the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is bitter at the United States for not doing enough to support the Sunni revolt in Syria; its misadventure in Yemen is a sobering demonstration of why the United States isn’t more involved.
Many politicians and pundits criticizing Obama’s foreign policy aren’t exactly operating on impartial principles. In the ferociously charged partisan atmosphere of Washington, Republicans are eager to seize on any shortcomings they can find and spin any tragedy into an avoidable blunder. Witness the current vitriol against John Kerry’s deal with Iran; it was gushing throughout the negotiations and seems based on opposition to any sort of deal with Iran rather than particular details in the agreement. But The Economist is fairer and sometimes sympathetic to Obama’s efforts; its gripe seems to be based on a sense of lost opportunity and moral failure in the face of evil. Yet sometimes intervening in a messy situation will just make the situation worse.
The article’s accompanying editorial complains that America supposedly isn’t diplomatically involved in the Middle East enough. This seems bizarre, considering the efforts John Kerry has put into bringing Israel and the West Bank to the negotiating table, securing a nuclear agreement with Iran, trying to strike a peace settlement in Syria, and gathering a coalition to fight the Islamic State. The article even undermines this point by quoting a White House insider as saying “[a]bout 80% of our main meetings at the National Security Council have focused on the Middle East.” I suspect that what The Economist really wants to see, given its editorial stance on various Middle Eastern crises, is boots on the ground. Other critics, especially hawkish conservatives, are more blatant with these desires.
I am not advocating for a complete U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East. It remains a vital region for the world, as The Economist points out, but sustained diplomatic engagement appears to be the only viable course of action at this time. The United States’ energies and attention are best directed elsewhere. It is easy to forget that North Africa and the Middle East only comprise about 7 percent of the world’s population; East Asia, meanwhile, makes up around 55 percent. It is the emerging economic engine of the world and home to two rising powers, China and India, one of which seems prepared to challenge America for global supremacy and upset the balance of power in the region. It is a much more vital arena in international politics. While the depredations of the Islamic State and the carnage in Syria and Yemen are bound to be a source of concern, a decade of turmoil and instability should teach the United States that some problems are too thorny for easy solutions, and it must avoid the superpower’s temptation to throw its military muscle around in Arab quicksand.
Eric Stimson is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley with a B.A. in History. He serves as the Editor for YPFP’s Programming Department. For more of his takes on foreign affairs, see his blog at Transnational Topics.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.