Michael Young/Obama refuses to adapt in the Mideast

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Obama refuses to adapt in the Mideast
Michael Young/The Daily Star/Jan. 29, 2015

These days whenever criticism is leveled at the Obama administration’s Middle East policy, one finds sympathetic voices in the United States defending President Barack Obama. The gist of their argument is that this approach merely downplays the responsibility of regional states for the chaos in the Arab world.Perhaps, but in the past six years the region has been through monumental transformations, at a time when the United States has irresponsibly disengaged from the region. Washington’s policies have been ill-adapted to dynamics in the affected countries. Worse, the administration has done little to adjust as its policy failures have multiplied. Most perniciously, it has misinterpreted its options in order to avoid taking action.

David Ignatius discusses the latest manifestation of this shortcoming with regard to Yemen in an article on this page today. However, the combination of American lethargy, the absence of foresight and imagination, and the refusal to think through the implications of America’s inaction has applied to most of its relationships in the region since 2011.

While it’s true that the Arab world would probably have gone through the tumult of recent years whatever the United States had done, the Obama administration could not have picked a worse time to extricate itself. In many respects this only ensured that the situation would become even more dangerous.

The reason is that the United States is not like other states. Its power and regional influence means that it has the ability to push countries in certain directions, in favor of a desirable agenda. President Barack Obama could not have done much against China and Russia at the United Nations Security Council perhaps, but he could have taken the lead in coordinating the responses of President Bashar Assad’s foes in such a way as to strengthen America’s hand, reinforce the Syrian regime’s adversaries, and ensure that extremists would not hijack the Syrian uprising.

Early on Obama denied himself a range of options in Syria. He dismissed the war there as “somebody else’s civil war,” at a time when the conflict was already having dramatic regional repercussions. Obama affirmed repeatedly that the United States was not prepared to deploy troops to Syria – a misleading response to a nonexistent request, since few actually suggested that American forces be dispatched to Syria to overthrow Assad.

As for the deployment of U.S. military power in Syria, it is the president himself who first threatened it if Assad used chemical weapons against his own population. Yet when the Syrian regime did precisely that in 2013, Obama accepted Russian mediation to avoid reacting, only discrediting himself in the process.

As for more creative uses of American military power, such as establishing no-fly zones over areas of Syria to protect Syrian civilians fleeing Assad’s butchery, Obama never seriously considered them. This only further destabilized the region as millions of refugees are today living in neighboring Arab countries, with no prospect that they will soon return home.

At present, the Obama administration has shifted yet again, implicitly supporting a continuation of the Assad regime, and even Iranian influence in Syria. This was made fairly clear in Obama’s October letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in which the president affirmed parallel U.S.-Iranian interests in fighting ISIS, and reassured him that Assad’s forces would not be targeted by coalition airstrikes.

Beyond that, Obama and his advisers never properly anticipated the likely fallout of the Syrian conflict, and its implications for Western security. The president made American successes against Al-Qaeda a cornerstone of his re-election in 2012. But beyond his search for domestic political benefit, Obama refused to look at the issue with greater depth, to see if there were incipient terrorist threats in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

Syria was only the most evident of the administration’s abysmal responses to the evolving situation in the Middle East. But the president can also regret his mismanagement of relations with other countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Each was a prominent U.S. ally, but today all of them mistrust the United States, whatever the appearances, and Obama has done almost nothing to improve the situation.

Doubtless these countries themselves are partly to blame for misunderstanding American priorities. However, issues such as Syria’s war, Western normalization with Iran, and the viability of Islamist governments have immediate, even existential, importance for them, affecting their regional sway and domestic stability. Obama has not been personally engaged in addressing regional fears on all these issues, let alone defining a consistent U.S. policy toward them. He has navigated through a labyrinth of conflicting regional interests, but the American president has not reassured his allies or sought a way to resolve the contradictions.

Can we expect change in Obama’s remaining two years in office? The president is not backed by majorities in the House and Senate, which can only handicap his foreign relations. But it is also true that his withdrawal from the Middle East has not been unpopular among many in Congress or the public. Indeed, Obama’s catastrophic negligence of the region is a consequence of the fact that there has been no price to pay for this at home.

Nor is there any indication that the White House feels a need to act very differently today. But only a blind man or a fool would argue that the U.S. pays no price for the disintegration of the region. Obama intervened against ISIS on the assumption that something had to be done. The problem is that the president refuses to apply this logic in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

The region has suffered, as has American credibility, while the framework of American power in the region has been overhauled. But such transformations must usually be conducted carefully. Obama has done so recklessly, amateurishly, creating a vacuum that has only exacerbated the traumas afflicting the region.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.