The End of Obama's "More Modest Strategy" for the Middle East

January 30, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategyGreat PowersSecurity Region: Middle East

The End of Obama's "More Modest Strategy" for the Middle East

They said they wouldn't get tied down. They did.


"There’s a whole world out there, and we’ve got interests and opportunities in that whole world,” was the way National Security Advisor Susan Rice explained to a New York Times reporter last October why President Barack Obama would follow a "more modest strategy in the Middle East" during his second term in office and stressed that the White House wanted "to avoid having events in the Middle East swallow his foreign policy agenda, as it had those of presidents before him."

“We can’t just be consumed 24/7 by one region, important as it is," insisted Rice. But then fast forward four months later to Davos, Switzerland, where the Wall Street Journal detected a "fixation on the Middle East" which showed "how far world leaders—and the U.S., in particular—still remain from turning the page on the region's crises" and it seems that not a lot has been left of that "more modest strategy in the a Middle East."


In fact, as Secretary of State John Kerry prepares for another round (we stopped counting) of shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East where he is trying to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, after attending the recent international summit on ending the civil war in Syria that following more talks on resolving the Iran nuclear crisis, the Obama administration's goal now is seeking "to dispel 'the myth of disengagement, particularly the notion that the U.S. is pulling back from the Middle East," as unnamed U.S. quoted by the Journal put it.

The result is that contrary to Rice's pledges, her administration has been "consumed 24/7 by one region," and that that one region was not East Asia where Washington was supposed to "pivoting" its geostrategic policy not so long ago, and where the danger of a military conflict between China and Japan should probably cause President Obama and his National Security Advisor more sleepless nights than the latest dispute over the establishment of new Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

To be fair to Rice she didn't signal in her interview with the Times last October that the Obama administration was planning to pull back from the Middle East or to begin a process of disengagement from the region.

Instead, the "new heading" of the Obama administration's Middle East, she said, would mean less emphasis on promoting democracy in the region while resisting being drawn into new Iraq-like military interventions in the Middle East. But she insisted that curbing Iran's nuclear program and ending the civil war in Syria would remain top U.S. priorities and be achieved through a diplomatic approach and multilateral means.

And what about the stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks? The Times report in October noted that after "vigorous debate" Obama administration officials “decided to make the Middle East peace process a top priority—even after failing to broker an agreement during the administration’s first term—in part because Mr. Kerry had already thrown himself into the role of

a peacemaker.” Hey, Israeli-Palestinian peace was not a top U.S. priority, but since Secretary Kerry liked to do peace processing, so, what the heck, let's do it.

That the Obama administration's continuing engagement in the Israeli Palestinian peace process seems to be driven more by the need to burnish Kerry's ego and and less by a consideration of core national interests became clear when President Obama told a New Yorker interviewer recently that there the chances of of Kerry brokering a peace deal was "less than fifty-fifty" (imagine President Kennedy telling the world that the chances of resolving the Cuban missile crisis was "less than fifty-fifty"). So it looked as though the time and effort that Kerry was putting in all this amounted to nothing more than going through the motions.

Realists have applauded President Obama's abandonment of his predecessor's costly fantasy known as the Freedom Agenda, and for his decisions to engage with Iran and to reject the military option in Syria. But it is not clear that these steps are driven by a grand Realpolitik strategy, as two critics of the Obama administration's Middle East policy suggested recently when they wrote in the New York Times that Obama and Kerry wanted to form "a 'concert' of great powers — Russia, America, the European nations and Iran — working together to stabilize the Middle East as in the 19th century, when the 'Concert of Europe' worked together to stabilize that Continent."

Instead, Obama and Kerry have been been pursuing a series of reactive muddling-through policies in the Middle East with the emphasis on retrenching and cost-cutting operations (withdrawing from Iraq; averting a war with Iran; avoiding military entanglement in Syria; preventing another Palestinian Intifada; staying in good terms with any regime that happens to rule Egypt) and doing so by trying not to antagonize U.S. allies and key domestic constituencies.

The main problem with this approach is that it is unrealistic to compartmentalize U.S. policies in the Middle East, one issue at a time, while playing down the spillover effects of these policies. Hence a deal on Syria could supposedly be achieved without managing the ethnic and sectarian problems in Iraq and in Lebanon and without involving Iran in the process. Or that a nuclear agreement with Iran could be worked out even against Israeli and Saudi opposition and/or without considering Iran's regional strategy.

Or that if the outcome of the U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace process (with chances of success "less than fifty-fifty") would not affect the rest of the U.S. policy agenda in the Middle East, and sometimes in a non-linear way. After all, the Saudis want Washington to press Israel on Palestine while Israel resists that pressure, and while both the Israelis and the Saudis want the United States to use military force against Iran...

These are the kind of policy dilemmas that Washington is facing in the Middle East today in a region where everything is interconnected and that is also undergoing dramatic changes, a region that even the likes of Bismarck or Metternich would probably find difficult to manage. And they didn't have to respond 24/7 to pressures from powerful political lobbies and a nagging media.

That explains why without a major reassessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East, what exactly America's interests there are, and how they might be achieved, the series of cost-cutting operations pursued by the Obama Administration will probably lead nowhere and at worst will blow up in its face.

If the Obama administration decides that with the United States being transformed into an energy superpower, core U.S. interests are not at stake in the Middle East anymore, it should start indeed pursuing a more modest policy in the region, shift security responsibilities to other local and global powers, and begin to orient itself toward the Pacific.

If, on the other hand, Washington remains committed to its hegemonic agenda in the Middle East, the Obama administration should continue investing more diplomatic and military resources in the region and forget its East Asian "pivot." Muddling through and going through the motions won't do.

Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author ofSandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.