Seeking Strategy

by Robert E. Hunter

Last week, President Barack Obama gave a major address at the National Defense University, focusing on issues related to the war on terror. He presented new guidelines for the use of remotely-piloted vehicles (“drones”) against suspected terrorists and he made a renewed attempt to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. These were useful pronouncements that will have an impact on US foreign policy and hopefully the way the US is perceived, especially in the Muslim world, but that was not the principal reason why the president gave the speech.

The president was responding more to US media clamor and to domestic pressures from both the Left and Right. Pressed from the Left, he had to show that the US will not endlessly be preoccupied with terrorism and engage in some practices that raise both moral and legal issues. Pressed from the Right, he had to show that he still takes seriously potential threats from terror groups. He also reflected on Congressional constraints on transferring prisoners from Guantanamo — even to move them to super-secure prisons in the United States.

Obama did a good job of threading these needles, though, predictably, he has been attacked from both ends of the spectrum, including one prominent columnist’s idiotic comment that he makes a better law professor than president.

But while the president’s speech met his immediate domestic political needs, it had little to do with something far more important: what matters to the United States in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, where, to put it mildly, there is still a gaping lack of clarity both about US interests and the means chosen to secure them.

Most obviously related to the president’s NDU speech are Afghanistan and Pakistan. Regarding the former, one would have to be blind not to realize that the United States is in the process of getting out and mostly leaving Afghanistan to its own devices. To be sure, the US wants to leave behind after 2014 as much capacity as possible for the Afghans to control their own territory and to minimize the risk that the Taliban, with all of their human rights horrors, will again take power in all if not just part of Afghanistan. But beyond these moral questions and the need to retain some capacity to scotch incipient terrorism against the American homeland, the US has little strategic interest in Afghanistan and never did.

What it had to do by invading in the fall of 2001 was conduct a punitive action in response to 9/11, focused on trammeling and uprooting Al Qaeda. This was more in the league of chasing Pancho Villa across the Mexican border than in countering continent-wide aggression by Japan and Nazi Germany after Pearl Harbor.

Pakistan is the real US strategic interest. It has nuclear weapons, but is instable. It is much more populous and developed as a society and hence more consequential than Afghanistan. It has a more important presence in the region and a long-festering “semi-conflict” with India. But it is in Pakistan where Obama faces his most important tactical problem with the use of drones. They can help counter the worst of the Islamist terrorists, including operations against Americans and others in Afghanistan, and they can help the Pakistani government in its not very successful efforts to control almost ungovernable tribal areas — whether or not Islamabad will say so publicly. Yet at the same time, the drone strikes appear to a broad mass of opinion in Pakistan and elsewhere in the region as intrusion, a form of latter-day imperialism. To us Americans, that charge is unfair, but it’s there.

At NDU, Obama tried to strike the right balance on drones and terrorism and continue clawing back America’s reputation that was so badly damaged by the 2003 Iraq invasion and other actions that are read by a large mass of people in the region as “anti-Muslim.” But “old sins,” as the saying goes, “cast long shadows.” Most Americans approved (as did this author) of US military actions in Afghanistan after 9/11, but whether what it continued to do there was a “war of necessity” is highly questionable. Certainly, the US ambition to do “nation-building” had little chance from the start, partly because the US and others never put in a serious amount of non-military resources or ended the stove-piping of US agencies, and partly because no outside country can foster the changes that only a society itself can make.

From a strategic perspective, the 2003 invasion of Iraq made even less sense and caused a crack in the dam of a rough Middle East security structure. This crack has widened; until now the US and others face the worst crisis in the region in living memory. It is far worse than the challenge posed by the post-1978 mullahs in Iran. Their revolutionary ethic had its day but then lost appeal as people elsewhere in the region decided they didn’t want to live the way Iranians have been forced to live by their antediluvian clerical masters.

President Obama repeated at NDU that the US is not against Islam, and this statement can arguably be true. But so what? So many people in the Moslem world don’t see it that way, and even evidence of protected civil liberties for Muslims in American society — what Obama correctly said is “the ultimate rebuke to those who say we are at war with Islam” — cannot on its own wipe out that widespread belief.

With his need to deal with the domestic clamor over drones and Guantanamo, the president’s speech was also a bit off point as measured against other developments in the region, about which he only made passing reference. Thus, while he addressed the issue of drones as it affects Pakistan, he said nothing (other than the need for “building schools”) about helping it deal with critical threats to governance and stability.

Farther West, the US and others now face a further consequence of the invasion of Iraq: a slow-rolling civil war across the Middle East heartland, pitting, at one level, Sunnis versus Shias.  At another level, geopolitical competitions are at play, among Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Turkey and, yes, Israel — itself not a Muslim country but a major contender for prominence.

