Obama's foreign policy: wreckage or salvage?

Obama's foreign policy: wreckage or salvage?

Obama’s foreign policy: wreckage or salvage?

By Hussain Abdul-Hussain,

President Barack Obama will leave office with an approval rating higher than that of the legendary Ronald Reagan. In principle, popularity of former presidents keeps rising. Even former President George W. Bush, who left office with an approval rating barely in the teens, saw a surge in his popularity while in retirement. Obama seems destined to become one of America’s most loved former presidents.

But how come one of America’s finest presidents be so wrong on foreign policy, especially in the Middle East? Obama argues that he inherited two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that his job in winding them down was bumpy. Yet, those who follow foreign policy know that Obama did little to influence U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Obama intervened in these two countries, his intervention made things worse.

Toward the end of his second term, Obama seems to have become disappointed with his own shortcomings. In his last State of the Union address, the U.S. president said that America had no interest in meddling in “millennia of conflict” in the Middle East that America does not even understand. Many in America do understand the Middle East. Only Obama and his team do not.

Obama ran on a platform of ending the Iraq War and withdrawing U.S. troops within six months of his election. That promise never materialized. Candidates cut promises that, as presidents, they realize are impossible to keep. In Iraq, and most of the Middle East, Obama let Bush’s policy play its course. America withdrew from Iraq according to Bush’s timetable, and U.S. troops left Iraq by the end of 2011, instead of mid-2009.

Stability in Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East, looked promising, as long as Obama let Bush’s policy run its course. By 2011, Obama had delivered several speeches in which he prided himself for his foreign policy achievements. He repeatedly said that terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, were on the run. Violence in Iraq had dropped to pre-war levels. The Yemeni government had won the upper hand in beating terrorists.

The Middle East was going in the right direction, until Obama committed grave mistakes. The U.S. president had not realized what elements stabilized places like Iraq and Yemen. Washington could not have possibly fixed Iraq without restoring the Arab-Iranian balance that it had shattered in 2003. With help from regional powers, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Washington reconnected with Iraq’s Kurds and Sunnis, disenchanted by the ascendency of pro-Iran Shia groups. America funded the non-Shia militias and provided diplomatic cover for Sunni and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad.

When America withdrew its troops, it also cut its payrolls and severed its ties with its Sunni and Kurdish allies. Obama started treating the predominantly Iraqi Shia government as a sovereign counterpart, which proved to be a fatal mistake. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was trying to construct an Iraqi Shia leadership independent of Iran, used Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds as a sandbag to burnish his Shia credentials. America did not come to rescue its former Sunni and Kurdish allies from Maliki’s growing autocracy. The Iraqi balance was shattered again in early 2012. It was a matter of time before Iraqi Sunnis grew weak and unable to control radical elements.

To fix his Iraq mistake, Obama committed yet a bigger one. In Obama’s mind, Iran was an ancient civilization whose leaders were pragmatic enough to respond to America’s positive overtures and become Washington’s partner in stabilizing the region. By betting on Iran, Obama further tilted the Sunni-Shia balance in the region in favor of Shia Tehran, thus destabilizing further countries, like Syria and Lebanon. When Obama let Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad try to forcefully kill a peaceful revolution in Syria, chaos ensued and gave more space for terrorist groups to organize across the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Obama’s mistakes did not end there. To combat the growing terrorist groups in Iraq, he endorsed Iran’s scheme of toppling Maliki, effectively knocking out America’s only remaining “friend” in Iraq. Iran replaced Maliki with Haidar al-Abadi, a man much closer to Tehran. Instead of creating a “national unity government” to reconcile all contending parties, Abadi used government revenues to fund Shia Iraqi pro-Iran militias, thus reaffirming that the nature of the conflict in Iraq was Shia against Sunni rather than a battle to restore an Iraqi state for all of its citizens.

Despite his sectarian platform, Maliki was not the only American friend whom Obama “threw under the bus”. In Beirut, America let go of a coalition that was trying to restore state sovereignty that had been undermined by a pro-Iranian Shia militia, Hezbollah. In Yemen, the CIA established contact with pro-Iranian insurgents, the Houthis, thus empowering them all the way to invade Sanaa and topple the government.

Time and again, the Obama team found itself at ease with the Iranian and Syrian autocracies, but had trouble communicating with America’s longtime friends and traditional allies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others. By the same token, America made exceptions for pro-Iran Shia and Kurdish militias, which Washington classifies as terrorist organizations, and let Iran fund and deploy these groups across the Middle East; in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. However, when it came to anti-Iran Sunni groups, some of which are on America’s terrorism list, America flexed its muscles and went after the Sunni groups hard.

Obama persisted with his biased policies against countries like Turkey, which found itself grappling with terrorist groups in north-eastern Syria, but could do little to stop them, since America relies on some of them as its ground forces inside Iraq. Obama seemed oblivious to the fact that terrorism spread in both Iraq and Syria as a result of an unrelenting bloody suppression that Iranian proteges in Baghdad and Damascus had launched against their own citizens. The longer brutal campaigns against inside Iraq and Syria persisted, the easier it became for terrorist groups to recruit, raise funds and grow.

Despite repeated calls from Ankara on Washington to apply more pressure on Tehran and Moscow to curb Abadi and Assad, Obama let both countries get out of hand. When Turkey lost an F-16 that came under Assad’s ground fire, Obama remained silent. When Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in defense of Turkish airspace, Obama expressed dismay with Turkey, and refused to activate any NATO articles that mandate that the alliance come to the rescue of Ankara in case of foreign aggression on its sovereignty.

Obama’s mantra has been to let powers, like Russia and Iran, sink in quagmires in Syria and Iraq, just like America suffered in Iraq last decade. But both Russia and Iran have proven savvy enough to fight from a far: They deploy airpower and advisors while arming and funding their local allies, a tactic that Obama repeatedly refused to counter, thus forcing friends like Ankara to “take care of itself” by deploying its army inside Syria, in order to safeguard its borders and chase down terrorists that have launched a campaign of terror inside Turkey.

Despite his moral and ethical decency, and despite his domestic popularity, Barack Obama has shown unnecessary caution in foreign policy, caution that at times neared paralysis. Such behavior has sold America’s friends and allies short, and left them to look for friends in places faraway from Washington. This will be Obama’s legacy.

Source: Anadolu Agency

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