Obama’s Absence of Strategy in the Middle East is Killing Us

by John R Guardiano on September 15, 2013

Robin Wright noted today something that I have long been arguing: Syria mustn’t be seen in isolation. Instead, Syria must be viewed within the context of the entire Middle East.

There must be, moreover, an overarching American strategy for the region, one designed to help move the Middle East in a more democratic direction.

The alternative is a state of perpetual cold and hot wars, as we try to keep the problems over there from ever reaching here. Indeed, as Wright explains:

This is something that concerns me a great deal, because we are involved in what is just a sliver of this problem.

And it’s not just Syria that’s at stake; it’s really the whole Middle East, [which is] in the middle of a transition to a new order. And we are being very political and parochial in our views of what we do, kind of, with each country.

There’s no grand principle. There’s no helping design — whether it’s using our aid [or] using our kind of infrastructure [that] we have to assist people in writing constitutions — in getting there.

Bingo! The Obama administration’s complete lack of a strategy for the Middle East is coming back to haunt us — in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Iran…

Drone strikes are not a strategy. Cruise missile strikes are not a strategy. Asking Putin for help is not a strategy. These are, at best, elements of a larger-scale strategy that is conspicuously lacking.

“Leading from behind” may be a strategy, but it’s not a very good one, because it means, in effect, the absence of American leadership in a hostile and dangerous world.

Wright adds:

Now, one of the messages out of the Middle East today is: they want to be the ones to make the decisions of what their future looks like. But at the same time — this is where, when you look at the Middle East, you can argue that we haven’t had a real success since Jimmy Carter.

Even the Gulf War in 1990-’91 was a tactical victory but a strategic failure, in that it unleashed, you know, al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and a period where Islamic extremism really began to define the region.

We need something much bigger to put out there to deal with the issue of Syria, the issue of Egypt, the issue of the Middle East.

Wright makes a fair point about our checkered record in the Middle East. However, it’s really unfair of her to blame the Gulf War for unleashing al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and a period of Islamic extremism.

In fact, Islamic extremism has been a problem since at least the Iranian Revolution of 1979. And the intellectual antecedents of this problem date back decades before that: to the writings of Sayyid Qub, who helped provide the inspiration for the anti-Western jihad.

No, the real reason al-Qaeda emerged as as a serious threat in the 1990s was that the Clinton administration was asleep at the switch and mostly ignored the growing Islamist threat. Clinton had, for instance, several chances to kill bin Laden, but refused to act.

George W. Bush may have had many failings, but he at least tried valiantly to address this problem and to construct a viable American strategy for the region. Thus he changed course in Iraq when it became clear that a new strategy was called for; and, as a result, Bush gave Obama a hard-won victory there.

Unfortunately, Obama has squandered this victory by failing to ratify a new Status of Forces agreement, which would have allowed for a contingent of American troops in Iraq. The president has since done everything that he can to disengage from the region, even announcing a ludicrous “pivot to Asia” just as the entire Middle East was exploding in an historic tumult.

But about her larger-scale point, Wright is absolutely correct: There is a crying need for a more comprehensive and far-sighted U.S. strategy in the Middle East. Non-intervention simply isn’t an option.

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