The folly of Obama’s disengagement doctrine

Thanassis Cambanis writes: A generational war has engulfed the Levant. The ruination of Iraq and Syria is akin to a core meltdown within the Arab state system, with consequences that already have rocked the world: new wars flaring across the Middle East, political ferment in Turkey, a global refugee crisis, and the rise of the Islamic State group, to name just a few.

Today we can begin the sad work of taking inventory of an American presidency that aspired to a humane and humble foreign policy. President Barack Obama didn’t start the Levantine conflagration — that ignoble credit belongs to his predecessor — but he has kept America fighting in Iraq and deployed forces in Syria to support a vast, billion-dollar covert proxy effort. All to little effect.

The long, horrific war that President George W. Bush launched in March 2003, with his illegal invasion of Iraq under false pretenses, has shattered the cradle of civilization beyond all recognition. During the subsequent occupation, U.S. officials dismantled the pillars of the Iraqi state, including its military and bureaucracy, and then stood by as newly empowered sectarian warlords and mob bosses tore apart the country. Many wars flared simultaneously in Iraq, some of which spread to neighboring Syria after the popular uprising sparked there in 2011.

President Obama’s signal intellectual and policy contribution was his minimalist response towards the chaos left behind by Bush. American policy at turns sought to contain the implosion of Syria and the ongoing fighting in Iraq, and at others accelerated or tried to steer the conflict, often by trying to balance ethnic or sectarian militias in a manner that, perhaps inadvertently, deepened the hold of sectarian warlords.

The president’s lackluster attitude has poisoned much of the serious policy conversation in Washington. His policies have spread the spurious conviction that whatever happens in the Middle East is not a core U.S. or international interest, but rather a sad and regional affair. [Continue reading…]

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Comments

  1. Yes, Obama’s policy has been a wretched failure. But the problem with the author’s argument is visible in its punchline summary:

    “Efforts to cauterize the Middle East and keep it at arm’s length have proved even more destabilizing (and attention-sucking) than a full-fledged policy commitment from the get-go.”

    We have no idea what consequences a “full-fledged” commitment might have produced. Everything we’ve done so far has been disastrous. What reason is there to believe that there is any success to be had? Or that the US power apparatus is in any way capable of finding it, should it exist in some possible world?

  2. Paul Woodward says:

    “Full-fledged policy commitment” is the kind of phrase someone reaches for when they want to wrap up their argument without getting into specifics. Even so, Cambanis has been reporting from the region for years and would, I expect, be perfectly capable of spelling out a number of the things Obama could have done if not constrained by his own unwillingness to become engaged.

    For instance, in 2013, Obama asked the Pentagon to draw up plans to impose a no-fly zone in Syria. It was a disingenuous request because the Pentagon was already opposed to this. Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to predict some of the effects of imposing a no-fly zone at that time.

    Barrel bomb attacks had only occurred a handful of times by that time. A no-fly zone wouldn’t have ended the war but it would have prevented the use of what became the primary cause of casualties. In other words, by that decision alone, Obama could have saved tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of lives.

    With a US-led no-fly zone in place, it’s extremely unlikely that Russia would have directly engaged with its own forces to protect Assad. The regime has continued the war largely through its exclusive control of the air space in combination with support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia. Had fighting been limited to ground forces, it’s much more likely that Assad would have sought a political solution to a conflict he would otherwise likely lose.

    To assume that this level of engagement by the U.S. posed too many risks, implies the risk would be of an outcome worse than what has pertained: regional instability, the worst refugee crisis since WW2, the fracturing of the EU, and the growth of ISIS.