Obama’s War

by Robert E. Hunter

With President Obama’s decision to step up arms supplies to the rebels there, Syria’s war has become his war. This was not part of his game-plan.

Obama did inherit a mess in the region. This included two seemingly unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which has much to do with America’s long-term strategic interests. Add to that the continuing confrontation with Iran, with bipartisan insistence that the US employ all sticks and no carrots. Factor in the paralyzed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, currently without a glimmer of hope. And top it off with domestic expectations that terrorism, however virulent abroad, will be kept away from US shores.

Obama has not done badly in meeting this set of challenges. He got us out of Iraq. He is winding down the war in Afghanistan. He has not yet had to redeem his pledge on Iran that “all options are on the table”, which could mean another Middle East war. There have been terrorist incidents — an “underwear bomber” in a plane headed for Detroit and a bomb in Times Square, plus the horrendous killings in Boston (though not linked to al-Qaeda or its ilk) — but there has been nothing approaching 9/11. And he has largely kept the Israel-Palestine problem from distracting him from more pressing business.

But Obama has paid prices and given hostages to fortune. To avoid having to honor his pledge on Iran, he depends on the good behavior of two countries: Iran (no bomb) and Israel (no preemptive attack). As outside forces draw down sharply, Afghanistan is likely, again, to revert to chaos, perhaps before Obama’s second term expires, while nuclear-armed Pakistan festers. To keep terrorism at bay while limiting risks to US “boots on the ground,” Obama has embraced the heavy use of drones and sanctioned unprecedented electronic surveillance. The former has provoked debate at home and hostility from Islamabad; the latter has raised domestic concerns about civil liberties not seen since the 1950s. And the Middle East continues to suck oxygen from other demands, notably his efforts to “pivot” US foreign policy toward Asia and the rise of China.

Now there is Syria, following the president’s felt need to redeem his pledge that the verified use of chemical weapons would somehow be a “game changer.” But his decision to supply arms to the rebels still does not convey a strategy for the immediate future; show that the US is truly committed to a particular outcome; suggest a realistic basis for negotiations, which are already premised on a predetermined result (President Bashar al-Assad must go); or indicate that the US has a sense of direction for afterwards, in Syria or the region.

Obama is beset from all sides.

Americans who believe military force should be the first choice in asserting US power criticize him for timidity and a failure of leadership, without counting costs down the road, as hammered home by Iraq and Afghanistan. Ditto for those who see Iran as the big bugaboo in the region and fear that it and Hezbollah will be the big winners if the United States does not help the rebels prevail.

Human rights activists criticize him for not toppling Assad straightaway, which Obama himself called for two years ago, as though Syria, in the middle of the world’s most volatile region, is another “Libya” — which, as far as US interests go, could be on Mars. They also ignore the notion that the likely replacement regime in Damascus would take bloody revenge on the Alawites, while the worst of the Islamist terrorists would continue to have free play and also threaten Israel. Meanwhile Britain and France egg Obama on, but so far accept no responsibility for helping to deal with the post-Assad mess.

Missing in all of this is clarity about how Syria fits in the regional picture.

It is only one facet of an expanding Sunni-Shia civil war in the Middle East, unleashed in its current phase when, by invading Iraq in 2003, the US unwittingly ended centuries of minority Sunni dominance over the majority Shias. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey seek to redress the balance by toppling Alawite (Shia) authority in Syria. Meanwhile, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Arab states, Turkey, and Israel are playing out in Syria their competitions for regional influence. Whatever the US does there has to be only one element of a policy that makes sense for the entire Middle East.

It will not be easy for Obama to get on top of his game — America’s game. He has to start by mandating the first truly rigorous assessment of US interests across the entire Middle East since the end of the Cold War. He has to demand coherent, integrated, strategic analysis and planning from his staff. He has to draw in others, including European allies and other stakeholders that can’t be ignored, notably Russia. And he has to follow one key dictum that is so often lost: what matters to the United States must come first.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.