When it comes to the Middle East, President Obama must feel a lot like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part III”: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” Before the apparently out of the blue emergence of ISIS in summer 2014, Obama was committed to ending America’s involvement in the futile Iraq and Afghanistan wars and shifting—“rebalancing” or “pivoting”—Washington’s strategic focus from the Middle East to East Asia. The Islamic State’s breakout, and the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, forced the administration to scale back its plans to disengage militarily from the region and put the Asian pivot on hold.
Responding to the Islamic State’s emergence and the civil war in Syria, the Obama administration has modestly increased its involvement in the region: air strikes, military trainers, employment of special forces. But at least until now, in both Syria and Iraq—which are straddled by the Islamic State’s self-styled caliphate—Obama has held the line against a major reinsertion of U.S. military power in the region. Since the November attacks staged by ISIS in Paris, however, he is being pressured to respond by dramatically ramping up the U.S. military role in Syria and Iraq.
His refusal to be stampeded into significantly expanding the American military presence in the Middle East is strategically sound. America’s security and interests will best be served by reducing the U.S. military footprint in the region and adopting an offshore balancing strategy. Saber-rattling may score cheap political points, but recent events show that American military intervention is not a panacea for solving the Middle East’s deep political pathologies. Indeed, the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Libya intervention increased regional instability and, by creating breeding grounds for Islamic extremists, amplified the threat from groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.
What explains the failure of America’s policy in the region, and where should the U.S. go from here? Obama’s policy has been contradictory and ambivalent. Although his instincts have been to wind down the American military role in the region, when pressed by hardliners in the U.S. foreign-policy establishment he has often lacked the courage of his convictions. When it comes to strategy, there is a good deal of evidence that Obama favors offshore balancing. His inability to hold firm to his preferences, however, carries the risk that he will cave into the post-Paris political pressure and that the United States will be dragged into another long, costly, and futile war in the Middle East.
The fundamental cause of today’s Middle East turmoil is the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which unhinged an already volatile region. It was regime change, the export of democracy, and Washington’s own hubris-drenched imperial ambitions that plunged the United States into the regional geopolitical cul-de-sac in which it now finds itself. The George W. Bush administration’s Iraq goals were fantastical. Any policymaker with a sense of history—not least the Vietnam debacle—should have known that American attempts to impose democracy at the point of a bayonet would invariably end in failure.
We know—and it ought to have been known at the time—that the Bush administration’s articulated rationales for the war were false. Iraq was neither about 9/11 nor “weapons of mass destruction,” which were nonexistent. Moreover, because it had been weakened by years of sanctions and was effectively hemmed in by U.S. military power, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq posed no threat to U.S. allies and client states in the region.
The Downing Street memos generated by the British government make clear that the asserted rationales for war were merely pretexts and that at least a year before the invasion the Bush administration had decided to use military force to overthrow Saddam Hussein. And the administration brushed aside a number of warnings that an invasion of Iraq would have catastrophic consequences. For example, a February 2003 study written by two U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute analysts debunked the administration’s notion that American troops would be greeted as liberators by the Iraqis. Rather, the War College analysts stated:
Most Iraqis and most other Arabs will probably assume that the United States intervened in Iraq for its own reasons and not to liberate the population. Long-term gratitude is unlikely and suspicion of U.S. motives will increase as the occupation continues. A force initially viewed as liberators can rapidly be relegated to the status of invaders should an unwelcome occupation continue for a prolonged time.
The authors highlighted the probability that U.S. occupation forces would find themselves facing guerrilla and terrorist attacks—or even a large-scale insurrection. The report also stressed that because of Iraq’s sectarian divisions “the establishment of democracy or even some sort of rough pluralism in Iraq, where it has never really existed previously, will be a staggering challenge for any occupation force seeking to govern in a post-Saddam era.” The authors’ prophetic bottom line was that “The possibility of the United States winning the war and losing the peace in Iraq is real and serious.”
The U.S. intelligence community also counseled the administration: to refrain from going to war; that an Iraqi democracy was not in the cards; and that if we did invade, the United States would face a “messy aftermath” in Iraq. These prewar analyses were accurate. But an administration driven by belief in the efficacy of American power and blinkered by a messianic foreign-policy ideology ignored the warning signs.
The U.S. not only toppled Saddam Hussein, it also destroyed the institutions of the Iraqi state and upended the sectarian political balance, which from the end of World War I—the beginning of the modern Iraqi state—had been tilted in favor of the minority Sunnis. This created the opening for a bitter internecine conflict between Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni populations. By 2007 the conflict had become so severe that the Bush administration decided to “surge” additional troops to Iraq to end the strife.
