Barack Obama’s foreign policy has one core principle: Get the United States out of the Middle East wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he “inherited” from George W. Bush and avoid repeating those mistakes. There have been other themes sounded by the White House, most notably the “Pacific pivot,” but backing out of perceived military overcommitments in the Muslim world has been the prime directive.
Unfortunately for the president, the worsening situation in Syria is raising doubts about the wisdom and universal applicability of this principle, even among the most resolutely war-weary. Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist with the uncanny ability to reduce every issue to its high-school essence, recently noted how “Bill” (i.e., ex-President Clinton, now acting as “Secretary of ’Splaining Stuff”) has had to warn “Barry” (our current commander in chief) that he was looking “like a total wuss” on Syria. And while making deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes “be the face of the Syria plan,” the president was off at “an LGBT Pride Month celebration, a Father’s Day luncheon and a reception for the WNBA championship Indiana Fever [women’s] basketball team.”
In sum, even the president’s most ardent supporters are beginning to wonder whether the Obama retreat has gone too far. It’s a good time to ask the quintessential Ronald Reagan question: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Or rather, is the United States in a better position in the Middle East today than it was when Obama replaced Bush? Not to kill the suspense, but we’re much worse off—no better liked, no longer feared, regarded as an increasingly inconstant ally or as an enemy prone to blink. The simple facts make the case.
The Bush Legacy
In 2005, as sectarian violence in Iraq rose to the point of open and multisided war between Sunni militias—most notoriously the Al Qaeda in Iraq faction led by the sadistic Abu Musab al Zarqawi—Shia militias centered on Moktada al-Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi, and U.S. and Iraqi government forces, Congress began demanding quarterly reports from the Bush administration, “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq.” The first reports were anodyne outlines of the ever-shifting plan for “transitioning” security missions to Iraqis. But by late 2006 the reports could no longer avoid the truth that Iraq was on the edge of large-scale conflict. The November 2006 installment was particularly bleak, concluding that the reconstruction and reconciliation “project has shown little progress.”
Sectarian violence has steadily increased despite meetings among religious and tribal leaders. The proposed meeting between political leaders has been repeatedly delayed. Concrete actions by the Government of Iraq to implement national reconciliation have not been successful. Some Iraqis now express a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to equitably solve fundamental issues.
But by the last quarter of 2008, the report could accurately trumpet a “nationwide reduction in civilian deaths by almost 63 percent compared to the same period in 2007.” More generally, the last Bush-era report assessed an improving overall security situation, allowing that “[m]any factors have contributed to an environment of enhanced security and political progress, including increasingly capable Iraqi Security Forces aided by the Sons of Iraq, Coalition forces’ continuing support . . . and the demonstrated will of the Government of Iraq.” The conclusions about Iraqi political reconciliation were more cautious, but the evidence was undeniable: The “surge” of 2007 and early 2008 had achieved its military objective of suppressing the civil war. The successes were fragile but real.
Through all eight years of Bush’s presidency, Iraq was the administration’s major Middle East concern. The long-simmering contest with Saddam Hussein had made Iraq a recurring headache for a generation, and the insurgencies that arose in the wake of Saddam’s overthrow had taken on a vicious sectarian cast. Whether as an overweening, would-be regional power or a collapsed society, Iraq had been Bush’s first priority. But, of course, not the only concern.
During his last four months in office, President Bush also authorized a major review of his Afghanistan strategy. It planned to double the size of the Afghan National Army, restructure the International Security Assistance Force—the NATO-centered coalition there—and devote more intelligence assets to tracking down al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It had asked the senior military commander, U.S. Army general David McKiernan, to prepare a request for a troop “surge” of his own, but chose to leave such a decision to the next president. The administration recognized that its unexpectedly rapid successes of late 2001 and 2002 were an incomplete victory; al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership had been driven from power, but Afghanistan—particularly in the Pashtun stronghold of Kandahar—remained a chaotic place, corruptly and weakly “governed” from Kabul. Indeed, the regime of President Hamid Karzai was beginning to look problematic.
