In the aftermath of the war in Iraq, in 2008, nearly 53 percent of American voters elected Barack Obama on a message that he will pull us out of Iraq and restore our image in the world as a benevolent superpower. Yet, Obama has been criticized for the growth of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the increasingly unstable situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the nuclear deal with Iran. There is also a growing chasm between the US and its traditional allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Recently, President Obama has come under increased scrutiny for not becoming more involved in Syria.
All of this was foreseeable and the American people got the government they deserve.
Obama's Middle East Strategy
Taking a moment to look at some of the major countries in the region and the recent activity in each of the countries, we can see a pattern.
- Concerning Iraq, Obama campaigned on the pledge to withdraw from Iraq and that is exactly what he did. The Obama administration inherited a timetable for withdrawal from the Bush Administration. The American people wanted us to withdraw. The Iraqi government and people also wanted us to withdraw. And the world wanted us to withdraw. Since then Iraq has lost several sections to ISIS, and its own government is increasingly aligned with Iran. This was all to be expected.
- Concerning Iran, in 2007 president Obama was criticized by Hillary Clinton for saying that he would talk to Iran without preconditions. Consequently, for the first time since 1979, the US had high-level talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Without the nuclear deal, the IAEA and the world would have no eyes on Iran's nuclear program and it would be progressing unchecked. The entire world supported this deal except for three groups - the rightwing in the US and Iran, and Israel's government.
- Concerning Syria, in the aftermath of the quagmire in Iraq, it would be expected that president Obama would not want to put boots on the ground. If the US were to put massive numbers of troops in Syria it could and would likely easily become a proxy war against Iran and Russia. Russia and Iran have different goals in Syria than does the US. The US's goal has been to topple Assad and use the Syrian opposition fighters to aid in the endeavor. On the other side of the equation, Iran and Russia are trying to keep Assad in power and there are reports that they are not always fighting ISIS but are taking on the Assad's opposition. But alas, Obama has been forced to deal with the reality that without US leadership, ISIS is likely to remain a troublesome force in Syria and the refugee crisis from the civil war with Assad will continue.
- Concerning Saudi Arabia, candidate Obama said that he wanted to decrease dependence on Middle East oil. The US does not need to have the same geopolitical strategy. With the discovery of fracking in the US, the US is poised to become one of the largest exporters of natural gas and petroleum in the world, eliminating the need for dependence on Saudi Arabia. The shift from natural resources to counterterrorism has shifted what the US needs from Saudi Arabia.
- Concerning, Israel, the very thing that Obama said he would pursue, i.e., "securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states" became a point of contention. President Obama has estranged his administration from that of the Netanyahu administration in Israel. There have been several reasons but none as controversial as the Iran deal. Israel was opposed to any negotiation with Iran so it didn't matter what came out of the talks between the EU3+3 as Israel was never going to concede that a deal could be achieved and could push back an Iranian bomb for over a decade.
Many critics have said that Obama does not have a Middle East strategy. I disagree. The pattern that can be detected is one where President Obama is 'pulling back' where necessary, as Simon and Stevenson suggested. Yet Obama has also engaged with Iran as he said he would do when he was a candidate. We need to keep in context the president that we elected. Americans wanted to get out of the Middle East.
In our system of government, we always get the government we deserve, for better or for worse. We have no one to blame or congratulate but ourselves for who we elect. And by 'we' I mean the collective we.
What should we expect from a strategy of pulling back from the Middle East? More or less enemies? Time will tell.
Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts on the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. He lived and worked in the Middle East and has a master's in international relations from the London School of Economics, and from the Harvard School of Government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.