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Has Obama's "Light Footprint" Strategy in the Middle East Really Failed?

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David Sanger's piece in the New York Times highlights a lot of what I think is wrong about how foreign policy is discussed in Washington. The piece is anchored around the observation that a lot of things are bad in the Middle East right now (Syria, Iran's nuclear program, a war between Israel and Gaza militants) and that Obama has taken a "light footprint" approach to the region, ergo the light footprint is to blame.

This is dubious on a number of levels.

First, the "light footprint" simply isn't true relative to the baseline of America's presence in the Middle East circa the late 1970s. It is only "light" relative to the occupation of Iraq during the years 2003-2008. The U.S. still retains military bases in Kuwait and Bahrain, conducts regular military exercises in the region and has positioned additional naval power in the Gulf to contain Iran.

So the notion that President Obama has employed a "light footprint" makes almost no sense, unless we're talking about sustaining an occupation force in the region of over 100,000 U.S. troops -- and even then, Sanger's argument is untenable. There were more civilians killed in the Middle East when the U.S. had a "heavy footprint" than under Obama's light one.

Second, it's anchored in an assumption that the Middle East's problems are America's to solve - and that simply putting more effort into it (enlarging our "footprint") will yield the results we desire. This is an assumption that is belied by the history of outside powers- particularly Western powers -- in the Middle East. From the disastrous map-drawing of the victors of World War I to the disastrous intervention in Iraq, foreign powers have always struggled to forge a Mideast more to their liking.

The idea that President Obama's policies are failing presupposes a coherent alternative approach that Sanger doesn't mention (probably because it doesn't exist).

This is not to carry water for President Obama's Middle East policy - it has certainly failed, or disappointed, on a number of fronts. But it is to suggest that the reluctance to get the U.S. deeply involved in the region (any more than it already is) is based on an appreciation that U.S. interests in the region are changing and that the ability to effect positive change is extremely limited.

(AP Photo)