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Why Obama's Bush 2.0 Strategy for the Middle East is Wrong

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This is the last of three excerpts for Huffington Post from Vali Nasr's new book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (In the UK, you can buy the book here). Read part one here, and part two here.

If there is a discernible American strategy for the Middle East, it is counterterrorism -- continuing the war on al-Qaeda and its franchises and offshoots using Special Forces and drones. This is to be expected -- after all, there is still the threat of terrorism coming from the region. But counterterrorism will not transform the Middle East. To fully appreciate the impact of American foreign policy on the region one has to consider the responses to democracy and terrorism side by side, as the Janus faces of American engagement. It is not just that we did not have a proper response at the right time to the Arab Spring, we have doubled down on counterterrorism. And when the two have come into conflict, as in Yemen, the latter has trumped the former.

For, as surprising as it may seem to those who expected Obama to be a kind of "anti-Bush," it is Bush's preoccupation with homeland security as the be-all and end-all of grand strategy that serves as the best guide to how Obama sees American engagement in the Middle East.

America's fascination with drones is easy to understand. They are efficient and cheap and a far easier way to wage the war on terror than a counterinsurgency campaign involving tens of thousands of troops and nation-building to go with it. So it was not a surprise that drones quickly became the central pillar of America's successful counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then Yemen.

Other counterterrorism advances also came online right around the time Obama became president, most notably an enhanced cyberwar capability. The combination of drones, Special Forces, and cyberwarfare presented the new president with a viable high-tech clandestine alternative to traditional military means to combat terrorism -- Counterterrorism Plus. All told, as in the counterterrorism expert Peter Bergen's estimation, Obama is actually one of America's militarily most aggressive presidents -- comfortable with making tough decisions such as killing bin Laden or expanding drone programs.

When it came to drones there were four formidable unanimous voices in the Situation Room: the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Pentagon, and the White House's counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan. Defense Secretary Robert Gates may have said no to military involvement in Libya, but he was fully supportive of more drone attacks. Together, Brennan, Gates and the others convinced Obama of both the urgency of counterterrorism and the imperative of viewing America's engagement with the Middle East and South Asia through that prism. Their bloc by and large discouraged debate over the full implications of this strategy in national security meetings.

Quietly, and without any fanfare or debate, counterterrorism became the cornerstone and principal objective of American policy in the Middle East and South Asia. However, the policy of disengagement paired with drone strikes is not likely to prove viable in the long run. We have learned from our experience in Pakistan that drones are a difficult sell, though local populations may put up with drone campaigns longer if there is deep engagement with the United States and economic assistance to add other dimensions to the relationship.

Drones rely heavily on cooperative regimes that can tie America's hands in terms of supporting change. Yemen is a good example. Washington was rightly concerned that al-Qaeda would take advantage of the pro-democracy protests that engulfed Yemen throughout 2011 and eventually forced President Saleh out of office. But Washington had to balance its support for political change with its desire to keep in place the security apparatus that supported drone attacks on al-Qaeda targets.

Washington left the political negotiations around Saleh stepping down to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council and focused its attention on al-Qaeda. The outcome kept the Saleh regime in place but without Saleh himself, a sop to the protesters. In the bargain, America protected and expanded its drone program. (It was in the midst of protests that a drone strike killed the Yemeni-American al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, who had been identified as, among other things, a player in the failed Times Square attack.) The message was that even after Arabs themselves did what America had been asking of them for so long -- break with Arab nationalism and its dictatorships -- America is still sticking with the same game plan, fighting al-Qaeda. Drones, not democracy, drive American policy.

There is no doubt that drone attacks have worked locally (in Afghanistan, Pakistan's FATA region, and Yemen) to quickly decimate al-Qaeda's ranks. Yet it is open to question whether the drones' success in one location masks the creation of bigger problems elsewhere. The record in Pakistan and Yemen shows that drone attacks disperse al-Qaeda farther afield; the metastasis of terrorism in turn requires more drone attacks in more places. That is no success at all.

Drones are also not as innocuous as they sound. Drone strikes are aerial attacks that happen in collusion with a local government or in violation of a country's sovereignty and in either case run the risk of inflaming public opinion. They provoke anti-Americanism and the extremism that goes with it, and once those sentiments are inflamed it will be difficult to sustain the program --Pakistan and Yemen both provide ample evidence of that. Compared with other methods of striking from a distance, drones can indeed be surgical. But drones are like an economist's fiscal tool, clean and efficient until they encounter real-world politics.

When we were planning for Hillary Clinton's October 2009 trip to Pakistan, her first as secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke was adamant that we organize a town hall with women. He said that whenever Hillary got together with women the atmosphere was electric -- "Just look at what happened in South Korea," he would say. She could connect with women around issues that mattered to them, and that could produce a critical breakthrough in Pakistani public opinion.

It made sense, and the embassy invited a large group of affluent, English-speaking women -- the type who cared about women's rights, democracy and cultural freedoms. Four young women journalists would interview Clinton, and then the crowd would get to ask questions. The atmosphere was indeed "electric," but not because Clinton was bonding with the crowd. These modern Pakistani women were brimming with anger. From the get-go every other question was about drones, the civilians they killed and the humiliation they visited on Pakistan by violating its sovereignty. Sitting through that inquisition, I could not see a future for a foreign policy built on drones.

In April 2012, Pakistan's parliament recommended that the government end the drone program. The next step could be street protests -- which have been on the rise since September 2012, when a YouTube video clip insulting the Prophet Muhammad went viral. That would not only make the program untenable but also radicalize politics. Drones could be promoting the very problem that they are intended to solve.

At a time when the Arab world is grappling with economic and political change, American foreign policy is marching to a different drummer. The White House favors containment rather than engagement, and drones are the main tool. And the policy is spreading fast, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Middle East. Yemen is the Middle Eastern target for the drone strategy, but if al-Qaeda proliferates in Syria, or in an Iraq now stripped of U.S. troops, or elsewhere -- Somalia or Libya -- the program could extend to those places as well.

Al-Qaeda thrives in failed states. The right strategy for America is to shore up states battered by the winds of change. Some have argued that the Arab Spring has not given America much
to work with. It has not produced liberal forces marching toward democratic capitalism. Libya is hardly a state, Syria is falling into civil war and Egypt is descending into the unknown, caught for now between Islamic fundamentalists and their only real rival for power, a clique of authoritarian generals. Nor do democrats seem to predominate in Yemen or Bahrain.

Others argue that locals themselves have waved away U.S. involvement. Egypt has been cool to the IMF and has been growing more anti-American. In fact, some say, it is a good thing that America has stayed away, making sure that it is not an obstacle to change.

But not being an obstacle to change is not enough. America should be making sure that change moves in the right direction, is not reversed and does not go off the rails. Our policy, in the end, will be judged by whether the 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. Only then will we have brought our values and interests into alignment. On that score, Obama's disengaged attitude toward the Middle East has served neither America's values nor its long-term interests.

From the book: THE DISPENSABLE NATION by Vali Nasr. Copyright © 2013 by Vali Nasr. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. and also by arrangement with Scribe.