Infamously noted in Jeffery Goldberg’s published interviews with Barack Obama in the Atlantic, On August 30, 2013 President Barack Obama’s decision not to enforce the ‘red-line’ he drew for President Assad in the summer of 2012, was the most defining moment of his foreign policy legacy. The ‘red-line’ was a threat of military action against Assad if he used chemical weapons against his own citizens. In August of 2013, mounting evidence suggested that Assad had used sarin gas against individuals of the Syrian opposition in Ghouta, but Obama refused to act against him. This decision reflected Obama’s outlook on the U.S.’s role in the Middle East. In his eight years as president, Obama’s policies have created a new world order.
Following the end of the Cold War, America emerged as the sole global superpower with the ability to enact its doctrine and will upon the rest of the world. During the first Gulf War in 1991, the United States successfully led a coalition that swiftly removed Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. Subsequently, the U.S. and U.N. were able to establish a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq to protect Iraqi Kurds and provided them with humanitarian aid as well. This reveals that in 1990s the U.S. was a powerful force for good in the Middle East. The American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 would change this view and be the force which inspired the establishment of a new geopolitical landscape under the Obama Administration.
According to Jeffery Goldberg, President Obama’s guiding foreign policy principle has been “don’t do stupid shit” (Goldberg). Unfortunately for Syria, “don’t do stupid shit” became synonymous with malaise towards the Middle East. Obama’s inaction in 2013 was the moment when he broke with what he calls “Washington’s Playbook,” which he defines as the Washington foreign policy establishment’s ‘fetish’ for gaining credibility through the use of military force, something he deeply despises. (Goldberg). Obama’s presidency marked a turning point in America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. His inaction and withdrawal from the region, use of drones, and the weakening of the United States’ relationship with its allies are key characteristics of Obama’s foreign policy. These components have contributed to his creation of an American attitude that lacks enthusiasm for the traditional concept of democracy as good for other people and worth ensuring in other nations. This new attitude has developed an international situation where power and influence of the United States in the Middle East has significantly diminished.
During his 2008 campaign, President Obama promised to end the wars in the Middle East and restore the reputation of the United States worldwide. He maintained this position throughout his two terms and reminded the American public of the success of his military rollback in Iraq during his campaign for re-election in 2012. In order to realize his campaign promises, Obama reduced the amount of troops and personnel on the ground in the Middle East, but soon realized that in the absence of U.S. military engagement the region would remain an exporter of violence and terror towards the United States and its interests. To solve this, he turned to the use of drones to carry out his military operations.
Under President Obama “there has been a clear policy shift towards greater reliance on [drone strikes]” (McCrisken, 97). In addition, “upon taking office in January 2009, President Barack Obama almost immediately made drones one of his key national security tools” (Bergen, 1). For decades, the United States has maintained a policy prohibiting targeted killings, but the increased use of the drones to target militant jihadists in the tribal areas of Northern Pakistan and Yemen, reveals a significant break with Washington’s former policies. While the first drone strikes began in 2002, “under Obama the drone program accelerated from an average of one strike every [forty] days to one every [four] days by mid-2011” (Bergen, 1). Moreover, while George W. Bush reportedly oversaw [forty-eight] predator drone strikes in Pakistan during his presidency, Obama is estimated to have presided over an additional 302 in the country (McCrisken, 97). It is evident that Obama has increased the dependence of the United States on drones to carry out its military operations and protect its citizens. Neither the legality, nor the effectiveness of this policy of targeting potential terrorists with drones will be discussed here; rather the consequences and policy implications of this practical shift that will reverberate throughout the Middle East and the world in upcoming years.
First, it is not surprising that Obama has pursued this course. Under the drone program, the United States government continues to combat threats to U.S. interests without significant troop commitments. Citing a parallel between lowering U.S. troop counts in the Middle East and the concomitant rise in drone strikes, the International Crisis Groups asserts that, “as the Obama administration looks to withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, it is likely U.S. reliance on remote [drone strikes] will…intensify” (ICG, 34). It appears that the Obama administration views the drone program as an alternative to traditional military engagement and it is likely that the use of drones will continue to escalate. Akin to having your cake and eating too, it is evident that President Obama continued conducting warfare in the Middle East with drones, instead of soldiers, so that he could keep his domestic political leverage, while still protecting American interests abroad. Drones are a perfect solution for President Obama’s military policy of withdrawal. Obama knew that he not only needed to keep his campaign promises, but also that he had an obligation as the President of the United States to eliminate individuals who posed an imminent threat to the United States. In this case, military withdrawal is farce and disingenuous. It is evident that Obama’s heightened use of drones has marked a significant break with America’s prohibition of targeted killings in past decades.
