The Obama administration was slow to understand the nature of the Iranian threat, despite the fact that the State Department has long labeled Iran the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. The president reached out to the mullahs during his first year “without preconditions.” He shamefully remained silent as the regime crushed the Green Movement in June 2009. The administration barely reacted after an Iranian plot was uncovered to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in a Washington, DC restaurant that would have killed and injured dozens of Americans; media reports have also stated that Iran tried to assassinate U.S. diplomats overseas. The Obama administration’s response? Iran’s actions were treated less like acts of war than as a minor diplomatic misunderstanding.
It is against this diplomatic context that the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was negotiated. Serious questions remain about compliance, verification, and the ability of the United States and the international community to reimpose sanctions should Iran be caught cheating.
Implementing the terms of the JCPOA would be daunting enough if the only challenge was eliciting transparency from a regime that is a master of deception. However, the deal also frees up billions in frozen assets that Iran can readily use for masking its nuclear activities, advancing its ballistic-missile programs, repressing domestic critics and sponsoring foreign terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.
The nuclear deal’s promise is to constrain Iran’s nuclear weapons activities for the next decade in the hope that relaxing sanctions will expose the Iranian people to the outside world and transform the regime into a more liberal, representative government that respects human rights and lives in peace with its neighbors. In short, the goal is an Iran that is willing to peacefully negotiate adjustments to the regional order, not subvert or overturn it by force. At heart, the deal makes a bet that the Iranian regime will have fundamentally changed its nature when the agreement’s limits on nuclear development will be lifted in ten to fifteen years.
Yet there is no strategy for how the United States might “shape the battlefield,” either inside Iran or in the region, to move, coerce or incentivize Iran to liberalize its government and fulfill this hopeful vision. There are no plans for ramping up Radio Farda so that more outside news is beamed into Iran. There is no Internet strategy that capitalizes on social media to appeal to the 60 percent of the Iranian population that is under the age of thirty. There is no support for dissident voices and human rights advocates. Further, while the United States and our European partners have recently stepped up interdictions on the high seas to intercept Iranian arms shipments to Yemen, Tehran continues to foment trouble in the Gulf States, to support Assad and to exercise undue influence inside Iraq. There is more that can be done to sanction individuals and organizations that support Iran’s proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. In short, the next president needs to develop a comprehensive strategy that will reassure our friends and allies around the Gulf and promote regime change inside Iran. Ultimately, the nature of the Iranian regime is the best guarantor of peace and security in the region.
This inability to appreciate the linkages across the broader Middle East and Persian Gulf regions reveals the Obama administration’s proclivity to view each foreign policy issue in isolation—in transactional, not strategic, terms. It explains why it was so eager to exit Iraq and squander the hard-won advantages it inherited in January 2009. A potential partnership with Baghdad was the strategic prize, leading to a stable and broadly representative Iraq that would serve as a bulwark against Iranian influence in the Gulf.
Yet the president’s overriding goal was hastening our departure, not working to ensure greater stability and security as the Iraqi people and their government struggle to transition to a multiethnic, multi-confessional society. The president badly misjudged the results of his own policy, which have resulted in grossly diminished American influence in Baghdad. The administration radically reduced our military and diplomatic footprint inside the country, lessening our “situational awareness” and ability to shape events, only to reverse course in 2015, reinsert American military advisors and special forces, try to regain territory from ISIS, shore up Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and reduce the influence of Tehran.
A pragmatic primacy approach cautions against redeploying U.S. forces in large numbers to Iraq or believing that we can dictate the country’s future. We can offer essential military support and influence a more inclusive political process, but only if we stay engaged. Whatever errors have been committed in the past, there is still a chance for the United States to help Iraqis reach a relatively peaceful and stable outcome over the next decade.
This means that we should support, but not take the lead, in the fight against IS. We do not need to send another fifty thousand troops, but we do need a sizeable element with the right authorities to develop the targeting matrix and to take direct action. Further, our preference should be to provide Iraq with the necessary military assistance and ensure that appropriate levels of weapons are then routed to the Kurds and select Sunni tribes in Anbar province. But we should make it clear to Baghdad that we are willing to do so directly it if is not. Strongly supporting Abadi in the cauldron of Iraqi politics is not without its risks, but he is the best Iraqi leader we have at this time and he broadly supports the same goals we do. Job number one remains eliminating ISIS. It will not be easy, but it will be easier, to reduce Iran’s influence inside Iraq after ISIS is degraded and destroyed.
As in Iraq, the Obama administration appears to have lost the strategic purpose for our fighting in Afghanistan. Our objectives are to ensure that the country can never again be used as a safe haven by Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups with global reach, to prevent violent disorder in Afghanistan from spilling over the border and further destabilizing Pakistan, and to preserve America’s reputation for reliability in the region and beyond.
Instead, the White House failed to address the tension between its two stated policy preferences: ending our military presence in Afghanistan and pursuing counterterrorism. In mid-2014, Obama announced in the Rose Garden that he would draw down U.S. forces in Afghanistan to one thousand troops by the end of 2016 and return to a “normal embassy presence.” The following day, however, he spoke at West Point about the U.S. establishing a series of counterterrorism nodes around the globe to combat transnational threats; Afghanistan was not mentioned as one of these nodes.
Shortly after Gen. John Campbell became the ISAF commander in August 2014, he lobbied the White House to ramp up the number of troops to 9,800 and have them stay in Afghanistan for as long as possible. This presence would have two primary missions: to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces, and to target Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
In October 2015, Obama announced that he would keep the 9,800 soldiers through the end of 2016, but then reduce our presence to 5,500 by January 1, 2017. Once at this lower number, our primary mission would be counterterrorism aimed at Al Qaeda. This was consistent with previous policy statements, since the president had earlier declared the end of “combat operations” in Afghanistan and unilaterally stated we were no longer at war with the Taliban. Significantly, the president withdrew all authorities from our military to target the Taliban.
In June 2016, the White House announced a split-the-difference compromise of 8,400 troops, and allowed greater leeway for U.S. forces to support Afghan troops in targeting the Taliban. Yet the overall signal remains that America is leaving and that the president’s political timetable, not the facts on the ground, is driving policy.
The Taliban has not gone away, having retaken territory despite going through a contentious leadership succession following the announced death of Mullah Omar in mid-2015. The Afghans are in a very serious fight, and taking significant casualties. Complicating matters further has been the rise of is in Afghanistan. On the plus side of the ledger, we now have a partner in the newly elected Ashraf Ghani, who wants to work with us and who allows us to carry out counterterrorism operations in a very difficult part of the world.
What would a policy of pragmatic primacy look like for Afghanistan? The next president should maintain the larger number of US forces at 9,800 through at least 2017 and grant our military leaders the authorities they need to target the Taliban. At that time, he can better assess where Afghanistan stands in terms of security force performance, ISIS presence, regional dynamics, political relations and the reemergence of Al Qaeda, and then determine what policy he wishes to pursue.
Looking longer term, we need to put a stop to the year-by-year mentality with which we’ve been fighting this war and look at a multiyear strategy. This would allow for better planning and resourcing, particularly with other NATO nations. It would also help the Afghans gain a greater sense of confidence. Since 2009, the constant drumbeat has been that we are leaving, and this messaging has negatively impacted the way the Afghans go about fighting and managing the war.