Obama Has a Nuanced Middle East Strategy That He Fails to Explain
President Barack Obama has taken heat throughout his second term for having an incoherent Mideast political strategy; one ill-suited to addressing the cycle of civil strife and sectarianism that has broken out across the region. Critics see no common thread linking decisions to exercise U.S. military power in Libya in 2011 and Iraq in 2014 while avoiding confrontation in Syria over chemical weapons in 2013 and reaching a settlement with Iran over its nuclear program in July 2015.
Upon a closer inspection of many of Obama's most important foreign policy speeches, however, his administration's strategy for U.S. power in the region becomes clearer. It is a strategy that narrows significantly the definition of America's core interests and makes distinctions between the values of specific U.S. alliances in a way quite different to his predecessors in the Oval Office. Obama also takes a generational view of the conflict. As a result, he focuses on the first part of his "degrade and then defeat" formulation when talking about the Islamic State group, at the expense of the latter element.
In speeches to the United Nations in September 2013 and at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in May 2014, Obama delineated a policy of both military and diplomatic restraint. That strategy is born out of the Bush-era wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- interventions during which Obama felt U.S. involvement often inflamed conflicts and made them worse.
At the United Nations, in what is likely the most detailed foreign policy speech of his presidency, Obama used the phrase "core interests" five separate times, but only at West Point did Obama concretely define the concept as "when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; when the security of our allies is in danger." Obama, in other words, discarded the use of unilateral force to bring about democratic change or remove unfriendly leaders. This set him apart from his direct predecessor, George W. Bush, and from other U.S. presidents who used unilateral intervention to achieve political aims.
In situations that do not meet Obama's narrow definition of core interests, there must be a multilateral approach, he said at West Point. When "crises arise that stir our conscience ... but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action," he said.
Explanations of the actual logic behind U.S. foreign policy in these speeches are more coherent and cogent than the straw man arguments Obama more commonly relies on. Obama can stand accused of reverting to campaign-style "trolling" explanations during his final State of the Union Speech on Tuesday, especially when he said that the United States "is threatened less by evil empires and more by failing states" or that "we can't try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis, even if it's done with the best of intentions."
Such rhetoric may be difficult for historians to reconcile coming as he tries to shape the narrative of his political legacy, but even if Obama is not that interested in using his biggest public speeches to explain his foreign policy to the electorate, his detailed pronouncements on the region give a very good roadmap of what is to come during the rest of his tenure in office.
U.S. Core Interests in the Mideast
Saudi Arabia: The ruling Al-Saud family has operated under the assumption that the United States would protect the regime and its oil assets since 1945. The relationship became even stronger in 1981 when the Reagan administration, in response to the Iran-Iraq War, pledged to defend Saudi Arabia from invasion and to ensure internal regional stability. Obama's decision to effectively end the U.S. promise to guarantee the status quo in the Gulf is at the core of the Saudi crown's regional aggressiveness in recent years. What may come of the changes currently being proffered by King Salman and his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, are unknown, but Saudi Arabia's outsized influence on the world's oil markets means the United States will be patrolling the sea lanes for years and years to come.
Iraq: Only after the Islamic State group threatened to overrun Kurdistan, a key U.S. sub-state ally, and started an extermination campaign against the Yazidi ethnic minority in Aug. 2014, did the administration intervene militarily. Hence, Kurdistan and the Iraqi coalition government constitute a core interest for the administration, and as a result, more than 3,000 troops are on the ground in Iraq coordinating the counter-insurgency against ISIS.
Syria: The lack of any alliance with the regime of Bashar Assad, combined with scant direct threat to U.S. citizens or property in Syria, meant that the country didn't meet the threshold of a core interest, even after resulting in 250,000 deaths and a major refugee crisis in Europe. The administration's Iraq-first focus strongly suggests that the Syrian conflict will not be resolved until well after Obama has left office.
Egypt: The core American interests in the country's strategic relationship with Egypt remain strong priority transit rights through the Suez Canal for the U.S. Navy; a close military and intelligence relationship with the Arab world's most populous country; and continued peace with Israel. The United States continue to protect Egypt and its infrastructure from attack, but Washington will not ensure internal stability, as seen by U.S. inaction when both Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi were swept from power by the military.
Israel: Even a deep personal dislike between U.S. and Israeli heads of government did not upend the economic, cultural, and security linkages between the two states that run deeper than anywhere in the region. The survival of the Jewish state is a core interest of the United States, and it remains so even after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a personal reprimand to Obama before a joint session of Congress in March 2015 over the administration's talks with Iran.
Iran: Defending Iran is not an American core interest by a long shot. The two sides have been major adversaries for decades and killed members of each other's armed forces on many separate occasions in the past. That said, the nuclear agreement signed in July and scheduled to be implemented as early this weekend is a watershed action that effectively ends the era of relations between the two sides symbolized by the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. Much will depend on the outcome of the Feb. 26 elections for Iran's parliament, the Majlis, and for the Assembly of Experts, which will choose a successor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei , who at age 76 is one of the world's most successful and longest-tenured purveyors of anti-American rhetoric come as a head of state. If reformists take over either body, Obama is certain to take some credit, arguing that his rapprochement with the government of President Hassan Rouhani has borne fruit.