The Magazine

The Great Bugout

Obama’s retreat from the Middle East

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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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.

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