To be sure, the surge did reduce sectarian strife in Iraq. By no means, however, did it end it. More important, notwithstanding the assertions of leading Bush administration officials that the surge was a “success,” it failed to achieve the administration’s overriding objective. This, as President George W. Bush stated, was to buy time to foster political reconciliation between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite populations. This never happened. Iraq has remained polarized and unstable. Under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Shi’ites consolidated their power internally and aligned externally with their natural ally, predominantly Shi’ite Iran. Consequently, Iraq’s Sunni population remained alienated politically from the Shi’ite-dominated regime in Baghdad and resentful of their displacement from power. It was disaffected Sunnis—including many former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army—who formed the backbone of the Islamic State.
When the Islamic State burst on the scene, the architects and executors of the George W. Bush administration saw, and seized, an opportunity to revise history and absolve themselves of responsibility. There is a historical parallel: after their defeat in 1918, Germany’s military leaders denied that the Allies had prevailed on the battlefield. Rather, they said, the German army had been “stabbed in the back” by disloyal elements on the home front. In a similar vein, Bush administration apologists claimed that by fumbling away the American “victory” purportedly won by the 2007 surge, the Obama administration bears sole responsibility for the emergence of the Islamic State because—so it was alleged—Obama had precipitously withdrawn U.S. combat forces from Iraq.
This argument is disingenuous. The narrative constructed by Bush administration apologists overlooked two crucial facts. First, U.S. forces were withdrawn from Iraq in 2011 pursuant to the terms of a 2008 status of forces agreement that the Bush administration itself had negotiated with the Iraq regime. Second, Obama was prepared to keep a residual force of American combat troops in Iraq for several years. Washington was, however, unable to reach agreement with Baghdad to this effect because the Maliki regime wanted the Americans out. Simply put, the claims of Bush administration apologists that fruits of its “victory” were thrown away by the Obama administration are nonsense—not least because the so-called victory attributed to the surge was an illusion.
The idea that the world is more dangerous today because Obama is a weak president, rather than chiefly because his predecessor attempted to do too much, has set the stage for further debate about Middle East intervention. Since the Paris attacks, Obama’s critics have renewed their calls for a robust American military response to the Islamic State. But rhetoric aside, few of the critics have offered a viable policy for dealing with the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war. The truth is that Obama’s caution about plunging the U.S. back into the swamp of the Middle East is the right policy.
This is not to say that Obama’s Middle East policy is beyond criticism: his record is mixed. On the plus side, at least until now, he has successfully resisted the calls for direct American military intervention in Syria’s civil war and for greatly increased involvement in Iraq. Obama has carefully kept U.S. troops out of harm’s way. American forces are confined to providing training, intelligence, and logistical support to the Iraqi military. Rightly eschewing calls for American boots on the ground, he decided that the United States will rely on air power and local proxy forces, like the Kurds, to strike the Islamic State.
On the negative side, in August 2014 Obama unwisely declared that Bashar al-Assad had to “go.” This was a mistake on several levels. First, it overlooked the fact that U.S. choices in the Middle East are not between good and bad—democracy versus tyrants—but rather between awful and worse. The Obama administration apparently learned nothing from its own reckless decisions, in the midst of the so-called Arab Spring, to intervene in Libya and to pull the rug from underneath the former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, which allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to take power in Cairo. Authoritarian rulers may not be good but they and the strong states they rule are preferable to power vacuums that will be filled by jihadists.
Second, by raising the hopes of the anti-Assad forces that the U.S. would intervene on their behalf, the Obama administration caused an intensification of the Syrian civil war. As former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter said, given the Obama administration’s reluctance to use U.S. military power to remove Assad, Washington erred in issuing an ultimatum that he had to give up power. “If we’re going to get people’s hopes up when we’re not willing to do more,” she said, “we need to be honest about that and maybe it’s better to remain silent.”
Third, by demanding Assad’s ouster, the Obama administration limited its options to achieve a diplomatic settlement in Syria. As Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Jones put it, “If you call for Assad to go, you dramatically drive up the obstacles to a political settlement. If you’re not insisting on him leaving there are more options. If you say Assad must go as the outcome of a settlement he has the existential need to stop that settlement.” It was a mistake to lay down a marker, or a “red line,” that Washington was not prepared to enforce.
