President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies have come under increasingly sharp criticism since the emergence of ISIL as a threat to Iraq during the summer of 2014. Some of this criticism has come from predictable quarters: neoconservatives and liberal interventionists who have long been critical of the Obama administration’s relatively “soft touch” approach to the region, notably its hesitance to get the United States more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war. But a sense of drift in U.S. policy toward the Middle East has spread to the general public, as well.
There is little doubt that the sudden rise of ISIL—made stark by the group’s seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, in June 2014—caught the Obama administration flatfooted, despite earlier, alarming ISIL gains in Anbar Province. It announced a strategy the goal of which, in Obama’s words, is “to degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL. The United States, with support from allies, has launched air strikes against ISIL in Iraq and Syria; it has assembled an international coalition, from within the region and beyond it, to confront ISIL; it has assisted Iraqi forces, which have scored significant successes, notably the recapture of Tikrit, as well as reverses, such as the loss of Ramadi; and it has ramped up support for the moderate Syrian opposition. Yet the criticism of the administration’s approach to ISIL—and, more broadly, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the Persian Gulf and, indeed, the wider Middle East—has remained vociferous. This criticism focuses on both the administration’s purported tardiness of response and the allegedly half-hearted nature of that response.
There is some truth to these critiques. The administration’s policies do seem driven by day-to-day crisis management and a desire to appear to be “doing something.” There is, in addition, an obvious disconnect between administration’s rhetoric in describing the dire threat posed by ISIL and the president’s repeated promise not to introduce U.S. combat forces to the conflict. Critics may also be forgiven for doubting the depth of the administration’s commitment to overthrowing the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. They have grounds to suspect that increased U.S. support for the moderate Syrian opposition is, in large part, merely an effort to placate voices in the United States and in the region that have long insisted that Obama make good on his 2011 declaration that “Assad must go.”
The president has also been criticized for his Iran policy. His efforts to strike a deal with Iran on that country’s nuclear program have been attacked both in the United States and in the region. At least some of these attacks are grounded in fear that an agreement would a) strengthen Iran’s financial position by lifting sanctions on its oil exports; b) bolster what critics believe to be Tehran’s drive for regional hegemony; and c) lay the groundwork for a détente between Iran and the United States that would undermine other allies in Middle East—notably Israel and Saudi Arabia.
What strategy should we pursue in confronting ISIL and addressing the broader challenges of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, stability in the Persian Gulf, and the ever present Israeli-Palestinian dispute? As we will stress in this paper, any such strategy must go beyond the usual bromides of U.S. “leadership” and “engagement,” terms routinely deployed in the absence of any consideration of what the goals of that leadership and engagement should be. U.S. leadership and engagement must, of course, play a part in any U.S. strategy in the Middle East. The U.S. possesses substantial— though not unlimited—military, economic, and diplomatic means to influence events that redound to our national advantage; it would be foolhardy not to use them.
But leadership and engagement must be subservient to the objectives of U.S. strategy, which are the protection and, if possible, the advancement of our core interests in the region. At one level, our policymakers and opinion shapers are aware of those interests, ranging from the unimpeded flow of oil to international markets to reducing the threat of terrorism to the United States. But such considerations can all too often be lost in an atmosphere of crisis when a rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground and calls for decisive action can lead to policies unmoored from a sober assessment of the United States’ true stakes in the conflict. This is doubly true when dealing with a threat like ISIL, whose extremist ideology and brutal practices prompt revulsion, anger, fear, and unsurprising calls for action