The cost of stepping back so others could step in

Joyce Karam writes that Syria is the epicenter of Barack Obama’s train wreck in the Middle East: Even before the Arab Spring started in 2011, Obama’s larger doctrine for the Middle East and North Africa was defined by the “US stepping back so others can step in,” and doing so “regional actors can rise to the occasion and take responsibility,” says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The “leading from behind” approach shaped the early thinking of the Obama administration by prioritizing the withdrawal from Iraq, cutting civil society aid programs to Egypt, allowing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to take a lead role in Yemen, and later leading to Russia’s intervention in Syria.

There was a small caveat that the Obama team missed: This approach “doesn’t work in the Middle East,” says Hamid, because “the US has the misfortune of having bad actors in the region, so while it’s true that others stepped in, they were countries that didn’t share our interests or values.”

Frederick Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, says Obama’s main pitfall was the Syrian war. Hof, who served as a special adviser on Syria and coordinator for regional affairs at the State Department in Obama’s first term, tells Arab News that Obama’s failure over Syria “transcends the Middle East.”

The former US official says: “By combining florid rhetoric with dogged inaction in the face of civilian slaughter in Syria, Obama facilitated a humanitarian catastrophe that spilled into Europe, undermining the continent’s political unity and compromising its trans-Atlantic relationship with the US.”

Hof blames Obama’s “enormous gap between talk and action” in Syria, by calling on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down in 2011 without a Plan B. It was also by drawing a red line for the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons, which Obama altered in 2013.

These levers “emboldened a Russian president to alter European boundaries and to intervene militarily in Syria… and are behind the loss of confidence in Washington by long-time regional partners of the US,” says Hof. [Continue reading…]

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