It might sound as an obvious understatement to claim that the political and social disorder that afflicts the Middle East poses one of the gravest and most complex threats to regional and international security and instability. Maybe less known and acknowledged, however, is the fact that the Obama Administration’s foreign policies to the region have substantially contributed to spread instability and undermine American leadership, influence and credibility.
Certainly, President Obama is not to blame for all the problems that currently plague the Middle East, a region of enormous complexity, structurally marked by deep religious cleavages, ethnic conflicts, identity fragmentation, tribal tensions, and sectarian strife. However, Obama’s failure to articulate a minimally coherent, clear, and consistent Middle East policy has led the United States to implement ineffective, and often contradictory, piecemeal strategies which reflect a regretful lack of paradigms and an overwhelming empiricism.
Obama’s faltering and ambiguous strategies have not only squandered American political capital and authority in the region, endangering its interests and damaging the country’s influence and credibility, but, even worse, have led to the degradation of order throughout the region, disseminated uncertainty and intensified geopolitical competition and rivalry between states and sub-state actors pursuing antagonistic and hegemonic agendas.
Obama came to power with a rhetoric that promised a new dawn of American leadership in this troubled world, one of the main pillars of which would be the stabilization of the Middle East. In that context, the accomplishment of that ambitious objective would require putting an end to the Iraq War, nurturing the Arab Spring (with the additional benefit of removing dictators from power), eliminating potential sources of terrorism, putting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track, and establishing confidence-building measures to foster a new model of relationship with the Islamic world, particularly with Iran.
After six years, however, the list of failures is impressive and extensive. U.S. policies in the Middle East have significantly helped to create failed states in Libya, Iraq and Yemen, generate distrust and alienate the support of traditional political allies, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, intensify the civil war in Syria, and crush a massively popular democratic movement in Bahrain. The regrettable state of affairs in that region is a product not only of its own socio-political dynamics, but also of American decreased capacity to think strategically and act accordingly.
The USA-led NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, for example, aimed at preventing human rights violations, averting a potential humanitarian disaster, protecting the lives on non-violent pro-democracy protesters, and routing out terrorists, and which was initially considered a model military peace enforcement mission, turned out an utter and abject fiasco. President Obama seems not to have learnt the lessons from the Iraq War about the importance of engendering a new political, economic, and social system once the then existing disappeared.
It is true, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was removed from power and eventually killed by its own people, but what remained of Libya as a state has also collapsed ever since. A functional nation was turned into a devastated failed state, barely a country at all, held loosely together by an extremely delicate balance between rival – and often warring – tribal groups, armed political factions, extremist movements, and local militias. Political violence, human rights abuses, and common criminality are rampant and increasing. Even worse, the Libyan territory has become a safe haven for insurgents affiliated with both al-Nusra Front and ISIS, as well as with Ansar al-Sharia, whose activities have inflamed sectarian and political tensions and fueled Syria’s civil war.
The record in Iraq has been equally inconsistent and disappointing, leading to the creation of a failed state there, too. Although the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – a catastrophic policy blunder in itself – still during the Bush Administration can be considered partly responsible for ISIS’s emergence in that country and its spread in the Middle East, Mr. Obama inherited a reasonably pacified Iraq (if that word can ever be applied to that country) when he took office.
A number of strategic mistakes were made, whose pernicious effects keep on multiplying. The most important, perhaps, was the fact that almost all U.S. forces were withdrawn from Iraq, just like most diplomatic and political assistance, leaving behind a vacuum of power and authority and an almost absolute lack of legitimate and effective institutions of local governance, which allowed some previously defeated or disbanded terrorist movements to restructure and reorganize themselves. Such organizations, particularly ISIS, have managed to establish their rule over extensive tracts of Iraqi territory, turning them into a safe haven for their local and regional operations, and threatening to take control of the whole country.
Equally important was the inability to effectively articulate and support a more moderate, pro-Western government coalition. Obama’s apparent lack of interest – or strategic vision – in the fate of the country led to the formation of a pro-Iran governing coalition with a more staunch Shiite position, which tends to be much less conducive to American interests in the region and represents another source of instability. Obama was given repeated and ample warning from U.S intelligence and diplomatic sources about the potentially destabilizing effects and damages that the sectarian and power-hungry behavior of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s could bring to the country and the region, but chose to disregard them.