Despite the shock of the 9/11 attacks and the declaration of a “global war on terror,” the Bush administration did not entirely lose its sense of traditional Middle East power politics. This was an administration in which the president’s decision-making circle was small and practical-minded, and devoted to inherited strategic tradition. Almost by habit, they regarded Afghanistan as an economy-of-force mission. Thus, the Iraq mission and “surge” took precedence over Afghanistan; who ruled in Baghdad was inherently more important than who ruled in Kandahar—Islamabad was more important than Kandahar, too.
And from the first, President Bush viewed the terror war within its regional context. Speaking to Congress on September 20, 2001, he argued that the effort “begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” To be sure, the Bush administration made huge efforts to target Osama bin Laden, but it also attacked many other elements of the al Qaeda network, notably in the Philippines and Indonesia. Indeed, both those “antiterrorism” campaigns were broadly crafted to rebuild damaged strategic partnerships and reform militaries prone to excesses. The results are now visible both in the form of deepened democracies and—in two countries also feeling the pressures of Chinese encroachments—the desire for deeper ties to the United States.
Assessing Bush’s Middle East strategy in light of the overall regional balance of power also casts Iran questions in a different light. While there was no moderation of the revolutionary bent of the Islamic Republic or halt to its drive to acquire nuclear weapons, the strong U.S. positions in Iraq and Afghanistan did much to contain Iranian mischief-making and posed a credible threat to Iran’s nuclear facilities; in Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki’s bold “Knight’s Charge” operation in early 2008 defeated a gaggle of Iran-friendly Shia militias in the southern city of Basra, militias including Moktada al-Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi. At the time—meaning in the context of the perceived successes of the U.S. “surge”—it appeared that Maliki might be an independent leader with a bit of a nationalist streak willing to take on Iranian proxies.
Bush also courted traditional regional-power partners in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The administration’s efforts to rebuild the Turkish alliance have been little studied, but from the low point of 2003, when Ankara rejected requests for access to support the Iraq invasion, there was a slow, difficult, but steady improvement in cooperation with the avowedly Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Much of the success is measured in crises avoided—the de facto “liberation” of Iraqi Kurdistan occasioned by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein might easily have poisoned U.S.-Turkey relations, but by the end of the second Bush term the U.S. and Turkish militaries were cooperating in—and the Iraqi Kurds tolerating—an aggressive campaign to suppress the attacks of the Kurdistan Workers’ party, a radical group better known as the PKK. It had long been operating on the Turkey-Iraq border and conducting terrorist raids in Turkey.
The Bush administration also built a deeper partnership with Israel, despite disagreements over provocative issues such as settlements on the West Bank and Israeli concerns over the Iraq war. For the most part, Bush focused on areas of strategic agreement and avoided the briar patch of trying to broker a comprehensive deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush made two trips to Israel in 2008 alone, where he was thanked by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for having “stood like nobody else on our side in sunny mornings and stormy weather.”
It would be wrong, of course, to think of the Bush strategy as simply a continuation of the past—in many particulars it represented a revolution in the American approach to the region. But Bush’s “freedom agenda,” most powerfully enunciated in his second Inaugural Address, proved to be a disappointment to its most ardent champions. In fact, the origins of this policy lay in the underlying assessment of the shifting regional balance of power and an acknowledgment that the past habit of relying on regional autocrats as partners was now part of the problem, not the solution. In November 2003, Bush had observed that “stability”—the mantra of “realist” policymakers—“cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.” Further, he forecast that as long as “the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.”
By 2008, Bush’s strategy had not come close to accomplishing the goal of a free and flourishing greater Middle East, but the gains in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Muslim world were real, if reversible. The price had been higher than it needed to be. Bush and his lieutenants had blundered and badly, but they recovered, and deservedly felt a certain modest optimism about what might come.
The Obama Record
Barack Obama had never shared a sense of optimism about traditional U.S. strategy in the Middle East, and especially not about George W. Bush’s version of it. As an Illinois state senator—an office with few national security obligations—he had told a 2002 Chicago rally that he wasn’t “opposed to war in all circumstances,” just “dumb wars,” and that the looming Iraq war promised to “encourage the worst . . . impulses of the Arab world and strengthen the recruitment arm of al Qaeda.”
