During his press conference in Turkey following the G20 summit earlier this month, Barack Obama sounded like an intellectually arrogant instructor presiding over a seminar in U.S. foreign policy. Professor Obama invited the reporters to take part in a discussion over a proposed case study, “How to Defeat ISIS.” This is my preferred option, he seemed to be saying, analyzing the costs and the benefits of his policy while becoming impatient with lazy students who failed to do their homework. “Why do I have to repeat myself?” he appeared to ask.
The Obama lecture of course came before Turkey attacked a Russian plane on its border with Syria, creating the possibility of a wider conflict between larger powers. Obama must now end the seminar and exercise real leadership, calling upon other members of the wealthy G20 nations—especially Western Europe—to help police their own backyard.
While Obama has tried to cut the costs of upholding Pax Americana in the Middle East using a reactive and often ineffective policy, neither he nor any leading Democratic or Republican figure has come up with a proposal to replace the Middle East strategy adopted after the Cold War. That strategy, which was pursued by several administrations, was based on the assumption that when considering interests and values, it is the obligation of the United States to secure the balance of power in the Middle East. But from the Iraq War to the Syrian civil war, as well as through the Arab Spring, that policy ended up with outcomes that were harmful to U.S. interests and not aligned with its values.
Trying to fill the intellectual vacuum in Washington at the end of the Cold War, I once tried to draw the outlines of an alternative U.S. strategy of “constructive disengagement” from the Middle East, in which I also made a special effort to respond to skeptics who posed the following question: If America ceased to play the role of the hegemon in the region, who was going to protect Western interests in the Middle East? For example, who would secure access to the energy resources in the Persian Gulf, contain regional and outside aggressors, or manage the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”?
What about our European allies?
After all, unlike that of the U.S., European economies are actually dependent on energy imports from the Middle East. And because of their geographical proximity to the region and the growing Arab immigrant population in their countries, Europeans tend to be more sensitive than the Americans to threats of instability in the region.
Yet, as I pointed out in 2003, “Despite the disappearance of the Soviet threat, U.S. presidents, including George Bush the elder to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush have operated on one assumption: That the United States should continue to maintain its hegemonic position in the Middle East — while simultaneously minimizing the role of the Europeans.”
And I argued 10 years later that U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the reduction of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East would make sense only as part of a new U.S. strategy that must encourage regional powers to operate under the assumption that the United States would not be there to micromanage the balance of power in the region, and should also “provide incentives for Washington’s European allies to protect their interests in a region that is after all in their strategic backyard.”
Those who noted that the Europeans didn’t have the diplomatic influence and military power to dictate strategic outcomes in the Middle East usually dismissed these arguments. Only the Americans have the resources “to do the job” in the Middle East.
But then these counter arguments only helped to highlight the vicious circle created when the Europeans get a free ride on American protection in the Middle East. By doing the job themselves, Americans are failing to provide incentives to the Europeans to build their militaries so that they could take care of their interests in the Middle East, which leaves the Americans no choice but to continue doing the job.
The end result has been that the United States pursuing policies, like the war in Iraq, that have destabilized the region in the way that proved to been detrimental to the interests of the European states. The collapse of Iraq and Syria and the ensuing Islamic radicalization that has been affecting their Arab immigrant population, not only ignited acts of terrorism in Europe like the recent one in Paris, but also helped create a new flood of immigrants from the region into Europe. In short, U.S. policies in the Middle East impacted on core French and German national interests.
Against this backdrop, the notion that the terror attack in Paris reflected a lack of American leadership in the Middle East and that the United States needs to now “do something” (such as deploy more troops into the Middle East) doesn’t make a lot of sense. (Especially considering that this country’s Muslim population has been mostly integrated into society and Muslim immigrants are not fleeing in droves into the United States.)
Imagine a scenario under which a radical Mexican movement, calling for the return of California and Texas to Mexico, took over part of Mexico’s territory, infiltrated the Hispanic immigrant population in the U.S., and launched acts of terror in this country while igniting a flood of hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants into the country? Would Americans be waiting for the Europeans to “do something” and project their leadership in Central America?
Let’s face the facts. ISIS is not the Soviet Union or even Saddam’s Iraq. France, with or even without the assistance of Germany and other European countries, and in cooperation with Russia and regional powers like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, has the military capacity to devastate (if not to destroy) ISIS forces in the Levant and Mesopotamia. That could mean the deployment of tens of thousands of European troops to the region where they will have to fight and could indeed suffer a lot of casualties.
As military expert Michael Shurkin put it, the French might not be able to defeat ISIS, but “based on their history, whatever they do in addition to the recent airstrikes, they are likely to act in a measured way and think first. They might act quietly, so quietly we might never hear of it. But one thing is certain: If the French are determined to hurt someone, they will.”
In any case, the presence of European boots on the ground is in the interest of France, Germany, and other European countries. There is no reason why the U.S.—which is facing other critical challenges at home and abroad—should do the job for them.
In fact, direct European military intervention in the Middle East as part of a war against ISIS—with the United States providing indirect assistance in intelligence and logistical support—could become the first step in the process of American “constructive disengagement” from the region. An exhausted and ineffective hegemon, the United States must incentivize its wealthy partners to start taking care of the interests in their strategic backyard.
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.