Nearly 80 percent of the massive Iraqi army created by the United States, numbering almost 270,000 troops, have either abandoned their posts of defected to ISIS or other terrorist groups and militias. This situation increases the importance of Iran, which, taking advantage of the political and security vacuum left by the U.S., has sought to expand its influence in the region by providing weapons, ammunition, and funds to Iraqi Shia’s paramilitary forces known as Hashd al-Shaabi, or People’s Mobilization Units, which has long replaced Iraqi conventional army as the main fighting force against ISIS. However, as the U.S. keeps on providing weapons and military supplies to the Iraqi government to be delivered to anti-ISIS Sunni militias, a significant part of those materials are being diverted to Shiite militia groups, who openly fight American interests and U.S.-supported rebels in the region. Again, this is hardly evidence of a coherent foreign policy.
Likewise, American involvement in the Syrian civil war appears to represent one of the most graphic and deplorable incarnation of a leadership crisis that has eaten through Washington’s credibility and moral authority. Certainly, Obama did not cause that conflict, but his abdication of leadership, hesitations, ambiguity, sudden reversals, and the virtual paralysis of his administration have helped to accelerate and prolong the conflict, and done very little to prevent a humanitarian crisis of gargantuan proportions.
Obama’s failed policies in Syria do not derive merely from its reluctance to use force, even if that eventually proved needed, but mainly from his inability or lack of willingness to understand and put all variables in this issue on a broader context, and to closely envisage and assess all potential ensuing scenarios. Consequently, his “leading from behind” doctrine produced, once again, a power vacuum that was wisely and intensely exploited by Russia and Iran to advance their influence in the region, and to impose their protagonism on the Syrian crisis, to the detriment of American influence and interests. Recent shifts in American policy over Assad’s political fate have represented a huge Russian diplomatic victory and an implicit acknowledgement of Obama’s strategic myopia.
Furthermore, groups like Hezbollah and other pro-Iran or pro-Assad militias are thriving in this vacuum, turning the region into a breeding ground for a proxy struggle. Iran has, for example, systematically increased its shipment of weapons and military supplies to Hezbollah, the Lebanese resistance movement – or terrorist group – which has been at the forefront of the ground operations to defend and support Syria’s Assad, another traditional Tehran’s client.
It might seem that the only positive aspect of Obama’s Middle East policy was the reestablishment of diplomatic ties with Iran, after 35 years of mutual hostilities, and the signature of a nuclear deal with that country. Certainly, the attempt to overcome political and ideological differences through diplomatic negotiations is, more than laudable, a categorical imperative, a moral duty. Furthermore, it might represent a strategy of diversification of partners in a context of instability in order to reduce such instability.
Not even that diplomatic initiative is immune to criticisms, though. Essentially, the plan trades sanctions relief – and the end of Iran’s international isolation – for the halting of Iran’s nuclear program, through vigorous monitoring and verification of its nuclear program and facilities, especially the Natanz and Fordow uranium enrichment plants, the Isfahan uranium conversion plant, and the Arak heavy water reactor and nuclear production plant. The agreement, however, might be the epitome of high-cost, low benefit for American interests and security and the stability of the Middle East.
History shows that a lasting peace cannot be bought with naiveté and acquiescence, but rather with the elimination or resolution of the sources of instability and insecurity, and, whenever possible, with the establishment of shared objectives. The deal was a great bargain for Iran, which obtained almost everything it desired – including the relief of all financial, trade, energy and transportation sanctions – in return for mere time-limited restrictions on its ambitious nuclear plans. However, Iran will preserve its nuclear reactors and its capacity to enrich nuclear fuel. And it has indeed been granted the right to enrich nuclear fuel under a number of limitations. However, not only will these limitations expire in a few years, but also Iran has never offered any guarantees that it would abandon its nuclear program. Basically, Tehran promised not to use a capability that it does not currently possess in exchange for the opportunity to reap the immediate benefits provided by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the agreement is known, which came into effect on 15 October, 2015.
Furthermore, let’s not forget that Iran has a long and proud history of cheating on its international nuclear agreements. Despite a deal struck with the European Union in 2003 to prevent it from enriching uranium, Iran continued operating its enrichment centrifuges at its Natanz facility. In 2006, in spite of several UN Resolutions, it was found out that Iran was secretly installing uranium conversion equipments in its Isfahan facility. In 2009, the international community learnt one again that another huge clandestine enrichment plant was being built under a under a mountain at Fordow. Not to mention that Iran violated the terms of the 2013 Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the JCPOA predecessor agreement, at least three times, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). So, which incentives does the world have to believe that Iran will honor its international commitments this time? Who can assure that the relative tranquility and the large funds provided by the deal will not be used to clandestinely pursue the country’s nuclear ambitions?
