Obama administration on the Middle East: The distance between statements and facts

The New York Times reports: Making sense of the Obama administration’s patchwork of policies “is a puzzle,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and former senior State Department official.

“But whether that puzzle reflects the lack of a coherent policy on the administration side or whether that puzzle simply reflects the complexity of the power struggles on the ground in the region — well, both are probably true,” she said.

The chaos gives regional rivals “more reasons to fight out that power struggle and more arenas to do it in,” Ms. Wittes said.

The lightning pace of events has fueled criticism that the Obama administration has no long-term strategy for the region. In picking proxies and allies of convenience, the argument goes, the administration risks making the chaos worse — perhaps strengthening terrorist groups’ hand, and deepening the chances of being drawn into fights Americans do not want.

One senior Obama administration official described the difficulty of trying to develop a coherent strategy during a period of extreme tumult.

“We’re trying to beat ISIL — and there are complications,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We have a partner who is collapsing in Yemen and we’re trying to support that. And we’re trying to get a nuclear deal with Iran. Is this all part of some grand strategy? Unfortunately, the world gets a vote.”

The administration had until recently held up Yemen as a model of a successful counterterrorism campaign, only to see the American-backed government in Sana crumble and the efforts against Qaeda operatives in Yemen crippled indefinitely. Earlier this week, American Special Operations troops stationed there had to detonate their large equipment before evacuating Yemen and flying across the Red Sea to an American base in Djibouti — concerned that the war matériel would fall into the hands of the Houthi forces.

In Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, the administration talks as if it is supporting the orderly transitions to state building, but its actions are in fact helping to dismantle the central states, said Peter Harling, a researcher with the International Crisis Group, who with the journalist Sarah Birke recently wrote an essay analyzing the regional dynamic.

In each case, local players like the Islamic State or the Houthi movement have stepped into a power vacuum to stake their own claims, but none have the credibility or wherewithal to unify or govern.

But Washington, Mr. Harling said, insisted in each case on maintaining the fiction that its favored local player had a viable chance to rebuild an orderly state — whether moderate rebels in Syria, the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad or the Hadi government in Yemen.

The Western powers “have to pretend the situation is not as bad as it is, so they don’t have to accept failure and take ownership of the situation,” Mr. Harling said. “In many years of working in the region, I have never seen such a distance between statements and fact.”

“Unfortunately, the world gets a vote,” said a senior Obama administration official who didn’t want to be named.

I can imagine those words coming from the lips of deputy national security adviser for strategic communication Ben Rhodes, and the the reason he wouldn’t want to be named would not be because of the proverbial sensitivity of the issues. It would simply be for the sake of saving himself embarrassment. And avoiding the risk of having such words quoted back to him in a Senate hearing while he seeks approval for some position in another administration.

When the question is whether this administration has a coherent strategy and the response is that unfortunately, the world gets a vote, the implication is that under the Obama administration’s unchallenged management, the problems of the Middle East could all be sorted out. The problems, so the argument goes, all come from those other pesky foreign powers.

That’s the kind of claim that can only be insinuated and must additionally be cloaked in anonymity, because if made explicitly and with attribution it would deservedly draw a derisory response.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email