Ex-Obama officials lament US president's lack of Middle East policy

A former White House advisor has written a devastating critique of what he sees as president Obama's lack of a Middle East policy, Michael Young reports

Barack Obama is applauded after delivering a speech at Cairo University in Egypt in 2009. Quoting from the Quran, Obama called for a 'new beginning between the United States and Muslims', in an address designed to reframe relations after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the US-led war in Iraq. The applause has long since died away, according to Vali Nasr. Nasser Nasser / AP Photo
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It is revealing that two former Obama administration officials have become critics of current US policy in the Middle East. Both are respected academics, have a high profile in media, and have argued that Washington is not using all the instruments at its disposal to advance its political interests in the region.

The first is Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, who has denounced the administration's policy in Syria. Slaughter, who served as director of policy planning at the US State Department between 2009 and 2011, has lamented President Barack Obama's lethargy. Theodore Roosevelt once said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick", she writes, but Obama's predisposition in Syria has been to "speak loudly and throw away your stick".

Slaughter is no neoconservative who opposes the president on ideological grounds. But like Vali Nasr, the second one-time official ill at ease with Obama's disinterest in the Middle East, she is concerned that the US risks no longer standing for much in the world. Nasr, a former adviser to Richard Holbrooke, the late US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, came away disillusioned from his experience, and has just published The Dispensable Nation, on the absence of a coherent US policy in the broader Middle East. Exiled from Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, Nasr is currently dean of John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, and one of America's most authoritative commentators on international relations.

In his introduction, Nasr writes that he thought long and hard about writing his book, as he did not want it to become a "political bludgeon". Whatever his intentions, the book is a devastating broadside against Obama's approach to a region at the centre of his predecessor's preoccupations. What makes the book so effective is that it rises above the limiting neocon versus realist dichotomy prevailing during the George W Bush years, and addresses the topic squarely from the realist perspective favoured by the president.

Nasr argues, first, that the Obama administration has concentrated foreign policy decisions in the White House, giving undue authority to two groups of people with limited experience in the matter: the president's coterie of political advisers, who based their decisions on how foreign policy issues would play at home; and the military and intelligence agencies, who offered "swift and dynamic, as well as media-attracting, action …"

The loser in this context was the foreign policy establishment, the experienced hands such as Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who time and again found themselves rectifying administration errors. What they unsuccessfully sought to advance, Nasr writes, is a "patient, long-range, credible diplomacy that garners the respect of our allies and their support when we need it".

Nasr is calling for something that is indeed woefully lacking under Obama: a cohesive foreign policy strategy that integrates and gives meaning to American actions in the Middle East and South Asia. Instead, Obama's administration has seemed without direction, avoiding decisive decisions in crises demanding urgent action, while expressing grand ambitions - such as working to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict - that it makes no serious effort to fulfil.

Instead, the administration's tendency has been to "lead from behind", which speaks volumes about Obama's desire to have his cake and eat it too. The president is a man who avoids taking political risks - a tendency Nasr has particularly seen in US policy towards Iran, Afghanistan and the Arab world - his perennial caution suffocating his ability to exploit valuable political openings.

This leads us to the second of Nasr's general arguments, namely that the US appears to be retreating from the Middle East, a direction Nasr considers potentially "disastrous". Obama is not the first president who has sought to refocus away from a foreign policy course or region that he believes has monopolised too much of America's time and money. Lyndon Johnson sought to concentrate on domestic American affairs after 1964, with his Great Society programme, as did Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W Bush in 2000. All three were blindsided by reality. Mr Johnson became a prisoner of the Vietnam war, Clinton involved himself deeply in the Bosnian conflict and Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, and Bush, after the September 11, 2001 attacks, embarked on military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the "global war on terrorism".

There has been hubris in Obama's behaviour that considers foreign policy pursuits only as important as the amount of attention the US devotes to them. And yet, as the conflict in Syria has shown, that proposition is nonsensical. Two years after the uprising began, Obama has sensed the dangerous implications of a conflict that may engulf the region. And yet for much of that time, administration officials and their echo chambers in the media insisted there was no benefit in the US getting involved.

Nasr disagrees. He believes that the US will be judged by whether the so-called Arab Spring produces "better Arab states that do right by their people and live up to their responsibility to the international order and its institutions". Achieving this will bring American values and interests into alignment. In contrast, "Obama's disengaged attitude toward the Middle East has served neither American values nor its long-term interests".

The war in Syria has turned into a proxy war drawing in American allies and foes, creating a chaotic situation accompanied by terrible human suffering. Obama cannot be bothered with human rights, we now know, but as Nasr advises, the US must bolster regional stability, regardless of whether it is less dependent on Arab oil than it once was. Oil markets will definitely be affected by conflict in the region, impacting on the global economy. And it seems ludicrous to have to defend the proposition that enhanced Iranian and Hezbollah influence in the region will negatively affect US interests, especially if it pushes Arabian Gulf states to take self-defensive actions that strengthen militant Islamists and heighten sectarian animosities.

Obama's withdrawal from the Middle East has, in its own way, been revolutionary, the product of a view that the US cannot behave as it once did in the region. Too often this outlook has been confused with American decline. It is something else: a result of a growing realisation that America's problems cannot be resolved militarily, an attitude that prevailed during the last decade when American military power was frequently deployed with success. But this brings out a contradiction in Obama's stance. He has long been sceptical of America's engagement in overseas wars. One of his first acts was to accelerate the pullout from Iraq. He is winding down American involvement in Afghanistan. Yet these processes were not accompanied by greater reliance on diplomacy. On most major issues in the Middle East, the president has refused to expend political capital or engage himself personally. Instead, he has resorted to the least costly of tactics, namely assassination, usually by relying on drones.

Nasr reserves his last chapter for a stimulating discussion of what he views as the central role of the Middle East in the growing Chinese-American rivalry.

Commenting on the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia", much hailed by American officials as a necessary move away from the Middle East to a more vital region of the world, Nasr writes: "A retreat from the Middle East will not free us to deal with China; it will constrain us in managing the competition."

The chapter is an effort to engage in strategic thinking of the kind Nasr did not see during his days in government. He presents an often fascinating rundown of the strategic interests of China, which, unlike the US, has approached the Middle East with a long-term game plan to serve its geopolitical ambitions and energy needs. The US-China competition is about "global power", writes Nasr, before faulting the Obama administration for failing to quite understand what this means. What may emerge, he warns, is an all-powerful China that controls gas and oil supplies to Asia from the Gulf, and squeezes the energy lifeline of America's Asian allies.

But Obama has too often spoken of US limitations to be a decisive defender of America's global pre-eminence. He has pursued the politics of neglect, convinced that this will make America stronger. But an American president doesn't have the luxury of aloofness. Whatever he does wrong, other countries will usually pay for.

Michael Young is the opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. On Twitter @BeirutCalling