In addition, drones allow the government more flexibility and less responsibility when conducting military operations. According to Charlie Savage, “in 2012 the Obama administration loosened limits on targeting in Yemen to permit strikes at presumed militants whose identities were unknown” (Savage, 257). The use of drones has allowed for more flexibility in warfare and provided significant advantages over America’s adversaries. Moreover, during the United States drone campaign against members of Al-Qaeda in Yemen in 2011, the Yemeni government continued to cover for the United States by falsely claiming that, “its own fighter jets had fired the missiles” (Savage, 226). This policy has given the United States less responsibility when strikes have significant civilian casualties or sometimes fail to hit their targets at all. The secrecy of the strikes also inhibits any further military inquiry, because it is more difficult for foreign governments or non-state militants to determine who delivered the strikes, especially when they take place in tribal areas.
Furthermore, drones allow the president and CIA to conduct warfare without congressional oversight, further expanding the powers of the presidency. Drone warfare is the use of force, but not in the conventional way that policymakers think of when they talk about the “use of force.” They allow the United States to conduct warfare without a significant military commitment and prevent deaths of American soldiers on the ground. For example, Charlie Savage notes that when “a drone crashed or was shot down, its pilot still went home for dinner” (Savage, 272). In addition, “because of the recent practice of only invoking the War Powers Resolution if American causalities have been suffered” the president is not inclined to reveal drone activity if no American lives are at risk (Alberto). Consequently, policymakers and executives are now less inclined to take necessary precautions when the strikes appear to be negligible. This changes the game of warfare. Drones allow the president to conduct warfare without the consent of Congress, thus expanding their powers of the executive branch.
Due to the United States’ heightened use of drones in parts of the Middle East, drone programs are now under way in other countries. Obama’s use and overuse of drones “has generated a new and dangerous arms race for this technology” (Boyle, 22). In addition, “more than [seventy] countries now have some type of drone,” which include Russia, Pakistan, and India (Bergen, 10). The implications of drone proliferation are going to reshape the way warfare and foreign policy is conducted. According to Michael J. Boyle, the United States currently controls a majority of the market share in drone technology, but he asserts that “as the market expands with new buyers,” notably China and Israel, “and sellers, America’s ability to control the sale of drone technology will be diminished” (Boyle, 23). Unfortunately, Obama’s increased use of drones has inspired other countries to seek out this new lethal technology. It is likely that the United States’ own over dependence on drones in Pakistan and Yemen has accelerated the influx of a world order in which its own “qualitative advantages in drone technology are eclipsed” (Boyle, 23). The asymmetric advantage that drones give to the United States will no longer exist as the asymmetric becomes symmetric and more countries own and can operate military drone technology. The United States must now prepare for a world in which covert surveillance is the norm and warfare is contracted to remote vehicles roaming the skies. It is likely that the strength and resolve of countries will be tested as unmanned vehicles enter their airspace. Similarly, “states are much less likely to practice the same methods of deterrence with UAV’s as they do with nuclear weapons, because “drone surveillance is unmanned, low cost, and deniable” (Boyle, 24). The future of military engagements will be reshaped by the reliance of militaries on unmanned drones. Under Obama, the United States has been a key player in popularizing the use of drones to conduct warfare, the consequences of which have not yet been fully realized.
The Red Line in Syria
Obama’s decision not to enforce his threat against Syria after President Assad used chemical weapons against members of the Syrian opposition demonstrated a dramatic shift in American foreign policy practice. His failure to act on the threat immediately depleted America’s credibility and global influence. In August 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry claimed that enforcing the red-line was “directly related to [America’s] credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something” (Kerry qtd. in Goldberg). In addition, both Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta believed the President had made a mistake. Two of President Obama’s former foreign policy advisors and iconic foreign policymakers, as well as his current Secretary of State all disagreed with his decision, proving its iconic shift away from foreign policy norms. Additionally, a recent article by Maria Abi-Habib in the Wall Street Journal article revealed that fifty-one State Department officers signed a “dissent channel cable” concerning the President’s Syria policy.
