Obama dials down in the Middle East – but is it the right move?

Grant Rumley November 2013
Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

‘There’s a whole word out there, and we’ve got interests and opportunities in that whole world.” In one sentence, Susan Rice, the National Security Adviser, succinctly summed up the Obama administration’s latest efforts in shifting the focus outside of the Middle East.

Pundits, citizens, and policymakers alike are all familiar with the “Asia pivot” – the administration’s headline-friendly byword for reallocating resources and efforts that came about a few years ago. Now, in the midst of Egyptian despondency and Syrian dystopia, Obama appears geared toward dialing down, yet again, in the Middle East.

It used to be you could place America’s core interests in the Middle East in three categories: 1) democratization, or the spread of democracy; 2) the pursuit of the global war on terror; and 3) the unimpeded exchange of commerce (read: oil) out of the region.

To varying degrees depending on the presidency, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict floated in and out of these objectives. This was especially true with George W. Bush, who pursued both 1 and 3 in Iraq, 2 in Afghanistan, and in his second term the peace process.

So it was when Obama ascended to the presidency in 2008, and many assumed these core interests would remain. Certainly, Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo resonated with the democratization interest, and his increased drone campaign coincided with the war on terror.

Yet as events unfolded in the Middle East, Obama let these goals get away from him.

Indeed, as the Arab Spring unfolded, American interests increasingly became subverted by outside interests.

Nothing highlighted that more than the contrast in how the US approached Libya and Syria.

With Gaddafi, international pressure and opinion was overwhelmingly in support of a US-led no-fly zone, essentially handicapping the regime and boosting the rebels. In Syria, with global opinion less cohesive, the US was simply upended by Russia.

Intervening on behalf of the rebels in Syria coincided directly with the spread of democracy and the fight on terror that so dominated the political calculus for Bush; the contrast with Obama’s approach was sharp.

Even Israel’s hawkish stance on Iran, long a talking point in DC circles, has become a prominent fixture in Obama’s recent policy evaluation.

According to the same New York Times article quoted above, Rice has made it clear that the core interests for the remaining years of Obama’s tenure will be supporting the ongoing peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, limiting the Syrian violence, and resolving the Iranian issue. According to the article: “everything else will take a back seat.”

The focus, then, will be on the diplomatic front, with support mobilizing for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and for resolutions with Syria and Iran. But is this the right move for the US? In downgrading the US’s role in the region, does it leave a gap for another foreign entity to fill? Is it a high-risk, low-reward scenario? Or is it the right move for a nation with little to no domestic interest in intervening in the Middle East? Depending on who you ask, it’s a little bit of both. As Marc Lynch wrote, the US doesn’t really have to worry about any other foreign power getting involved in the Middle East. And for all of Russia’s diplomatic rhetoric, the Middle East is essentially the Miley Cyrus of the geopolitical arena: you don’t want anything to do with it but you can’t stop watching.

And so long as intervening in the Middle East is polling lower than Congress in the US, it is still going to be the safe bet, politically, to avoid any further involvement in the troubled region.

But on the strategic front, you don’t have to go far to find those who disagree with Obama’s shift.

Most notably, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who – when not visiting Egypt or sneaking into Syria – are adamant critics of Obama’s shift toward Asia.

In an op-ed written in The Washington Post, they criticize Obama for abandoning US interests in the region, including, among other things, a lack of support for the Free Syrian Army.

Clearly, it’s an issue that transcends politics in the US. For Obama, it’s almost a lose-lose scenario. Allocate resources and redouble efforts in the Middle East and suffer domestic reprisals, abandon the region and potentially risk adverse side effects that would be detrimental to any combination of US interests.

Perhaps if given a breakthrough on one of the main issues – Israel/ Palestine, Syria, Iran – Obama and Rice will feel comfortable refocusing their efforts on issues such as Egypt, or Libya, or the growing refugee crisis in Jordan. Or perhaps not.

As the past couple years have shown us, Obama has little tolerance for the Middle East, and why add to the grey hairs in the last years of his tenure?

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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