For Obama, an Indispensable Lesson from the Middle East

08/26/2014 05:31 pm ET | Updated Oct 26, 2014

President Barack Obama, who by any measure is a smart and shrewd politician, must be feeling rather foolish nowadays. Not only have his predictions proved wrong about Iraq and al-Qaeda, but, under his watch, America is also being drawn back into the Iraq quagmire three years after it withdrew.

The president was all optimistic when he secured U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. But his claim of "extraordinary achievement", of leaving behind a "sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq", was soon shown to be, at best, wishful thinking - indeed a grave error.

Despite retaining eyes and ears on the Iraqi ground, the advance of the Islamic State group over the last few months has clearly taken Washington by surprise. It's yet another terrible failure of U.S. intelligence services.

How much of this can be said to be Obama's fault? Of course, he cannot be blamed for the follies of his predecessor, nor is he responsible for half a century of foreign policy that compromised America's values in favour of its short-term interests.

Still, the president does share major responsibility for the present failures after serving five years in office.

Obama might be careful, calculating, and nuanced, but his foreign policy has produced one blowback after another from Libya to Afghanistan through Iraq and Syria.

Obama's mistakes

Miscalculation and myopia have seemingly marked the execution of the Obama doctrine of leading from far and behind. Four major miscalculations stand out:

First, the president rightly promised to "end the mindset" that produced the Iraq catastrophe, but instead he only reformatted it. He played it safe, not wise, staying below the radar by using, for example, remotely run drones instead of foot soldiers on the ground. Every attack has sown death and produced new recruits for the jihadi groups. Just ask the Afghans, Pakistanis, and Yemenis.

In effect, President Obama wasted a historic mandate granted by the American people to "un-Bush" America's foreign policy by ending the hawkish unilateral militarism.

Second, Obama was right to downsize U.S. regional commitments and lower regional expectations, but he did not help bring about a multilateral alternative to U.S. influence.

Obama lectured U.S. allies and global powers about why they needed to a play greater role in regional affairs, while preserving the U.S. military and strategic dominance in the Middle East. In other words, as Washington projects overwhelming power from the Mediterranean to the Gulf - but forgoes its strategic commitments there - expect more, not less, trouble in the explosive region.

In that way, the fragmentation of Iraq that started with the U.S. invasion in 2003 has only escalated with U.S. withdrawal in 2011. The same goes for the likes of Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya, etc.

Third, President Obama might have succeeded in tracing and killing Osama Bin Laden, but he has grossly underestimated the consequences of further decentralization of al-Qaeda Central that Bin Laden once commanded on the borders of Afghanistan/Pakistan.

Only a few months ago, the President offered a blithe basketball analogy in response to questions about the rise and proliferation of Jihadi groups affiliated with al-Qaeda: "If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn't make them Kobe Bryant."

Alas, the Islamic State group has proved more powerful, more strategic, and even deadlier than al-Qaeda Central, with far reaching ramifications for the United States and its allies. Its leader, Al-Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has outperformed Bin Laden and has become a rallying symbol for many al-Qaeda affiliates throughout the region.

Lastly, the Obama administration has misjudged the tenacity of its nemeses, just as it underestimated the dependency of its regional allies on its protection.

Obama's attempts to remove the White House, albeit partially, from the region's disputes, has left behind more than just a major strategic void. These are the conditions for a perfect storm, the eye of which is the void left by America.

For example, the Obama administration remained conspicuously silent as Prime Minister Maliki cracked down on his Sunni rivals, alienated the Kurds, and undermined the unity of the country. This was made easier when the American media largely abandoned the country in an attempt at collective amnesia about the scars of the war.

The same goes for Syria. When Bashar al-Assad's regime was challenged by a popular revolt in 2011, Washington's allies looked to the US to intervene, preventing Assad from carrying out genocide against his own people, given that no other power had the capacity to do so.

And of course the same goes for Washington's continued support for the Netanyahu government as it expanded illegal settlements in Palestine and carried a terrible military offensive against Gaza.

The indispensable lesson

The lesson from all of these mishaps can be found, partly, in President Obama's own admission regarding Libya. In a recent interview with the New York Times, the president acknowledged that it was a mistake not to follow the war to dislodge Qaddafi with a real multilateral effort to stabilize the country and secure its unity.

Not so different from former Secretary of State Colin Powel's advice: "if you break it, you own it".

More importantly, removing the lid on any sort of hegemony, be it a dictatorship like Saddam's, a terrorist organisation like Bin Laden's, or even a superpower power like the US, can only open a can of worms if it is not contained through the establishment in its place of a viable alternative power system.

Once the can has been opened, it's been proven impossible to close. Removing Saddam Hussein opened the gates of sectarian hell in Iraq. Assassinating Bin Laden empowered new jihadist leaders to step in to take up the mantle of al-Qaeda.

Whether evil or benevolent, a superpower is also a system of patronage with many stakeholders dependent upon it. Failure to change, meet or manage their expectations is sure to make America's clients pricklier, less secure, and, as a consequence, less cooperative.

For all these reasons, the United States must ensure a viable multilateral alternative to its hegemony in the Middle East. It must use its super-power status to empower allies and regional players to assume greater authority. Europe and the countries of the region should be invited to take part and emboldened to step up to the plate if there's a genuine attempt at extracting the US from the Middle East's challenges.