Concurrently, the consequences of Obama’s inaction were immediately made known when foreign leaders around the world spoke out against him. Mohammed bin Zayeed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi declared Obama “untrustworthy” and the Saudi’s were “infuriated” (Goldberg). Likewise, the King of Jordan, Abdullah II, felt betrayed when Obama shifted away from the Sunni Muslims in favor of the Shia-dominated Iran, Assad’s biggest backers (Goldberg). This decision has proven to strain relations with the U.S.’s allies in the Middle East. Countries around the world typically look to the United States for leadership against threats like Assad. In 1991, it was the United States that declared Saddam Hussein to be breaking international law when he invaded Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush followed up this declaration by organizing an international U.N. coalition to push Hussein’s army back within its own borders. Now, Obama’s declaration “that the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” has been backed up with little action at all (Dueck, 85). The world looks to the U.S. for leadership and as a successful foreign policy example; but now it appears that President Obama has made the U.S. less likely to lead when it comes to foreign policy issues both in the Middle East and around the world. Unfortunately, “the lesson drawn by allies and adversaries alike from this example was that commitments, red lines, and declarations issued by the United States…count for little when called upon” (Dueck, 88).
Similarly, a key component of Obama’s foreign policy was pressing for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but “in the case of Israel it was not so much the United States but the Israelis who were expected to help kick start peace negotiations by imposing a freeze on the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem” (Dueck, 48). Again, the United States made a foreign policy declaration but did little to actually make that declaration a reality. During Obama’s presidency little has actually been done to push the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table. It is evident that throughout Obama’s presidency there has been “a mismatch between his words and his deeds” (Kaplan, 47). The consequences of these empty declarations will continue to limit the reliability of United States foreign policy. The breakdown of credibility and resolve globally marks a significant change in the United States’ foreign policy goals.
Moreover, President Obama’s inaction in Syria has paved the way for other countries, like Russia and Iran, to regain relevance in the Middle East region. According to Robert Satloff, the Director of the Washington Institute, the Russians saw what happened with the Red line in Syria in 2013 and took the “opportunity to engage and advance their interests.” Russia isn’t the only country that has taken the initiative in America’s absence. North Korea, for example, has allegedly tested a nuclear bomb and the world now faces an emboldened Iran, which has been warmly welcomed by the Obama administration back into the international community, while it still engages in what Ben Rhodes, the president’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication, admits are “destabilizing activities” (Rhodes). Even China has made aggressive moves to claim disputed islands in the South China Sea. These are just some examples of how dictators around the world have been emboldened by the United States’ military inaction. Syria showed them that they could push the envelope and test the U.S.’ power.
In the absence of Obama’s action in Syria, Putin has been able to change the balance of power in Syria in his favor. Putin realized that someone had to fill the power vacuum left open by the United States’ inaction; he rushed to fill that role. In addition, Obama’s inaction has removed the United States from a place of negotiating relevance. The goal of intervention was “to diminish the Assad regime’s ability to kill and to provide clear incentives for Russia, Iran, and Assad to change their calculus and begin negotiating in something resembling good faith with Syrian rebel forces” (Hamid). Not only, did Obama’s inaction remove the chance of the United States being involved in these negotiations, it also gave Assad, Russia, and Iran no reason to negotiate with the rebels at all. Obama’s stance toward Syria was short-sighted. It served to remove the United States from the equation and allowed the civil war to continue. This is a departure from former United States foreign policies. During the Cold War and its aftermath the United States has always displayed its strength and protected its interests in the Middle East. Obama’s malaise toward the region is essentially telling the world that the United States no longer sees the Middle East as relevant to the United States’ interests.
In Libya, during the Arab spring, when Gaddafi posed an imminent threat to the Libyan people, President Obama was hesitant to act. On the contrary, his staff and cabinet cited “moral imperatives” as enough to necessitate action (Kaplan, 48). Perfectly aligned with previous ideals, Obama’s guiding principles for action were “no U.S. boots on the ground, no military action at all unless it had a legal basis and a decent chance of succeeding, and, finally, an appropriate division of labor with allies” (Kaplan, 48). An unidentified Obama advisor would later deem this approach “leading from behind” (Kaplan, 49). The United States has never been known to lead from behind. In these types of situations, countries around the world have looked to the U.S. for leadership. For example, it was the United States that organized the coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 and it was the United States that led the world in the war against terror following 9/11. Additionally, Kenneth Pollock from the Brookings Institute asserts that the United States has “often played the constructive roll of mitigating conflict” (Pollock). But, President Obama chose to take a different course. For him, his approach makes total sense. With no boots on the ground, the president could still remain loyal to his ‘no war’ agenda. His political rhetoric at home tied his hands, so the president relied on U.S. airpower and intelligence to support the allies on the ground. In fact, throughout the entire episode, “the Obama administration refused to describe the U.S. military actions as war, preferring to label it ‘kinetic action’ in which the United States was leading from behind” (Dueck, 82). In addition, if Obama insisted on no military action unless there was legal backing for it, then he could never be blamed if his intervention failed, the way his predecessor was.
