Why 'Leading from Behind' in the Middle East Is Not Enough

The Obama administration will need to do more to assuage regional allies' security concerns.

While the 2015 National Security Strategy states that the United States will safeguard its national interests through “strong and sustained American leadership,” an Obama adviser more accurately described the administration’s strategic approach as “leading from behind” that encourages regional partners to assume more of the security burden. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where the United States favors a smaller military footprint that relies more heavily on the use of drones, intelligence, cyber and special-operations forces.

After a decade of war and a weary public, President Obama ended U.S. combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the number of troops has been reduced from 180,000 in 2009 to less than 15,000 today. Declaring that the end of these conflicts provided a “moment of transition,” the administration conducted an extensive defense strategy review that determined the United States was “over-weighted” with military commitments in the Middle East and remained “underweighted” in other regions where it has a number of economic and security interests. As a result, in January 2012, the president announced his intention to strengthen the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Although this may be strategically prudent (especially in light of resource constraints), the so-called “rebalance” has fed the perception that the United States is retreating from the Middle East. Additionally, America’s regional partners have witnessed the administration’s slow and indecisive response during the 2011 Arab Awakening, Syria’s four-year-old civil war and Obama’s refusal to respond in accordance with his self-imposed “red line” when President Bashar al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against his own people, the ongoing P5+1 nuclear negotiations that could leave Iran as a threshold nuclear state and the International Energy Agency’s projection that the United States could become a net energy exporter by 2030.

The Carter Doctrine and Reagan Corollary announced America’s role as the guarantor of Middle East security; however, concerns about a U.S. withdrawal from this volatile region have called this into question and created a leadership void within the region. Consequently, the Middle East is moving from one crisis to the next without a coherent strategy and with no end in sight, leading UAE Ambassador to the United States Yousef Al Otaiba to lament, “The whole region around us is falling apart.” While this is perhaps hyperbolic, Kenneth Pollack and Ray Takeyh make a credible argument that “U.S. disengagement has not produced a more stable or secure Middle East.”

For example, consider the rise and expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described as “beyond just a terrorist group…this is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” ISIS seized territory in both Syria and Iraq and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the establishment of a self-described “caliphate” that effectively erased the border between those two countries. In response, the Obama administration formed an international coalition of over sixty countries with the objective to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” ISIS. Additionally, the United States has increased its security cooperation efforts to build the military capability of its partners in the region. Unfortunately, the results of the coalition’s efforts to date have been mixed, due in large part to the challenges associated with a smaller U.S. military presence.

Iraq’s army is in a state of disrepair, due to corruption and the lack of competent leadership following the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011. Despite years of effort and tens of billions of dollars invested in training and equipping Iraqi security forces, they proved no match for ISIS last summer. Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts in the face of the terror group’s seemingly relentless march across the country that resulted in the loss of key cities including Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah. Although Iraqi forces, supported heavily by Shiite militia forces and U.S. airpower, were able to recapture Tikrit, the government faces significant challenges expanding its military operations to the north and west. Meanwhile, the Obama administration finds itself struggling to maintain influence in Iraq, as Iran has played a more direct role in fighting ISIS.

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