Obama's Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Serious Questions Raised
KOCHI: As the second innings of Barack Obama draws to a close, the American foreign policy is facing a critical test of legitimacy.
The belief in US exceptionalism– American indispensability for ensuring stability of its trusted allies and its preponderance to prevent the outbreak of conflicts and sustain peace – is being questioned as the Middle East faces its worst turmoil in many decades. The increased deployment of forces has had drastic effects, and the human and monetary costs of such long drawn conflicts have tested the patience of the US population like never before. It would not be wrong to surmise that in the Primaries campaign to the US Presidential Election 2016, both outsider candidates to the ruling regimes – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders– capitalised on the growing antagonism towards the ruling establishment. They further reiterate how hard choices need to be taken in foreign diplomacy in the Middle East.
Barack Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize(awarded for his stated goals than counting on his accomplishments)legacy is now characterised by the image of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh. Ironically, it is the latest sign of horror from war-torn Syria.
The US is portending its retreat from the spoils of the wars it unleashed in the region and this decision shows the implications of its disastrous schemes over the past decade. It warrants an analysis of the legacy of Obama–Biden foreign policy vis-à-vis Middle East. The winter of 2009 witnessed the first African American to occupy the White House. The promise of change ushered by Obama, however, coincided with a phase of the US economy experiencing its worst recession and the setbacks of a war weary foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though it cannot be overruled that Obama inherited a chaotic foreign policy from George W. Bush Jr, the same reason is being brandished repeatedly to cover up the diplomatic miscalculations.
Faulty intelligence reports and intolerance towards the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein combined with the liberal institutional dream to restore peace and stability through democratic rule resulted in the entire Iraq fiasco. The war, which was thought to be easily won by the top security hawks, became a haunting spectre for Obama with implications till date. The announcement of withdrawal of operations in Iraq by 2012 showed the first signs of retreat. The security vacuum that followed and the negligence towards the rise of sectarian elements led to the growth and transformation of the ISIS into a global threat, aggravated the Syrian humanitarian crisis and made the US a mute spectator of Iranian attempts to subdue Iraq by backing the puppet government of Nouri-al-Maliki, besides adding up the toll of proxy wars in the region.
If the US foreign policy regrets succumbing to the pressures of NATO-led western coalition to intervene in Libya, it is primarily because of the costly disaster it conceived. Libya was the first experiment of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM)1 formed under the aegis of Pentagon in 2008 for military intervention in the African continent. With the Libya International Assistance Mission still in its nascent stages, the resultant delay in restoring order and legitimacy in the countryand the reluctance of European powers to get involved further, add pressure to the US to broker a solution, lest the nation may become another breeding ground for splinter groups to take charge.
The Libyan quagmire would have been the reason for the cautiousness in Syria. The ongoing Syrian civil war has reduced Syria to a protracted chessboard, where major powers, supporting and opposing the Assad regime, have negotiated settlement as an answer to end the strife, without devising the required means to this end. Latest estimates state that the war has killed or injured 11.5% of the Syrian population.2
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action3 forged with Iran in 2015 to ease nuclear- sanctions is perceived with suspicion by the hawks in foreign policy discourse and Gulf sheikdoms. As the Iranian deal would be judged by the progress in its implementation, the US will need to channelise Iranian support in the troubled region through a strategy of restraint rather than pressure. Simultaneously, securing the fears of its allies must not be at the cost of supporting proxy war in the region. Often allies court such conflicts under the belief of US support in such interventions. On expected lines, the silent backing of the USto the Yemeni crisis against the Houthi rebels, supported by Shia Iran,is turning out to be the next drawback for US actions in the region.
The latest to join the fray in the Syrian civil war is the Turkey-led Operation Euphrates Shield. Subsequent to the failed military coup in Turkey (a NATO ally), the US–Turkey relations have hit a rough patch due to the speculated involvement of the Islamic cleric Fethullah Gullen (living in exile in the US since 1999) in instigating the coup and the measured support of the US to the Erdogan government during the coup.
In a swift turn of events, the Russo-Turkish rapprochement has rung the alarm bells.The US is fighting hard to maintain a balance in the Syrian civil war between its allies – the rebel faction (Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF] led by Kurd militias and supported by the US Special Forces) and the recent Turkish military offensive (that leads the US-backed Free Syrian Army), for whom countering Assad or ISIS is only secondary, whilst the real intention is to keep the Kurd militias off its Syrian borders. The initial US calls of support for Turkey and its attempts to convince the Kurd militias to accede to the Turkish demands are now followed by similar calls to Turkey to restrain from its actions against SDF.
Time is not far for the US to reconsider the pros and cons of such interventions and balancing actions before falling victim to miscalculated adventures to secure friendship and alliance in the region.
(The writer is Managing Associate, CPPR Centre for Strategic Studies)
(Cover picture: US planes bomb Aleppo, Syria)