Where should the U.S. go from here? The first thing is that a realistic appraisal of the situation is needed. ISIS has engaged in horrific acts—though our Saudi Arabian “ally” is by far the worldwide leader in beheadings—and for sure the Islamic State will continue to try to strike at the West. But this does not mean that it poses an existential threat to the United States. No terrorist group can destroy a great power. (Though it can cause policymakers to make knee-jerk decisions that result in the roll-back of the very civil liberties that are core of what our national security policy is supposed to defend.) The Islamic State may lash out again at Western Europe and the U.S., but this can never be the main focus of its strategy because it is surrounded by hostile forces that are bent on destroying it. If ISIS means to consolidate its grip on the territory constituting its self-declared “state,” its first strategic priority must be on the “near enemy.”
Washington needs to appraise the threat from ISIS soberly. While the United States is not invulnerable, it is far less vulnerable than Western Europe. Partly this is because of simple geography: the Middle East and the Maghreb are on Europe’s doorstep. Moreover, unlike the U.S., states like Britain and France were colonial powers in the region and that legacy is an important source of jihadist animus toward them—in Western Europe there is a large homegrown pool of potential terrorists from which ISIS can recruit terrorists. Finally, the European Union is more exposed than the U.S. for two additional reasons. First, because its borders are porous. Second, the EU lacks centralized intelligence and internal security mechanisms. Instead, it relies on its member states to perform these functions, which are poorly coordinated.
This is not to say that the U.S. can be complacent. Robust intelligence capabilities, control over its borders, actions to cut off the Islamic State’s finances, and the limited use of drone strikes, special operations forces, and air power can reduce the threat of an Islamic State strike at the American homeland.
At the same time, we should expect America’s leaders to approach the question of how to respond to ISIS, and the broader issues of U.S. Middle East policy, calmly and without stoking public fears. In today’s world, given the realities of globalization and the pathologies of the Middle East, there is always the possibility that jihadists will pull off random attacks. But with the right policies, that will be seldom, and the damage will be small scale. As Ohio State University Professor John Mueller has demonstrated, U.S. policymakers and politicians are prone to greatly exaggerating the amount of damage that jihadist groups can inflict on the United States.
As long as the Middle East remains in a state of disorder, the terrorist threat will be chronic. Even if the Islamic State were overrun militarily and occupied tomorrow, jihadist terrorism would not disappear. Rather it would simply migrate elsewhere, and new groups would emerge to promote jihadist ideas. Policies of democratization, and of economic development, cannot extinguish this threat because there are just too many ungoverned spaces to which jihadists can disperse. And for the United States, sending large numbers of ground forces back into the Middle East would worsen the problem, not eradicate it. As Iraq demonstrated, American military occupations in the Middle East fuel the jihadist backlash.
We already are on the precipice of a war of civilizations, and we should not want to go over that cliff. That would embroil the United States in a new version of the Hundred Years’ War—or something like 17th-century Europe’s religious wars—and the long-term sapping of American power. Until the Middle East outgrows its political and religious pathologies, and its lingering colonial-era resentments of the West, there will always be the risk of horrors like Paris or even 9/11. The challenge is not to adopt policies that fuel a cycle of escalation and broaden the appeal of jihadism in the region.
Doubtless the reality that jihadism is a long-term, chronic issue will not satisfy those who believe there are simple solutions in the Middle East. There are not. The region is too riven by its many deformities to be fixed by outsiders.
The U.S. has no good options in Iraq and Syria. Air power alone cannot defeat or destroy the Islamic State. Given Obama’s decision, a correct one, to eschew a ground war in Syria and Iraq, Washington has been forced to rely on regional proxies—“moderate” anti-Assad Syrian rebels, the Iraqi army, and the Kurds—to provide ground forces to fight the Islamic State. The efficacy of this strategy, however, is doubtful. Most fundamentally this is because, as Financial Times correspondent Roula Khalaf has observed, true moderates among the Syrian rebels are few and far between. Indeed, to the extent these “moderates” exist at all, it is primarily in the febrile imaginations of foreign-policy mavens in Washington. Splintered among various factions, the Syrian rebels have no unified command or strategy. It is the most extreme among them who have been the most successful militarily, and they are interested primarily in fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, not the Islamic State.
The notion that the U.S. can call into existence credible Iraqi military forces is equally far-fetched. The Iraqi army—rebuilt at a cost to the U.S. of $25 billion—collapsed in the face of an Islamic State onslaught in 2014. Key cities including Mosul, Ramadi, Tikrit, and Fallujah were overrun by ISIS forces. To date, such military successes as the Baghdad regime has had have been won by Iraqi Kurdish forces—and by Shi’ite militias, which are closely linked to Iran—and not by regular Iraqi army units. The Obama administration has pinned its hopes in Iraq on the notion that the supposedly “more inclusive” government of the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will be able to rebuild the country’s military capabilities. There is no reason to believe this will happen, however, because the Sunni-Shia divide is too deep and the foundations on which a unitary Iraqi state can be built have been shattered.
