The Obama administration's Middle East policy is becoming something worse than a failure. It is turning into a combination of ideological tics and irritable gestures even as the worst actors gain power.
Ross Douthat argues that the Obama administration is shifting the U.S.’s foreign policy strategy from a Pax Americana model (where the U.S. uses military force to impose order) to one of offshore balancing (where the U.S. strategically sides with one local power or another while keeping U.S. commitments to a minimum). If only that were what the United States was doing. A thoughtful policy of offshore balancing would be a dramatic improvement over policies that Obama is pursuing.
Douthat rightly points out that Obama wanted to chart a different course than that of George W. Bush. A liberal internationalist policy would have differed from that of Bush in multiple ways. While it would have tried to hold on to the hard-won and tenuous stability in Iraq that had developed by 2008, this policy would have been leery of any major use of force in the Middle East. It would have been much more skeptical than Bush of even veiled threats to Iran over that country's nuclear program and focused exclusively on the use of soft power. It would have focused on restarting the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians in hopes than an agreement (or progress toward an agreement) would somehow translate into greater regional stability.
Obama's policies have, in every way, been worse. On Iraq, Obama had inherited a situation in which violence had declined, politics had become more consensual, and al-Qaeda in Iraq was a defeated and marginalized force. The situation was fragile, but it was also a vast improvement over the calamitous Bush occupation of 2003–2006.
Through a combination of bad faith negotiation over U.S. military presence in Iraq and extraordinary diplomatic incompetence, Obama allowed Iranian influence to grow. The resulting disaffection of Iraq's Sunni minority allowed for the resurgence of “al-Qaeda in Iraq's” successor organization—an organization that is, if anything, more ambitious and more hideous than al-Qaeda.
On Iran, the U.S. course has been bizarre. We’re in the midst of crafting a deal that will put Iran in position to produce nuclear weapons even as economic sanctions to it are lifted. Don't take the word of American conservatives or Israel's government. Take the word of France. We have reached the point where France's Socialist-led government is less accommodating to a nuclear proliferating terrorism sponsor than the president of the United States. Where Bush alienated American allies in order to invade Iraq, Obama is alienating America's European allies in order to appease Iran.
And what has Obama gotten in return? Iran's influence helped destabilize Iraq and indirectly aided the rise of ISIS. Iranian-backed rebels toppled the U.S.-backed government of Yemen. No matter how many defeats and humiliations Iran inflicts on Obama, the American president always offers forgiveness and concessions.
While Obama can forgive terror sponsorship, nuclear proliferation, and the destruction of U.S. allies, he cannot forgive disobedience from voters in free elections. Obama wanted the Israeli center-left to win that country's recent elections. That, in itself, was not unusual. The Obama administration's support for the center-left in this year's Israeli elections had precedent. The Clinton administration openly supported the Israeli center-left in the 1999 elections.
The differences between Obama in 2015 and Clinton in 1999 are more important than the similarities. It wasn't simply (or even primarily) that Clinton got what he wanted from the Israeli electorate and Obama didn't. Clinton was operating with a policy goal in mind. Clinton hoped that he could achieve a two-state solution if he had the Israeli center-left as his political partner. That turned out not to be the case, but it was plausible at the time.
Obama has no such plan. It does not matter how many steps Obama takes to punish Israel, because the policy problems related to Israel are, at this moment, intractable. There is not going to be a two-state solution as long as Hamas controls the West Bank. Israel is not going to acquiesce to Iranian nuclear capability. This would be the case even if the Israeli center-left had won the most recent election. Whether Obama's actions are designed to demonstrate loathing for Israel's prime minister or contempt for Israel's unruly votes, he cannot get a positive policy outcome from what he is doing. The most charitable explanation for Obama's behavior (one that does not infer petty resentments) is that Obama is willing to let America's relationship with Israel (and Israel's safety) become another casualty to his quest for better relations with Iran.
The result of Obama's policies is that the most destructive and destabilizing forces in the Middle East are both stronger and more radical than on the day Obama took office. What is more, even as Obama has watched the expansion of ISIS and the strengthening of Iran, he is ending his presidency by looking to see how he can kick the only genuine democracy in the region.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.