Washington policymakers seem to believe that Iran is the key to solve a number of Middle East problems. In their perception, Tehran can, for example, be used as a moderating influence to contain Hamas in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to help rein in Hezbollah within the framework of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict. And yes, Tehran can also be central in resolving the Syrian crisis. There is no doubt that Iran is, undeniably, an influential regional power that must not be ignored, the reason why it must be treated with an extremely high degree of caution.
From what we have seen so far, however, there is nothing in Iranian domestic circumstances or international behavior to slightly suggest that the country intends to use its influence to pursue an objective other than projecting its power over the entire region and spreading its hegemony. Tehran never pledged to abandon its aggressive regional policies, refrain from using terrorism as a foreign policy instrument, meddle in neighbors’ affairs, or destabilize them by supporting non-state proxy actors in order to empower local Shi’a minorities. Furthermore, Iran has not only entirely preserved its own military capabilities, but is actively seeking to improve it, as the October 2015 ballistic missile test, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, can attest to. The test, which in itself appeared to be a violation of the JCPOA, once again raised serious concerns about Tehran’s commitment to the nuclear deal, as well as about the willingness of the international community – particularly the United States, the main advocate of the agreement – to enforce its terms.
The end of international isolation can lead Tehran to invest more assertively in the consolidation of the Shi’a political corridor, which extends from Tehran to Beirut, passing through Baghdad and Damascus, forming the so-called “Axis of Resistance”, an strategy pursued since the US-led invasion of Iraq and the ensuing shift of political power from the Sunni Baath party to the hands of Shi’as movements.
Regional neighbors have watched with deep concern what many consider an implicit American acknowledgement of acceptance of Iranian political leadership in the Middle East to the detriment of traditional political allies, in a move that some believe might pose an existential threat to the survival of Sunni Arab governments and unleash another spiral of instability, chaos, and violence. Saudi Arabia, for example, Iran’s main regional adversary, does not appear to be willing to react passively to this new political architecture, nor does Turkey or Qatar (nor does Israel, by the way).
Many in the Saudi government – which has been a reasonably reliable and cooperative partner in counterterrorism efforts, despite struggling with its own religious fundamentalism and also using terrorism as a foreign policy instrument – believe that the United States has relegated their bilateral relationship to a second-class partnership, a perception which has led Riyadh to reassess its foreign policy priorities and behavior. As part of the reaction to the Obama Administration’s diplomatic overtures to Tehran within the framework of the nuclear deal, the Saudi kingdom announced the formation of a coalition of 34 largely Muslim nations to, arguably, fight international terrorism. The creation of the “Islamic military coalition” under Saudi leadership, however, serves four main purposes: (i) to raise the country’s international profile, (ii) to emphasize a newly-acquired higher degree of autonomy in Saudi Foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States, (iii) to counter the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East, and (iv) to assert and project its own power in the region.
Another set of actions undertaken by Riyadh can also illustrate this more vigorous and aggressive regional policy, particularly towards Tehran, since the American “realignment” in the Gulf. First, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition that has been actively combating Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen, in a conflict that has ravaged that country since early 2015. Second, it has intensified support to anti-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon and become more involved in Lebanese domestic politics, aiming to reduce or limit Iranian influence in that small nation. Third, it has been strongly arming and financing Syrian rebels – and maybe even ISIS itself – in their military campaign against Iran-backed Assad regime, and is even considering launching a ground assault into Syrian territory, which will further complicate international efforts to bring an end to a civil conflict that has already lasted too long, resulting, in conservative estimates, in over 300,000 people killed, 6.6 million displaced within Syria, and over 4.6 million Syrian refugees. And finally, it is seeking to cause serious economic damages to Iran, by keeping oil production at high levels.
So, don’t be misled. Apart from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has its particular dynamics, most major conflicts in the region are a result, in certain degree, of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry, which has been rekindled by the Obama administration. By seeking to establish a new geopolitical framework in the Middle East with measures limited in depth and scope, and arguably based on an equilibrium between Sunni and Shi’a states and populations, Mr. Obama may have tried to extinguish gas with fire, and must take responsibility for the consequences. His policies will probably not lead to the improvement of Arab-Iran relations, or American-Arab relations. Likewise, they tend to be inimical to U.S. – and why not global – interests in the region, as they not only have not contributed significantly to end Syria’s and Yemen’s civil war , or to ensure the unity of Iraq, but have also been largely ineffective in fighting the Islamic State.
Marcos Degaut, Doutor em Segurança International e Professor Adjunto na University of Central Florida.