Like his predecessors, President Obama has embraced an active schedule of foreign travel and international diplomacy in the final months of his presidency. In recent weeks, we have seen a path-breaking visit to Cuba followed by Argentina. Last week, he hosted an annual summit of world leaders to address safeguards against the spread of nuclear weapons. In coming weeks, he will return to his favorite overseas destination, Asia. What is noteworthy is where the President is not going — to the Middle East.
For nearly a century, the importance of the Middle East to the United States has been simply taken for granted. Over the last 25 years — since the first Gulf War — America has been militarily engaged in the region on an almost continuous basis highlighted by major troop commitments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite the determination of this White House to disengage from both battlefields, U.S. forces in the thousands remain in Afghanistan and, after dropping to near zero, are now returning in significant numbers to Iraq. Increasingly, the Middle East has descended into a pit of sectarian warfare — Sunni vs Shiite vs Kurd, with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as active protagonists fighting directly or through proxies. Syria and Libya have disintegrated, producing a desperate wave of refugees descending on Europe. Egypt is held together by a new autocrat. Turkey, which once looked like a maturing democracy, is now sliding back toward dictatorship. Iran is riven with internal tensions, but, compared to the neighborhood, looks like an island of tranquility. At the center of these conflicts and state breakdowns lies the “Islamic State” — an organization of psychopathic killers parading under the banner of Islam. The “Arab Spring” is long gone, leaving only one Arab state (Tunisia) that appears to be making a transition to democracy and modernity. But on a per capita basis, Tunisia supplies more recruits to IS than any other country.
Israel could be a constructive influence on the region, but is not. Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli government continues to repress, humiliate and frustrate the Palestinians in a way that guarantees perpetual Palestinian hostility and a state of unending conflict between the two communities. The promise/prospect that a great Israeli leader, Yitzhak Rabin, would negotiate a durable peace with the Palestinians that could be a model for the region ended with an assassin’s bullet. In Egypt, the heady moments when demonstrators calling for democratic change thronged Tahir Square are a memory. Today, Egypt is a more repressive place than it has ever been. When Bashir Assad inherited the mantle of his deceased father, a classic Arab autocrat, there was hope that the young British educated ophthalmologist would prove to be a reformer. Today, Bashir Assad has more blood on his hands than his blood-soaked father ever imagined.
So what does this toxic cesspool mean for America? It is very tempting to conclude that the best thing the United States could do is turn away and let the peoples of the region go on killing each other to their hearts’ content. The United States no longer needs Arab oil so why bother?
Unfortunately, that option is just not viable — for two principal reasons. First, IS has demonstrated the will and capacity to extend its lethal reach beyond the Middle East to Europe (Paris and Brussels) — and to the United States. A recently revealed attempt by IS to penetrate a Belgian nuclear facility is a signal regarding how far this thing could go. Second, the refugee flood generated primarily be non-stop carnage in Syria threatens the very political and cultural foundations of Europe. This is a very big deal. Many will insist that Israel still has a powerful claim on U.S. support. Others will note that Netanyahu has proven he is no friend of America and has, therefore, forfeited that claim.
Some of the proposed remedies coming out of the ongoing presidential campaign —including “carpet bombing” IS or, alternatively, using nuclear weapons — are beyond stupid. What we are left with is something very close to what the administration is actually doing. The White House strategy rests on a bitter recognition of two realities: (1) the outcomes the United States seeks in the Middle East — a region of peaceful, prosperous and democratic nations — is not going to happen in the foreseeable future; and (2) employing U.S. troops to defeat IS and occupy IS strongholds in Iraq and Syria would provide only an ephemeral solution. U.S. Marines could conquer the IS “capital” of Raqqa tomorrow, but then what? Who would govern it? It would certainly become a new cauldron of conflict with the Syrian army and myriad resistance organizations competing for dominance, and generating a new wave of refugees (and terrorists).
The administration’s answer is to lean heavily on the spectacular technical capabilities of U.S. airpower (drones, precision-guided munitions, pinpoint reconnaissance capabilities), augmented by human intelligence sources, to systematically target and degrade IS — with virtually no American casualties. Meanwhile, train, advise and work with the Kurds, Sunni tribes, a “moderate Syrian resistance and the Iraqi Army in the hope that eventually they can become capable of occupying, holding and governing the IS space. But that would require Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds to actually get along with one another . . . .
All this leaves open the possibility that the IS terrorist threat to the West becomes sufficiently dangerous to require direct U.S. military intervention on the ground while recognizing all the costs and uncertainties of such a step.