The Magazine

The Unmaking of the Middle East

Obama’s historic misunderstanding

Jan 20, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 18 • By MARY HABECK and THOMAS DONNELLY
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Syria was never a source of American strength, but the Assad regime was long thought to be a predictable quantity. Not that long ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that Bashar al-Assad might be a “reformer.” Now, after Assad has employed chemical weapons against the rebels fighting to overthrow him, the Obama administration has made the Syrian president its partner in nonproliferation. The outlook is increasingly bleak: A vicious civil war has torn Syria apart, killed over a hundred thousand and made refugees of millions—and this has become the new normal. Damascus is more than ever an Iranian satellite, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon played a huge role in saving the regime from extinction. The civil war in Syria has evolved into a regional contest between an Iranian-led, mostly Shiite alliance and a Sunni opposition fractured between militias sponsored by the Gulf states—the weaker, “moderate” opposition—and al Qaeda affiliates.

Saudi Arabia has been, in many respects, the longest-standing Arab ally of the United States, and this, along with oil riches, has allowed the Saudis to play an outsized role. The Saudis are still extremely wealthy, but the ebbing of the U.S. presence across the region exposes fundamental Saudi weaknesses. Senior Saudi princes, including Bandar bin Sultan, for 22 years the ambassador to the United States, have been hinting at a “major shift” in Saudi strategy to contain Iran and hedge against American retreat. But it’s not clear what that shift might be. Finding another great-power partner won’t be easy—Europe? Russia? China?—and other cures, such as acquiring a nuclear deterrent from Pakistan, could make the disease worse. The comments by the princes do make two things absolutely clear: The Saudis are unhappy with U.S. policy, and they are tempted to find another close partner, one whose interests might be at odds with those of the United States.

The lone source of strength and constant strategic partnership in the region, Israel, is understood by the Obama administration as the greatest liability. By many measures, Israel is more secure and more prosperous than it ever has been, but its growing isolation from the United States—or at least from the White House—serves to undercut these strengths. This irony is particularly well defined in the case of Iran’s nuclear program: What Washington seems to fear the most is that the Israelis will act unilaterally. Conversely, the Israeli fear that the Obama administration is ready to partner with a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran increases their incentive to act alone.

That Iran should stand at the center of a new Middle East balance of power would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The administration spin on the nuclear negotiations is that “biting sanctions” have forced Tehran to consider constraining its ambitions, but a more realistic assessment is that the Islamic Republic hopes to consolidate its gains. The domestic unrest of 2009 has been effectively suppressed for now. Iran has rescued its client in Damascus without sacrificing too much blood and treasure, or too much Hezbollah, and its semi-client in Baghdad is well entrenched. Even the prospect of nuclear talks has allowed the Iranians to put forward a more credible claim of legitimacy. And most of all, the United States, the Great Satan, seems ready to acknowledge Tehran’s primacy in the region, as long as the Iranians don’t make it too obvious or push too far too fast.

In sum, the state system—illegitimate and brittle as it has been—that largely defined the balance of power in the Middle East since World War II is in flux. Even if al Qaeda had disappeared into the Arabian Sea along with the body of Osama bin Laden, these changes would have made for a region-wide conflict. As matters now stand, the metastasizing conflict is creating a world of opportunity for a group once viewed as nearing “strategic defeat.”

America’s Stake in the Middle East War

Columnist and television host Fareed Zakaria has advanced the idea that Barack Obama “is like Ike,” that is, the president’s approach to foreign policy broadly and the Middle East in particular is an updated version of Eisenhower’s “strategic restraint.” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel passes out copies of David A. Nichols’s Eisenhower 1956, largely a study of the Suez crisis of that year, when Ike famously refused U.S. support after France and Britain, in league with Israel, invaded Egypt. The supposed lesson: Don’t get lured into Middle East wars.

But Obama isn’t channeling Ike. Properly understood, the Suez crisis was a declaration that, rather than try to restore European power in the Middle East, from then on the United States would be the guarantor of Western interests there, and that strategy would be set in Washington instead of in London and Paris. Obama is reversing Ike and the consistent course of America’s post-World War II policy. The Middle East of 2008, for better and worse, was very much “the Middle East America made” over seven decades. Barack Obama’s strategic restraint is letting it go to rot.

The Middle East war is becoming a global as well as a regional disaster. The president may have convinced Americans that they’re tired of the Middle East and its problems, but the rest of the world still cares a lot. To begin with, they need the energy resources, particularly in China, Japan, Korea, and India. Second, the world economy needs stability to trade efficiently, and not just in the energy markets. Most profoundly, the rest of the world does not need the political and sectarian enmities of the Muslim world to spread. Indeed, since 1956, the “international system”—that difficult-to-define-but-nevertheless-real entity—has relied on the United States to keep the worst from happening in the Middle East.

The rest of the world is now waking up to the magnitude of the Obama retreat, panicked and wondering what to do. In November, Saudi prince Bandar met in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President François Hollande of France to discuss the effect of the U.S.-Iran nuclear talks. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has enjoyed basking in the diplomatic spotlight in Syria and in dealing with Iran. And China has no experience and little capacity but both a desperate need and a driving ambition to reshape the international system to its liking. In sum, the world abhors the vacuum Obama is creating, and eventually will try to fill it in ways that are likely to exacerbate more than ameliorate the situation.

Finally, the war has become a moral disaster. Or, as Secretary of State John Kerry said of Syria, a “moral obscenity.” Obama’s turning from the Middle East war is not just a strategic mistake for America, but a stain on America. The legitimacy of representative government is not in self-evident principles but in principles made real, in the principled use of actual power. By pivoting away from the Middle East, the United States is saying through its actions that anything goes: There will be no consequences for murdering thousands of civilians, for the use of WMD, for imposing a vicious form of governance that no one but al Qaeda wants.

The next president will have an opportunity, though perhaps a rapidly shrinking one, to rebuild a Middle East that we and the rest of the world can more easily live with. To do so will demand, alas, the use of military force—it won’t be a job for diplomacy or “soft power” alone. That president will have to go to war with the force that he inherits, and it will be a smaller, less trained force.

But that president will only succeed if he begins with a “far-reaching act of judgment” to grasp the nature of the war, rightly understanding the al Qaeda network, solving the shifting puzzle of Middle Eastern states, and setting a course guided by American interests and principles. The entire region—states and nonstate actors, ethnic and sectarian groups, militants of all stripes, and the ordinary people on the street—is engaged in a two-fold contest for power: over who will control the future of the region and who will control the future of Islam. We can pretend that the contest does not affect us, but if the enemy wins, he has promised to bring the war home to us again. We may have lost interest in the Middle East, but the Middle East has not lost interest in us.

Thomas Donnelly is codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
Mary Habeck is the author of
Knowing the Enemy: Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror and the forthcoming Attacking America: Al-Qa’ida’s Grand Strategy (Basic, 2014).

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