In summer 2014 Obama said that he did not have a strategy to deal with the Islamic State. This gave his opponents an opening to stoke the interventionist fire. The irony is that Obama, in fact, did, and does, have a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State. That strategy is what security studies scholars call offshore balancing. In a nutshell, as an offshore balancer the United States would pretty much stay out of the Syria and Iraq—and Afghanistan—conflicts militarily. Any U.S. involvement would be confined to intelligence, logistical back-up, training, and the occasional use of air power and special operations forces. The goal of the strategy would be to shift the responsibility for containing or rolling back the Islamic State (and Taliban) to regional powers—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the European Union. The risks of deeper U.S. involvement in these conflicts are clear. America would become more entangled in the complex politics and multisided rivalries of a region that U.S. policymakers—even, or especially, the so-called experts—can neither understand nor control. The wisest American strategy is to pivot away from the Middle East and to insulate ourselves as much as possible from the region’s turmoil.
The Islamic State is an existential threat to itself. No great or regional power openly supports it. The regional actors have competing as well as parallel interests, however, and each wants to do as little as possible to stop the Islamic State. Each prefers to buck pass to the United States—and secondarily to the other regional powers—to do the heavy lifting. For these reasons, the U.S.-orchestrated coalition against the Islamic State is fragile.
For example, Turkey’s strategic priorities are to force Assad from power and strike at the Kurds, who are the main U.S. proxy in Syria. There are persistent rumors that, in pursuit of these aims, Ankara has tacitly colluded with the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is an equally feckless ally. The Saudis have their own ties to the jihadists, whom it views as useful in waging a proxy war against Iran. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi brand of Islam is a powerful incubator for anti-Western jihadist fighters.
As long as they believe that the United States will take care of the Islamic State, the regional powers have every incentive to free ride and minimize their own commitments, costs, and risks, and to pursue their own agendas rather than focusing on ISIS. The Obama administration’s policy thus has created a strategic version of moral hazard. After all, the Islamic State is a much greater threat to its neighbors than it is to the United States: instead of shielding them from this threat, the U.S. should force them to confront it. Simply put, if we want the regional powers to do more in the fight against the Islamic State, Washington needs to convince them that the U.S. is going to do less. When they realize that America is not going to ride to their rescue, the regional powers will have to take the lead in tackling ISIS because their own survival and security will be on the line.
Members of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment who are aghast at Russia’s intervention in Syria are suffering from a bad case of strategic myopia. Instead of fearing Russian or Iranian involvement in this conflict, American policymakers should welcome it. Far better for them, rather than the United States, to pay the price in blood and treasure of battling the Islamic State. A similar dynamic is at play in Afghanistan, where Russia and China fear a northward Islamist extremist thrust that will menace their interests in Central Asia. But the American and NATO military presence there means that Moscow and Beijing are able to stand back while the U.S. shields them from the danger.
Barack Obama was on the way to being America’s first modern offshore-balancing president and was more or less successfully pursuing that strategy. He moved to extricate the U.S. from futile wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama placed America’s Middle East conflicts in a wider strategic perspective. Against the background of China’s rapid rise and America’s own fiscal and economic crisis, he rightly asked what sense there is in borrowing money from China to fight in the Middle East at a time when U.S. power is in relative decline. He understood that America’s wars in the Islamic world would have the same effect of weakening U.S. power that the Boer War had for Britain at the beginning of the 20th century—or that intervention in Afghanistan had for the Soviet Union. Far more than the American foreign-policy establishment, of which he has never truly been a member, Obama seemed to understand the tectonic geopolitical and economic shifts that have brought the unipolar era of American dominance to an end.
Regrettably, however, Obama has seemed to lack the fortitude to stick to his strategic guns. His successor, whether former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or one of the crop of Republicans seeking the GOP nomination, will almost certainly be more hawkish. By not liquidating these costly and unwinnable conflicts during his term, Obama has made it likely that the next president will plunge the U.S. back into the region’s geopolitical morass, repeating the Bush administration’s mistakes in the name of “doing something” about the Islamic State.
Christopher Layne is University Distinguished Professor of International Affairs and Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A&M University.