The immediate locus of these competitions is the full-bore civil war in Syria, which has been turned into a super-Lebanon in terms of the activities of outside powers, in addition to the struggle between the Assad regime, based on the Alawite (Shiite) minority, and “rebels” who represent other factions, including the majority Sunnis.  But in addition, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE — among others — are also involved, with the three Arab Sunni governments also permitting — if not sponsoring — the intrusion in Syria of the worst elements of Islamist fundamentalism, terrorism by any measure. Of course, the Sunni governments are trying to offset, through Syria, the shift in the balance of regional sectarian influence that was caused by the end of Sunni dominance over Iraq’s Shiite majority, following the 2003 invasion.

Obama is right to want to keep the United States from getting more deeply embroiled in Syria. He knows that the American people oppose yet another Middle East war, with both the human toll and, in Iraq and Afghanistan, a cost in national treasure matched in US history only by the Second World War. Yet here, too, domestic constituencies are pressing Obama to “do something.” But the Right seem to have forgotten how much trouble they got the nation into over Iraq, and the Left erroneously conflates Syria with Libya and Egypt, which were mostly about the role of tyrants, not civil war and issues of region-wide geopolitical consequence.

In his effort to keep the United States from getting sucked into Syria, Obama did not help himself by calling in 2011 for Assad to go, or by pledging (unstated) consequences if the Assad regime crosses some ill-defined “red line” in the use of chemical weapons. These statements have made him more vulnerable to domestic activists pressing him to do things in Syria (but what?) that he knows do not comport with America’s political and strategic interests.

Even so, it can fairly be said that, whatever the outcome of fighting in Syria, it will never again be the same. The issues raised in the broader regional competition and conflict, including the spread of Islamist fundamentalism as part of Sunni-state efforts to shape the outcome in Syria, will not go away. All demand a comprehensive strategy for the region as a whole; yet, at least in public, there is no evidence that the United States has thought seriously about what will need to be done, if only to preserve US interests.  It is one thing to stay out of war; it is another to delay in crafting strategies and seeking partners to meet the longer-run regional requirements, come-what-may on the ground in Syria (European allies, take note).

All this ignores what was the big unfolding regional crisis until Syria gained center stage: the Iranian nuclear program. The Israeli Ambassador to the US reminded us in the Washington Post this week that this is a central concern for the US and others and not just Israel. Whatever happens in Syria, this issue will be with us, but it is no nearer to resolution than before. Despite what seems to be Obama’s (and the US military’s) keen desire to avoid war, the US pledge to keep “all options on the table” still stands, but Washington lacks a viable strategy for moving forward. Like its two predecessors, the Obama administration refuses a sine qua non of successful negotiations: acknowledging that Iran, like every other nation on the planet, has some legitimate security concerns. The “Iran factor” must also be folded into longer-run regional requirements.

Furthermore, the US continues to act in the Middle East as though it is still 1991, following Western victory in the Cold War and after Saddam Hussein was thrust out of Kuwait, when George H.W. Bush could talk of a new era in which “…what we say goes.” At least in the Middle East, that era is passing, if it has not already disappeared; yet we continue to act as though we can call all the shots anytime we want.

If economically-rising China, which is interested in regional resources, disagrees, along with Russia, with its desire again to be seen as a great power, then they are stigmatized for “not playing the game.” While we rightly appeal to Moscow to help in stopping the war in Syria, one price is to accept it as a longer-run interlocutor whose interests (in some respects different from ours) must be taken into account, a status they now claim in part because the US proved unable to play the role of security-provider in terms that could command respect across the region.

All this calls into question whether Secretary of State John Kerry is spending his time wisely in focusing so much on trying to jump-start negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians — even though that could not possibly lead to a final settlement, so long as Israel is beset on three fronts (Egypt, Syria, and Iran), and as Gaza continues in its Israeli-imposed isolation. With his focus on this long-term process, he has not even had time to put together a team of people at the State Department able to do its daily business, much less to create the overarching strategies needed for the US to deal with the Middle East and Southwest Asia, beginning with the uncertain but so critical consequences of the Syrian conflict.

The same can be said for the team at the White House, which needs added intellectual and policy firepower if the president and the nation are to be well served.

The firebell in the night is sounding. It is time for President Obama to exercise the leadership needed to respond; and while his speech at the National Defense University was one step in the process, it was not the most consequential in terms of what must be done.

Postscript: it was ironic that Obama gave this important speech at the National Defense University, including his call for a “comprehensive strategy.” Last year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which “owns” NDU, heavily slashed its budget for research and also reduced its capacity to educate up-and-coming officers in necessary leadership skills. Here is a place where the president can begin, for a tiny amount of money, the necessary work of enabling his administration to meet the nation’s most critical strategic challenges.

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.