Obama’s Skewed Policy Priorities in Middle East

by | Aug 24, 2014


The US State Department has maintained that continuity rather than change in the American policy is what should be expected in the aftermath of the killing of photojournalist James Foley by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria early this week.

The State Department’s media briefings insisted that there has been an “ongoing policy initiative”, an “ongoing effort” on the part of Washington to meet the ISIL threat and “we will continue doing what we’re doing in Iraq.” So, on Wednesday, the US military took an additional 14 air strikes around the Mosul Dam.

Second, the US reserves the right to take action against Foley’s killer and won’t be “ruling anything in or out” – including military operations inside Syria. That is to say, the “principles that guide” will be the same that guided earlier occasions of a similar kind such as in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Third, the Syrian regime remains a “pariah,” no matter its hostility towards the ISIL, insofar as the US cannot forget that Damascus “allowed this group to flourish” and “facilitated their movement to Iraq.” Therefore, the US would rather focus on building “capable partners” in Iraq and among the “moderate opposition” in Syria that can take on the ISIL and will continue to seek the replacement of President Bashar al-Assad.

Fourth, the US will continue to partner its regional allies who now “understand that ISIL is a threat to them.” The only addition to the partnership, perhaps, could be of Iran, provided that country is “interested in playing a constructive role in helping to degrade ISIL’s capabilities.”

Finally, President Barack Obama proposes to host a heads of government level UN Security Council summit in late September in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session “to focus on the acute threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters”.

Through this, the US hopes specifically to get the Security Council to adopt a resolution specifically “to address the phenomenon [of foreign fighters], emphasize the need for states to have the tolls and mobilize the resources to help prevent it.” The US state Department’s estimation is that there are around 12000 foreign terrorist fighters who have joined the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

All this really may sound somewhat like the doomed Bourbon kings who never forgot, but never learnt. But then, to be the devil’s advocate, these are early days and the Obama administration is hard-pressed to defend itself from the patently obvious reality that its policies devolving upon the “democracy project” in Middle East in the recent decade since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 have led to the strengthening of the extremist jihadi forces such as the ISIL throughout the region.

Having said that, the specific nature of Foley’s killing – as a reprisal act against the US air strikes in northern Iraq and the likelihood of the killer being a British citizen – cannot but underscore the chilling reality that the Americans and the British in particular are in the ISIL’s sights. To be sure, there are going to be severe consequences in the coming period for the “homeland security” in these two countries, which could be potentially damaging politically at home for Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

On Monday, ISIL boasted on its website, “America will disappear from the map soon on the hands of the knights of al-Khalifa.”

Suffice to say, it will be in the interests of the US and Britain that they are not caught alone on the centre stage of the upcoming contests with the ISIL. They would instead seek the regional powers to seek a greater role in Iraq, including, perhaps, a military role. Thus, the French President Francois Hollande has proposed the holding of an international conference of regional states, including Iran and Syria to discuss new strategies to counter the ISIL.

Hollande said, “We can no longer keep to the traditional debate of intervention or non-intervention. We have to come up with a global strategy to fight this group [ISIL], which is structured, has significant financing, very sophisticated weapons and threatens countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.” The effort may be beginning to put together a “contact group” at a minimum and launch a “coalition of the willing.” This is one thing.

On the other hand, it is obvious that the longer this war lasts, the greater the possibility of the ISIL attracting more jihadi volunteers. Ideally, therefore, the sooner the ISIL threat is met with politically and diplomatically – away from the purely military stage – the better it will be. Which means that a concerted international effort is urgently needed to defuse the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict, curb the surging tide of sectarianism in Iraq and re-open the search for a settlement in Syria.

Equally, any tampering with the established territorial boundaries at this very delicate juncture would bring the whole roof down on the region. Specifically, it could expose the region to the real danger of an extremist Caliphate taking shape in the Iraq-Syria region, threatening not only regional stability but also international security as a whole.

All things considered, therefore, an urgent need arises for the US to develop the policy options aimed at working closely with other important stakeholders in the international community, especially Russia, to explore the ways and means of re-establishing stability and order in the Middle East.

But let’s be honest about it, there are no signs of this happening yet. On the contrary, Washington’s intentions are hard to discern. The accent is on using American military might. Again, there is no well-defined mission and we wouldn’t know yet whether the US objective is merely to contain the ISIL or to vanquish it altogether. Nor is there a timeline and an open-ended US intervention is fraught with the danger of stoking the fire of Muslim anger against the West.

There is also an element of uncertainty that at some point the US may be about to cross the threshold on Syria; in fact, effectively, it already has admitted to having mounted at least one abortive rescue operation on Syrian soil apparently to get Foley released from captivity.

Above all, the moral sensibilities that are being displayed rhetorically by Washington are themselves highly selective. Moral concerns were conspicuously lacking in the US response to Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza. The heart of the matter is that with the political polarization in Washington and the debate almost entirely taking place on party lines, the issues are being framed to get sound bites rather than being addressed in all their dimensions, especially the regional and global dimensions.

In the broadest terms, what is critically needed are two things. First, the present excessive militarization of US policy in Iraq – combined with the zest to “fix” the regimes in Iraq and Syria – can only draw Obama into another large-scale and protracted conflict and it cannot have a happy ending, as the previous experience in Iraq and in Libya testify. Second and most important, the fundamental problem here happens to be that Obama has been having difficulty lately in setting sensible priorities for the US’s foreign policy interventions in other regions.

US policy priorities are badly skewed in Eurasia and the Middle East. Washington needs to differentiate between what is merely important to US interests, such as accelerating Ukraine’s NATO membership, from what is truly essential, namely, “extracting” the ISIL, which Obama has rightly denounced as a “caner” threatening the entire Middle East region that “has no place in the 21st century.”

Reprinted with permission.


  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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