Mideast Mistakes

Paper Tiger Without a Plan

Obama besucht Airbase
President Obama, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. military, has committed to airstrikes against Islamic State targets.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Beyond bombing Islamic State fighters, the lack of an endgame in U.S. Middle East policy reveals the weaknesses in Mr. Obama’s administration and erodes its credibility.

  • Facts


    • In August 2012, President Obama warned the Syrian government that using chemical weapons would bring U.S. intervention but did not follow these threats through.
    • While past U.S. presidents pursued military action to impose democracy in the Middle East, Mr. Obama seems to lack any overarching strategy for the region.
    • In Iraq alone, the United States already has 1,600 “military advisors.”
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The latest Economist magazine cover features an edited version of the famous 2003 “Mission Accomplished” photo of then-President George W. Bush, standing in a flight suit aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier, proclaiming victory in Iraq. The updated image inserts President Barack Obama’s face and is headlined: “Mission Relaunched.”

Journalists increasingly see the current U.S. president as pivoting to the military course of his predecessor. But that’s not true – because at least the former president had a strategy, as wrong as it turned out to be.

President Bush naïvely wanted to impose Western-style democracy on Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, has no strategy at all. He simply ordered bombing of Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, without setting a clear political goal for the United States and its more or less willing allies. This is a bigger danger to world peace than Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine.

President Obama wanted to go down in history as the president who ended U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as early as his 2008 campaign, the Democratic candidate changed course and, for opportunistic reasons, began calling the armed conflict in Iraq a “just war.” This encouraged U.S. generals, after Mr. Obama’s election, to force an increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan.

It’s still a mystery why the president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. Perhaps because, during a visit to Egypt that same year, Mr. Obama described its autocratic president Hosni Mubarak as a “wise ruler” and called for equal rights for women in the Islamic world?

Afghanistan and Iraq, like Vietnam before, could not be bombed into peace.

The Middle East is much more complex than President Obama supposed. Afghanistan and Iraq, like Vietnam before, could not be bombed into peace. And then the Arab Spring broke out in 2010. Washington, once allied with Mr. Mubarak and other traditional rulers, jumped on the bandwagon, promising freedom across the Middle East.

It soon became apparent, however, that the revolutions were not supported by all oppressed people but by a relatively small class of Islamic intellectuals.

In Egypt, the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood came to power in the elections. It quickly became clear that the new government intended to transform the country into an Islamic theocracy, with Sharia law as its sole legal underpinning. Although ultraconservative Saudi Arabia warned about this development, Washington adhered vehemently to President Mohamed Morsi – even when the Egyptian army, with the general support of the population, toppled him and the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States then canceled military aid to Cairo – and lost influence with its most important Arab ally.

In the meantime, Washington looked the other way as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad went about eradicating his opponents. After nearly 100,000 deaths and indications that poison gas had been used, Mr. Obama felt compelled in August 2012 to draw a “red line” and warn Mr. Assad not to cross it. If Syria used chemical weapons, the U.S. military would intervene, he said.

No government takes the Obama administration seriously anymore, certainly not Russia’s.

One year later, the world learned of suspected poison gas attacks, with reports of hundreds of victims suffering agonizing deaths from poison gas used by the Syrian army. The “red line” laid down by the Mr. Obama had been crossed, but Washington did not react militarily as it threatened. By not following through on its promise, the United States lost face across the Middle East and the world.

No government takes the Obama administration seriously anymore, certainly not Russia’s.

Now the Islamic State terrorist army is bent on conquering Syria and Iraq. As the militant group carries out gruesome beheadings of U.S., British and French citizens, it gains credibility by making good on its threats – in contrast to the United States. By exposing a superpower as a paper tiger, the 30,000-member Islamic State has finally forced the United States to act.

Washington has hurriedly thrown together an alliance and is attacking militant targets from the air with the goal of “destroying” the Islamic State. President Obama has promised not to send in U.S. ground troops, but that’s not credible. In Iraq alone, the United States already has 1,600 “military advisors.” This is similar to how U.S. involvement in Vietnam began a half-century ago.

Washington’s crucial weakness is its lack of clear political goals. The military is simply an instrument to carry out policy – but where is President Obama’s policy?

Where does he see the Arab and Islamic world in the future? What does he hope to achieve by having U.S. fighter jets bomb Islamic State targets? And what would happen – through the intervention of Turkish, Kurdish and Shiite Hezbollah forces – if the Islamic State were destroyed?

Mr. Obama’s government lacks a coherent plan for a future, stable order in the Middle East. And for that reason, it is carelessly steering the Islamic and western worlds into a military clash of civilizations.


Contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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