Understanding Obama’s Mideast Policy

by Charles Naas

President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies can be described as bipartisan or even multi-factional since no one, liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democrat, seems very understanding of nor totally satisfied with his actions or failures to take action.

But if one adopts a broader perspective rather than focusing on one or two issues, the direction of the president’s policies become quite clear. Obama has so far maintained some of the policies of the Bush period while putting the country on important paths of his own devices, but none so dramatic as to arouse significant domestic opposition — except his first encounter with Israel where the breach of confidence has been resolved.

The first step toward an understanding requires viewing Obama as a President who sees his historical imprint in solutions to domestic problems and needs. His beginning as an urban activist is key; he worked within a culture of the down-to-earth needs of thousands of people. He saw grave poverty and despair first hand. There is little evidence that foreign affairs were prominent in his thinking. His early vote as a Senator against the war with Iraq was highly indicative of his basic approach to our extensive involvement and commitments in the volatile Middle East. The economic and financial crises that he faced on assuming office and the generally parlous state of day-to-day economic conditions undoubtedly gave impetus to his domestic priorities. The American public was growing weary with the costs — human and economic — of wars.

When first elected in 2008, the president’s inclination was to strive for some advance in the Israel-Palestine conflict. He called for an end to further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank and gave speeches in Turkey and Egypt encouraging regional nations to seek peace and cooperation between Islamic nations and the west. He also promised an active approach to Palestinian concerns. The Arab reaction was nominal, but the Israeli government’s was fiercely negative. This early venture was a bitter failure for Obama and the power of the Israeli lobby showed that his powers in the area were limited as well by domestic opposition. His recent visit — his first to Israel as President — revealed that he has learned his lesson if his strong backing of Israel against Iran had not made it clear earlier.

A few years ago, Israel, Egypt and the conservative Sunni Arab monarchies without publicity and formality came to an understanding that their interests were not dissimilar. Thus far they have quietly cooperated on Syria, each viewing the overthrow of the Shi’a regime of Bashar al-Assad by Sunni rebels favorably. The president has indicated sympathy with the aims of this informal regional state grouping and has sent Secretary John Kerry to examine the possibilities of future progress on the West Bank. This has the added benefit of giving the Arab states domestic cover for taking actions elsewhere that are similar to those of the US and Israel.

Within this informal alliance structure Obama has established a number of general — very general — guidelines or principles, many of which will satisfy Israel and the monarchies but others that are singular and quite independent. The primary aim or principle has been to end — as soon as is practical — the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he inherited from the Bush administration. He was indirectly aided by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who refused to sign a Status of Forces treaty that would have set the legal terms for the troops who would have remained for an indefinite period. Obama presumably saw that the war in Afghanistan was highly complex with no obvious ending, but in response to the military’s requests for more troops — the surge —  he agreed with the understanding that this would be a one-time increase. At that time, the public was more supportive of a further build-up to defeat the Taliban and to create more time for the destruction of al-Qaeda in the Pakistan tribal belt. But, in conformance with Obama’s basic principle, he has set 2014 as a firm date to end our combat role in that benighted land.

The continuous pursuit of the destruction of al-Qaeda — the original purpose of our invasion — has been partially successful with the drone bombing in the Pakistan tribal area and the death of Bin Laden. The struggle against the Taliban and tribal militias like the Haqqani group continues with less success. The general of the allied military coalition has urged that the remaining force after 2014 be substantial and able to have an impact throughout Afghanistan. The White House has not announced as yet its policy for this distant event but a denial or compromise on troop levels is likely.

A natural concomitant of the first principle is the avoidance of new military commitments. The Middle East from Pakistan to Libya has major domestic security problems that could invite a less cautious President than Obama to get involved, but he has so far deflected substantial pressures, foreign and domestic, to become a participant.

Two crises clearly mark this principle; Libya and Syria. The phrase “lead from behind’ has been belittled by liberals and conservatives alike, but it was a succinct statement of the president’s intent to avoid placing ground troops in the Libyan conflict.The US gave air support, intelligence and humanitarian aid to the Libyan rebels; the European nations did the heavy lifting militarily in the successful effort to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The same principle is currently at work in Syria. No country in the Middle East is more complex than Syria, which encompasses just about every social, religious and ethnic perplexity of the area. As in Libya, the US reaction has been carefully measured. Obama has directed more assistance to the civilian economy than any other country, but, military aid has been essentially non-lethal equipment such as communications and advice. Despite facing much criticism, Obama has not provided air support to the rebellion. A key marker for greater future involvement rests on whether Assad has actually used chemical weapons; the administration has indicated that such use might alter current policy. The Syrian civil conflict is immeasurably complicated by the roles of outsiders: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah who support Assad, whereas the Arab monarchies, the US (quietly), and the European nations (openly), arm and favor the rebel forces. A further problem for those aiding the secular moderate Islamic groups is that a strong element within the anti-Assad forces has ties to al-Qaeda.

The two Bush presidents sought and welcomed the approval and direct assistance of other countries in the two wars with Iraq, in the Afghan conflict, and with the Iranian diplomatic process, but under Obama’s second principle they have taken the lead in Libya and Syria. Obama has realistically recognized that the former colonial powers and neighbours on the Mediterranean rim have special obligations and security interests, and that their leadership should take precedence while we would help “from behind”. In the past, European efforts to become more involved in these types of affairs were regarded as unwelcome intrusions upon our interests.

Notable in his various speeches has been Obama’s restraint in describing or hectoring specific governments on their domestic matters. A third principle appears to be to assume careful distance from the insoluble problems each government faces. The overriding sentiment seems to be: it’s their problem, they created the situation, if they can’t solve these issues, neither can we. Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to control its domestic salafists or its border militants, Iranian opposition to the rule of the Ayatollahs, the Shi’a-Sunni struggle in Bahrain, the mess in Syria,and the internal crisis in Egypt, all exemplify this principle. Obama has been criticized with some heat for his lacking focus on human rights violations.

One area that has been singularly out front in the administration’s concerns is Iran’s nuclear policies. It is unclear what drives the president’s policy of steadily increasing sanctions and unbending demands that Iran change its uranium enrichment actions. Israel’s belief that an Iranian bomb would be an existential threat to that state’s existence, and that Persian Gulf states would possibly also move to nuclear capability, have likely been determining Obama’s directives to our negotiating team. Although the President has shown deep reluctance to use force against Iran, he may face the test of direct military engagement within the next two years if Israel calls for joint efforts to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities. Domestic pressures could be too strong to resist.

Looking ahead to current and future crises, the President has revealed a great reluctance to exercise overt use of our military power; a practical and conservative approach to the insoluble problems of the area; a careful understanding of Israel’s security needs as well as the Gulf monarchies and Egypt; and a strong desire to concentrate on the many domestic problems we face. He will continue to seek multilateral involvement as crises emerge. Rash or risky initiatives are very unlikely. Obama will likely remain as Mr. Cool in the months and years ahead.

Photo: President Barack Obama walks to his desk in-between meetings in the Oval Office, Oct. 20, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) 

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.