Can Obama Take Advice? Reflections on the Middle East and American Strategy

October 22, 2015

Eliot Cohen is frustrated. He views President Obama as not able to take advice on foreign affairs. In making his case, Cohen offers his view on how the Obama administration and the president in particular see the current crisis in the Middle East:

We would do well to have nothing to do with the Middle East.

The Bush Administration idiotically got us deeply involved in 2003 — the mistake from which most of our troubles have flowed. Our real interests, and in particular our economic interests, lie in Asia. The Europeans will have to learn to handle refugee flows on their own. Admittedly, many Middle Eastern terrorists would like to attack us, but they have their hands full with local enemies, and for those who want to target North America we have drones and special operators.

We have all the oil and natural gas we need: our geo-economic interests in the region are negligible. The Russians and Iranians want to pacify Syria? Fine. Let them try it and see what happens — both will get bled by it, which is fine with us. Besides, the Sunni Arab states will naturally act to balance Persian Shi‘a power.

And really, who wants to engage deeply in the politics of peoples whose main activities seems to be holding days of rage, and engaging in bouts of suicide-bombing and beheading? The Israelis can take care of themselves, not that we care for them all that much anyway. Humanitarian concerns about the rest? A pity, but we cannot go around solving all the world’s problems. We are, in a word, realists, unlike our soft-headed critics on left and right.

Few observers would disagree with Cohen’s analysis that political decision-making in this administration is highly centralized in the Oval Office, although some might disagree with his characterization of President Obama’s views. It is, however, possible to take the same data Cohen uses and come up with a very different articulation of the administration’s concerns — one that sounds a little less arrogant (a major portion of Cohen’s critique).

A more charitable description of administration strategy in the Middle East might consider the following.

  1. It believes other threats may be emerging that are more serious in terms of American and global interests (i.e., China and the pivot/rebalance).
  2. It believes the United States has no reasonable chance of resolving Syria’s civil war in the near term, regardless of the strength and intensity of our involvement.
  3. It does not believe there will be public support for another protracted occupation in the Middle East.
  4. It is trying to husband scarce (and eroded) defense resources in a time of significant economic and domestic political constraint (episodic crises over expanding the debt ceiling, the looming threat of sequestration, continuing budget battles, a deeply divided Congress with no clear Republican leader).

This is somewhat different from an assumption that “We would do well to have nothing to do with the Middle East.” That is a caricature, as is “The Israelis can take care of themselves, not that we care for them all that much anyway.” The United States remains deeply engaged in the Middle East. But that theater now faces competition for resources and attention in a significantly changed strategic environment. It may simply be that the resources necessary to “fix” the Syrian civil war and its attendant consequences are needed elsewhere, and that for the first time in a generation CENTCOM is no longer the priority theater.

For 25 years, the United States expended significant resources and attention on managing obnoxious medium powers (Iraq and Serbia, and possibly Iran). CENTCOM went from a backwater (relative to Europe and the Pacific Rim) to a major theater in the 1990s, and then became the site of two significant regional wars and a global counterterrorism mission after 9/11.  Those commitments and expenditure were enabled by a growing domestic and global economy, military predominance, and a lack of great power competition.

Over the last ten years, however, those favorable conditions have eroded. The combination of the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and the subsequent “Arab Spring” (some commentators believe there is a causal connection between the two) dissolved a generation of relative political stability in the Middle East. The balance of power in the Persian Gulf collapsed, and both friendly and hostile regimes throughout the region imploded or were overthrown. The only regimes that appear stable are the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the conservative familial regimes of the southern Gulf.

Turmoil in the region, however, is no longer necessarily the top priority of the United States. According to Gen. Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the most serious threats to the United States, in rank order, are Russia, China, North Korea, and then the Islamic State (Iran and Al Qaeda did not make the top four). During the last ten years, great power competitors have re-emerged in areas where the United States has longer-term commitments and interests: Europe and the Pacific Rim. The National Military Strategy of 2015 discusses our global networks and partnerships in a very specific order — Asia, Europe, and only then the Middle East. After 25 years of focused attention, CENTCOM now has to compete for resources and priority.

It is probably not surprising that the “tactical” advice of administration critics apparently presumes that CENTCOM maintains its priority status — after all, on their watch, it was the top priority. That assumption, however, may be incorrect — both for this administration and for its successors.

