Obama Makes the Middle East Our New ‘Quagmire’
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The Fiscal Times
August 18, 2014

“Quagmire” is a term commonly associated with Vietnam, but we need to haul it out of storage. There is no other way to describe the mess the Obama administration has led us into in the Middle East.

President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have addressed the region’s “arc of crisis” more or less incoherently since each took office. Until recently, it seemed they might luck out: The war in Syria, while worsening, was more or less contained; Iraq simmered under the Shiite-chauvinism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but it wasn’t boiling over.

Related: With Iraq in Ruins, ISIS Turns to Genocide

Now come the flowers of error, and the bloom is horrific. The scarcely believable rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, confronts Washington with the most dramatic geopolitical transformation in the region since Iraq and Syria took shape after World War I. One: With $80 billion worth of intelligence at their disposal, how could the White House and State miss this? Two: They do not appear equipped to address this very new reality.

The Iranians were alert to the magnitude of ISIS’s threat as soon as its militias began their savage drive south from Syrian border to within a few miles of Baghdad. But few others were, as Patrick Cockburn, the noted Middle East commentator, wrote recently in The London Review of Books.  

“Politicians and diplomats tend to treat ISIS as if it is a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories, and then retreats to its strongholds leaving the status quo little changed,” Cockburn observed. As to Baghdad: “Even with ISIS at the gates, Iraqi politicians have gone on playing political games as they move ponderously towards replacing the discredited prime minister.”

This has now changed. Late last week al-Maliki, under pressure from the U.S., Iran, and domestic allies and adversaries, agreed to step down. The administration, now calling ISIS a global threat, continues the bombing that began two weeks ago, chiefly in support of Kurdish militias and in defense of Erbil, capital of the Kurdish autonomous region.

Related: Obama’s Policy Shifts Could End with U.S. Boots on the Ground

On the other side of the border—such as one remains—ISIS has pushed all forces opposing it and the Assad regime in Damascus to the brink of defeat. As Anne Barnard reported in Sunday’s New York Times, ISIS and the Syrian army have encircled “mainstream insurgents” within a five-mile radius of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the insurgents’ stronghold.

On Friday, the UN Security Council approved a resolution blocking ISIS funding and weapons supplies and authorizing the use of force; the vote was unanimous. The immediate question is whether world opinion and unexpected alliances, not least between Tehran and Washington, have galvanized too late to stop a movement that is medieval in its ideology and diabolically effective in battle.

The deeper question is what Obama and his policy advisers did or failed to do to land the U.S. in this complex crisis, and whether they now see straight enough to correct the mistakes.

There is little sign this administration yet recognizes either its errors or what this fundamental change in the Middle Eastern dynamic requires of it.

Related: Iraq, Middle East, Paying for Obama’s Miscalculations

Look at Syria first. The White House, State, Defense, and the intelligence agencies have long cast the anti-Assad forces as aspiring democrats and toyed with training and arming them for more than a year. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, especially when the enemy is friendly with Russia: This is the principle.

Two big mistakes here. One, the “mainstream insurgents”—what does this phrase even mean?—were born and raised in Washington imaginations. In another important commentary Sunday, Cockburn put it this way: “Unfortunately, this group scarcely exists except as a propaganda slogan and a consumer of subsidies from the Persian Gulf.

Two, it may have appeared opportune to back the anti-Assad rebels, but it is painfully clear now that Washington had the wrong men. With ISIS about to monopolize the insurgency, the bitter truth is that Assad is the best of a bad choice in Syria for the time being. Damascus is just as fearful of the virulent ISIS strain of Islam as Washington is—and as Moscow is, a big reason the Kremlin backs Assad.

Obama now declines to bomb ISIS on its northern flank for reasons no one makes clear. This is the mistake going forward in Syria; as many analysts said over the weekend, bombing in Iraq and not Syria is almost certain to prove fruitless—and then go on to calamitous as ISIS continues to advance its gains.

Related: If Kurds Fall, Chaos in Iraq and Abroad Will Follow

As to Iraq, it starts to look like a Keystone Kops routine. With fanfare, the administration mounted a humanitarian rescue, backed with bombing runs, to save the Yazidi minority. Abruptly, it then declared the mission successful and canceled evacuation plans, only to have reliable Yazidi spokespeople and the U.N.’s humanitarian agency assert “the situation is far from solved,” as the U.N.’s man put it. Am I the only one needing help here?

The bombing runs on ISIS are now focused on Erbil in part because there is an American consulate there and in part because “the Kurds have been our best friends for years,” as Gen. James L. Jones, Obama’s former national security adviser, said on CNN a few days ago.

This may seem right to a general, but a good diplomat would see it differently. Al-Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, must urgently form a unity government. It is at least bad appearances, and maybe bad strategy, to favor Erbil over Baghdad now. If Obama has any faith in al-Abadi, and Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, professes much, then he is Washington’s best friend now.

Related: An Iraq Intervention with the Usual Caveats

This point is crucial. The ISIS goal of reestablishing a caliphate is a declaration that it intends to send the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the Anglo-French pact that led to the formation of modern Iraq and Syria, into history. Does the administration understand that in favoring the Kurds over the unity effort in Baghdad it risks encouraging the breakup of a nation?

Obama cannot be blamed for all of the mess before us.  When American pilots are bombing an insurgency firing American weapons and driving American vehicles, it is a reminder that things started long before he took office.

But wasting time in Syria that could have been spent on a political solution, and reading Iraq wrong since American troops were ordered home three years ago—these mistakes are Obama’s and have worsened the crisis considerably.

Walter Russell Mead, the noted policy scholar, wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs two years into the Obama presidency suggesting Obama was due to stumble into “the Carter Syndrome,” meaning he was a president of too many minds to be effective. I considered it unfair to both men at the time.

Now it looks as if Obama would be fortunate to achieve even Carter’s standard on the foreign side.

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A correspondent, editor and critic for more than 30 years, mostly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, Patrick Smith has also lectured in journalism and media studies. He is the author of five books.