TODAY’S MESOP COLUMN : Mr. Obama’s Retreat from the Middle East


I remember when the Obama administration first came into office in 2008, the Iraqi Kurds expressed their hope that the administration’s desire to withdraw from Iraq did not indicate a desire to turn their back on the country. Although no one quite realized it at the time, Mr. Obama apparently wished to turn away from not just from Iraq, but the entire region.

Whatever his mistakes and faults, George Bush Jr. at least cared about Iraq and the region – in 2006 when everyone in Washington had just about given up on Iraq and viewed the insurgency there as a “lost cause,” Mr. Bush ordered an unpopular troop surge and a change in strategy. Despite the strong objections of Mr. Maliki’s government in Baghdad, the Americans did what was necessary – which revolved around additional troops and supporting new sahwa awakening councils to coopt Sunni Arabs into the system. Bush administration officials did not ask Mr. Maliki to accept security and power sharing with the Sunnis – they forced him. The result was a tamed insurgency, so that by the time American troops withdrew in late 2011, the country they left behind was relatively stable and the government secure.

Perhaps the rough and tumble business of foreign policy was never Mr. Obama’s forte. Before he took office, he had no foreign policy experience to speak of. Since taking office, he seems to think that when it comes to securing American interests, a few good speeches should do the trick.

In the process, he failed to secure a status of forces agreement for Iraq, meaning that no U.S. combat troops at all could remain there, and he seems likely to repeat the same thing in Afghanistan by the end of this year. The United States likewise failed to capitalize on the 2009 democracy protests in Iran. The Arab Spring left America looking like a conflicted deer caught in the headlights, long after other states adopted a discernable policy on the phenomena. The Obama administration missed the opportunity to make a difference in Syria and saw its red lines crossed repeatedly, deals on chemical weapons cynically made and broken, and the largest humanitarian crisis on earth still unfolding. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process choked as Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry failed to convince Israel to even pause in its settlement building. While a nuclear deal with Iran still has some hope, just the way the interim deal was done and its advantages for Iran saw long-term American allies in the region become more than a little alarmed. The Saudis are now reportedly exploring closer ties, as well as big business deals, with the French and the Chinese.

To be fair, several of these problems had no good policy answer that Mr. Obama could deploy. Two years ago, rebels in Syria looked like they might succeed without American help – so why risk U.S. planes to shoot down Assad’s Russian hardware, especially when it was hard to tell if the rebels would be much better than Assad? Supporting Iranian protestors in 2009 would have amounted to a kiss of death for their legitimacy within Iran. Nuclear talks with Iran were always fiendishly difficult. The American public is also deathly tired of entanglements in the Middle East, so leaving troops in Iraq – or Afghanistan after next year – or sending them to Syria, Iran or anywhere else, is not a viable political option either.

By abdicating American responsibility and constructive, forceful engagement on all these issues at once, however, the net effect is a clear message to the region and the world: the Americans are withdrawing, at the same time that the Russians (and Iranians) remain engaged and willing to back their friends to the end. Perhaps such disengagement from the Middle East was a necessary price to pay for Mr. Obama’s so-called “pivot towards Asia.” Pivoting towards Asia only seems to have raised tensions with China, unfortunately, with no discernable American gains in that region either.

American diplomats will disagree with this assessment, of course, insisting that they remain very engaged in Iraq and other parts of the region. Diplomacy without a willingness to credibly brandish power in the region makes the United States look like Canada, however – a nice enough country that some people admire, but not very relevant to the Middle East.

Even the American diplomatic engagement that still exists seems to be of questionable value. I’m not sure how else to describe an American policy that supports Baghdad in the current hydrocarbons dispute with Erbil, for instance. If Mr. Obama and his administration truly think it’s a good idea for the current government in Baghdad to monopolize even more power and all the country’s finances, perhaps their disengagement from the Middle East can not come soon enough.

David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).

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