Having forecast that the invasion would lead to a long and inevitably fruitless investment in rebuilding a post-Saddam Iraq, in 2006 then-U.S. senator Obama naturally opposed the idea of a troop surge: “It is clear at this point that we cannot, through putting in more troops or maintaining the presence that we have, expect that somehow the situation is going to improve.” Nor did any subsequent evidence change his mind. In July 2007, months before the full complement of surge forces was even in Iraq, he offered, “My assessment is that the surge has not worked.”
His anti-Iraq stance was also the distinguishing feature of his 2008 campaign, first in upsetting Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries and then in defeating John McCain for the presidency. Candidate Obama stressed that Iraq was the “wrong war,” not just a series of tactical and operational mistakes but a profound strategic error. He saw it as a blunder of global consequences. In a March 2008 address meant to showcase his strategic savvy, Obama claimed that the Iraq war “emboldened” Iran, North Korea, the Taliban, and al Qaeda.
In essence, Obama was construing Bush’s “war on terror” in the narrowest possible sense: The war was a reaction to the attacks of 9/11, properly focused on Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership cadre, and not on the al Qaeda network and certainly not on the overall Middle East balance of power. The Bush administration had “taken its eye” off the ball in Afghanistan; an Obama administration would “end” the war in Iraq.
President Obama has fulfilled that promise, at least as he meant it: Large-scale American forces are out, and the administration has forgone whatever opportunities for a continuing close security and military partnership there were. The war for Iraq, however, has not ended. Violence has, in recent months, returned to the levels of 2006; more than 2,000 Iraqis have been killed since April in the escalating sectarian clash again pitting Sunni and Shia militias. Al Qaeda-aligned groups, once spurned by the Sunni community in Iraq, are returning. It’s the U.S. withdrawal, not intervention, that has most “emboldened” Iran and increased Tehran’s influence.
But even before the final pullout from Baghdad, President Obama’s self-defeating Afghanistan “surge” of 2009 had transmitted an unmistakable message of diminishing interest in and commitment to the region. Having asserted that Afghanistan was the right war, the necessary war, and the smart war, the time-clock Obama placed on his surge has proved, in an entirely foreseeable way, fatal to the mission there and crippling to U.S. credibility. In a region where our enemies believe—and our allies fear—that time is on their side, Obama made a bigger strategic blunder than Bush ever did. In such wars, time is ultimately more important than troop strength.
The meaning of Syria
A full account of Obama failures across the Middle East—in Egypt and Libya, in responding to both the Iranian uprising of 2009 and the Tehran nuclear program, in driving relations with Pakistan to world-record lows—would require a far longer exposition. But the crisis in Syria, where another set of protests against a despotic regime has metastasized into a civil war and now a growing regional and increasingly sectarian conflict, where the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah “Shia axis,” backed openly by Russia and, should it come to it, the Chinese at the U.N., enjoys what could soon be a decisive advantage, is at last beginning to bring the consequences of the Obama retreat home to a complacent political class. The Syria war has gotten too big to ignore, even for Maureen Dowd.
It’s also pretty late in the game, certainly for the small-scale, halfway measures—more humanitarian aid and some small-caliber weapons—floated by the White House. As “insider” accounts and blame-shifting leaks appear in the press, it’s also increasingly obvious that President Obama won’t easily be dislodged from his no-Middle-East-war prime directive.
In 1979, a series of catastrophes jolted the Muslim world. The combined effects of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage crisis, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by a violent group of Sunni extremists, and Saddam Hussein’s taking of the reins of power in Baghdad likewise jolted the United States from a posture of “offshore balancing”—that is, intervening as little as possible, from as much distance as possible, and hoping that local potentates and inherent weaknesses would confine the region’s troubles—towards three decades of deeper involvement. George W. Bush followed that trajectory to its apogee in 2008. Barack Obama has reversed course and is accelerating toward what is shaping up to be a crash landing.
Thomas Donnelly is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.