For a generation, the United States has, at great expense, attempted to impose stability on the Middle East, using all the tools of national policy. For fifteen years, vast military resources have failed to achieve long-term U.S. objectives — regional stability, a shift toward democratic governance, and eroding support for transnational terrorism. Our inability to convert dominant military force into meaningful strategic success in both Iraq and Afghanistan provides little reason for optimism that expanded intervention in Syria will have quick, decisive success.

This administration has successfully fended off two sets of critics, demonstrating a consistent strategic vision. The right seeks some heightened level of U.S. intervention and involvement to counter Iran, the Islamic State, or now Russia. The left advocates a “responsibility to protect” and costly, uncertain humanitarian missions in the midst of massive civil wars. Despite this pressure, the administration has demonstrated a consistent preference to limit additional commitments in the Middle East.

At the same time, the administration appears to have some sense of flexibility — its positions are strongly held, but not completely dogmatic. For example, the discussions about extending troop presence in Afghanistan (long overdue in some eyes) after Kunduz may be evidence of some recognition that deadlines have drawbacks. It may take a great deal to shift administration policy, but there is evidence events can spur tactical and strategic re-assessment. Finally, the administration is certainly risk-averse, but understandably so if it seeks to contain costs in regions where those costs may be high and the rewards few.

The administration’s strategy, therefore, might alternatively be described as a re-prioritization of theaters and a rejection of new commitments, based on a calculation of stagnant or eroding resources and emerging threats. That calculus may very reasonably reject humanitarian intervention when costs are likely to be high and solutions scarce. The president may legitimately fear that both sides of an inter-faith religious struggle will perceive interveners as alien intruders. In each case, the costs of intervention may far outweigh the potential benefits or likelihood of positive outcomes, and may create significant opportunity costs elsewhere in the world. Administration restraint, criticized as an arrogant rejection of strategic or tactical advice by its opponents, may, in other words, be prudent.

To use somewhat tired terms from the international relations literature, the administration’s strategy is somewhere between selective engagement and offshore balancing, rather than complete abandonment of the region. This approach may, as Cohen describes, be thoroughly wrong-headed. It may also be that the next administration — whatever party — will find itself scrambling to differentiate itself from its predecessor, and perhaps even failing (see the Bush 43 administration’s failed efforts to redefine our strategy with Iraq prior to 9/11). If there were one clear strategy that would lead to success in the Middle East, presumably this would be easy. But it is worth remembering that the Bush administration was also floundering in this region between 2006 and 2008, finding long-term political stability in Iraq and Afghanistan elusive as the burn rate on U.S. resources became unacceptably high, and that the Clinton, Bush 41, Reagan and Nixon administrations all had mixed success at best in this part of the world.

Cohen calls for a “first-order discussion” of American interests and strategy. Such a discussion will be hard to hold in the midst of the most protracted election process on record. Partisan politics has its uses in the formation of strategy — opposition parties articulate alternatives to current strategy, and put those alternatives in front of the public for validation. However, Cohen’s blistering condemnation of arrogance, fickle policy, failure to intervene on humanitarian grounds, and national humiliation does not constitute a good starting point for an objective discussion of strategic alternatives. It will be swallowed up in partisan political posturing — although his instincts for a serious discussion are sound.

In an unstable global environment, where do we accept risk? The Obama administration has chosen to accept it in the Levant, containing both the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war rather than intervening with force (although this certainly is not articulated policy). I suspect Cohen is right in stating that this policy will hold for sixteen months, barring some genuinely disastrous new event. As we “… renew our understanding of the world …”we may want to consider that we no longer have the relative power or the freedom of action to engage heavily in the Middle East without affecting our interests elsewhere. The generation-long luxury of the unipolar moment is either waning or squandered, depending on one’s point of view, due to the emergence of great power competitors and of social forces apparently beyond our control. We would do well to soberly consider the limits of power — especially military power — after a long period of exercising it relatively freely but, arguably, unsuccessfully. The objective of strategy, after all, is to calibrate available resources to achieve political aims; and if those aims are overly ambitious, like fixing a broken Syria or ending Sunni–Shi’a conflict, or are ill-suited to our available means or public support, we may find ourselves bankrupt when threats to more significant interests arise.


Dr. Timothy D. Hoyt is Professor of Strategy and Policy and John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own, and not those of the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, or any other government organization.