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.