Furthermore, “the first phase of the resulting operation was ultimately a success…but the second phase was a failure: a new government never fully formed” (Kaplan, 49). The events since the 2011 regime change in Libya have essentially mirrored the events that followed the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Libya, like Iraq, has become a violent epicenter of terror and sectarian violence. It is a breeding ground for ISIS militants and there is still no government in place. In contrast with his predecessor, President Obama, has craftily wiped his hands clean of responsibility for these atrocities. After aiding in the overthrow of Gaddafi, Obama turned his attention elsewhere, and “provided little support for Libya’s nascent democratic authorities to stave off the mounting violence and disorder” (Dueck, 83). His policy of leading from behind has set himself up with the ability to back away from any situation that may not turn out well. While the United States assisted the U.N. coalition with the initial airstrikes that removed Gaddafi from power, Obama placed the responsibility of building a new state in the hands of NATO allies. As evident from Iraq, state building following a successful military operation is the most challenging task and Obama successfully diverted this task to other states. Essentially, Libya is in the same situation that Iraq was and still is in following the U.S. invasion in 2003, but due to Obama’s ‘leading from behind’ policy, the U.S. is neither involved in nor responsible for the chaos that now persists there. Although chaos endures in Libya, Obama has emerged from the ashes nearly unscathed.
President Obama’s foreign policy legacy will continue to develop over the next decades. It is evident that his decisions and resultant consequences have carried a significant weight. The implications of the United States withdrawal from the world in a traditional sense are dramatic and the Syrian civil war is an exemplary highlight of this issue. According to Kenneth Pollock, without decisive action by external actors, civil wars tend to last for decades (Pollock). More importantly, he notes, they tend to spill over into neighboring countries (Pollock). The failure to act against Assad and neutralize the violence in Syria will have a lasting impact on the Middle East and on U.S. interests in the region. Additionally, the U.S. disengagement has motivated other nations to increase their military activity, particularly Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Russia, to promote stability and their national interests in the region. More often than not, these actions fuel sectarian rivalry, further exacerbating violence, which continues between Sunnis and Shiites. This schism underlies the majority of the fighting in the Middle East region.
Despite the dire circumstances the Middle East now faces, perhaps a more engaged American foreign policy will include these three steps: a quick forceful military re-engagement to promote a cessation of hostilities, power-sharing agreements in conflict areas, and finally, civil and political institution building.
The United States must adopt a more engaged policy towards the conflicts in the Middle East, which places the United States in a position where it can mitigate conflict, rather than a reactive policy which merely seeks to address the symptoms of the conflicts. First, they must increase their use of military force on the ground in places of violence. This may include increased airstrikes on the strong points of those inflaming violence, like Assad’s air force bases in Syria or ISIS’s operations in Sirte, Libya on the Mediterranean coast. In some cases, it may be as simple as posing threats and coercion, to force the enemies’ hand. According to Pollock, this will “change the military dynamics such that none of the warring parties believes that it can win a military victory” (Pollock). This will force warring factions to negotiate. Next, Pollock argues that the U.S. must work to “forge…power-sharing agreement [s]” in places of conflict, which places each warring faction in a position of relevance in the new government (Pollock).
And finally, the United States must work to initiate institutions, which assure all parties involved that previously understood power-sharing agreements will remain in place. Building civil and political institutions is an essential component of any regime change strategy. They ensure a civil society remains intact even when leadership changes hands, and help to promote the rule of law. Right now, governments usually only communicate with one another at the state level, but in some of these countries, especially Iraq, governments have lost control over their population’s destiny. Eric Brown, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, believes in the importance of having diplomats on the ground, who know local languages and engage directly with the local populations of warring factions. Proximity and frequency are both key components necessary for building institutions. This is done through building relationships with local citizens, building trust, and through education. Without governing institutions, like judicial systems, constitutions, electoral systems, and an adequate police force, no peacemaking efforts in warring areas will have any lasting effect. At a time when non-state actors are the driving force in the Middle East this new type of diplomacy becomes increasingly crucial. This reality must motivate the United States to adjust their diplomatic methods in the region. β
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