To say that Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distrust each other is to understate the problems in their relationship. The Israeli prime minister, who is likely to remain in office after Israel’s elections in March—or be succeeded by an even more right-wing leader—could well decide that he has waited long enough for an agreement that terminates the Iranian program. Or he may simply decide that whatever agreement Obama signs is worthless. Either way, he may carry out his long-standing threat to attack Tehran’s facilities in the hope that the United States will be dragged in to finish the job, whether or not Washington really wants to do so.
Despite years of friction with the Israeli leader, primarily over Netanyahu’s settlements policy and Washington’s strenuous efforts to breathe life into the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Obama can still restore a modicum of businesslike relations with Netanyahu, should he remain at Israel’s helm. Moreover, if Israel elects a new prime minister of whatever political stripe, it should be even less difficult to “reset” relations with Jerusalem.
For a start, the president surely recognizes that Congress would override his veto of any new sanctions that it surely would impose in the wake of an agreement that is unacceptable to the Israelis. Whatever their differences with the Republicans on other issues, and despite their readiness to delay a vote on new sanctions, there will be enough Democratic votes, led by Senators Charles Schumer and Bob Menendez, to combine with new majority Republicans to support an override. So Obama could commit to the Israelis that he will ensure that the terms of the agreement will restrict the number of centrifuges Iran will be permitted to retain to a bare minimum, and will ban its use of newer, more efficient centrifuges. He could also commit to limiting to minimum levels the amount of low-enriched uranium that Tehran will be permitted to retain.
At present, however, the president has continued to sound ever more conciliatory toward Iran. Already he has succeeded in accomplishing something that none of his predecessors has been able to manage since the founding of Israel in 1948: he has brought the Saudis and Israelis together, united in their distrust of his motives. It is time he gave them better reasons to cooperate.
NO ONE, least of all President Obama when he withdrew all American troops from Iraq, anticipated the sudden emergence of the Islamic State as a major destabilizing presence in the Middle East. Unlike many other irregular groups, the Islamic State has seized and held territory—in Iraq and Syria—and threatens Kurdistan, Lebanon and Jordan. Moreover, because its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has proclaimed himself “caliph,” he poses a threat to the entire region, which he hopes to unite under his leadership.
Having virtually wrecked his credibility by failing to carry out his threat of a military response to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, Obama has already laid down another self-defeating marker by insisting that there will be no American “combat boots on the ground” in the attempt to roll back the Islamic State. Moreover, in opposing the Islamic State, he has tacitly aligned himself with Iran, which views the Sunni extremist organization as a threat to its own regional hegemony. Finally, Obama’s encouragement of the Syrian opposition to unseat Assad has been long forgotten; preoccupied by the Islamic State, Washington has looked the other way as Assad has effectively neutralized the so-called Free Syrian Army and has continued to ravage his own people. The administration’s promise to arm and train the Syrian opposition has never really been carried out.
Despite its demonstrated ability to amass significant financial resources and to make the most of the weapons it has captured from the Iraqi army and various Syrian groups, the Islamic State can indeed be rolled back. For that to happen, however, Obama will have to pursue a very different set of policies. Because U.S. airpower has proved incapable of defeating the Islamic State without active ground operations, he will have to back away from his commitment to have, in the words of his press secretary, “no combat boots” in Iraq, and probably in Syria as well. Because the Kurds, who have seen some success in holding the Islamic State at bay, still rely heavily on decades-old weapons, the president will have to ensure that the transfer of modern weapons to the Kurds takes place as soon as possible. And because the combination of the Islamic State and Assad’s forces has decimated the Syrian opposition forces, Obama will have to authorize the rapid transfer of equipment to those still fighting Assad, and, at the same time, will need to authorize the establishment of a no-fly zone that would effectively ground Assad’s air capability.
Finally, Obama will have to make clear to those who tacitly support the Islamic State that there is a price to be paid for doing so. American pressure works, if Obama is willing to exert it. After months of ignoring Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s refusal to prevent fighters from crossing into Syria to join the Islamic State, Washington began to exert serious pressure on the Turkish president to support the effort to stop and reverse the Islamic State’s territorial gains. Sure enough, in October 2014, Erdogan finally allowed Kurdish peshmerga reinforcements to cross into Syria from Turkey to support the Syrian Kurds who were fighting to prevent the Islamic State from capturing the strategic northern Syrian town of Kobani. (The Kurds eventually succeeded in retaking the town.) Other nominal friends of the United States who play footsie with the Islamic State should be subjected to the same, if not greater, pressure. Qatar in particular should be informed in no uncertain terms that continued support for the Islamic State will lead to the redeployment of U.S. forces stationed there to bases elsewhere in the region.
Obama has shown no inclination to implement any of the foregoing policies. Until he does, the prospect that the Islamic State will gobble up more territory, and remain a threat both to Lebanon and to Jordan’s King Abdullah in particular, will continue to haunt all of America’s allies in the Middle East. Obama needs to act, and act quickly; it is not at all clear that time is on his side.
CANDIDATE OBAMA once termed the war in Afghanistan “the good war.” President Obama reversed himself during his first year in office, coupling his announcement of a surge in U.S. forces there with a promise to begin the withdrawal of troops in 2011 regardless of conditions on the ground. He then proceeded to implement his promise by completing the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2014.
Obama had also promised that a small American force would remain in Afghanistan subsequent to the withdrawal of combat troops, most of which would continue to train the Afghan security forces, while some units would be employed in selected counterterrorism operations. Obama did not initially indicate how large the residual force would be, nor did he specify how long it would remain in the country. When he finally announced that the force would total roughly ten thousand personnel, he also stated that it would be halved by the end of 2015 and would be entirely withdrawn by the end of 2016. Once again, conditions on the ground did not seem to enter into the equation. Far more important, it seemed, was the fact that Obama was determined to end his presidency by bringing all troops home from Afghanistan, just as he had once done in Iraq.
American forces are back in Iraq, however, and if Obama proceeds with his plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan before the end of his term of office, they could find themselves back there as well. The Taliban and the other insurgents who have continued to terrorize the Afghan countryside and battle government forces show no inclination to reach any compromise with Kabul, much less lay down their arms. With Pakistan unwilling or unable to restrain them, these forces are likely to mount even more serious and widespread offensives in 2015, with no U.S.—or NATO—troops there to oppose them.
Afghanistan is no longer led by the mercurial Hamid Karzai, under whom corruption was as rife as drug production was widespread, and whose relations with the United States had seriously deteriorated during his final years in office. President Ashraf Ghani, a far more stable personality, is committed to curbing both corruption and the drug trade. He deserves maximum support, and should not be abandoned to face the insurgents on his own.
While Obama may be focusing on his legacy of ending American wars, rather than on Afghan stability, a major Taliban victory over the Afghan security forces in 2015 could force him to reverse himself again. He would do well to maintain the current residual force in Afghanistan beyond 2015, and drop plans for a complete withdrawal in 2016. It will hardly redound well to his legacy if Afghanistan once again falls to the Taliban, and the country reverts to being a welcoming base for terrorist attacks on Americans in the Middle East, Europe or, as on 9/11, the United States itself.