In just two months, a new U.S. president will be thrown into a mess that has dogged the Obama administration for much of its time in office – how and where should the United States exert influence in an increasingly volatile Middle East?
There’s a growing recognition in foreign-policy circles that something has to change – that the Obama administration’s policy of keeping the civil war in Syria at arms’ length, for example, has not been effective. Critics argue a U.S. policy of disengagement from the region has left a hole for countries like Russia and Iran to exploit – and even play an active military role – in the past few years.
It’s not just something said by Mr. Obama’s Republican critics. There’s an acceptance of that even among officials supporting Democrat Hillary Clinton for president. Taking a more “hawkish” stance is one way the former secretary of state has occasionally distanced herself from Mr. Obama in this election.
“President Obama took a conscious decision to not make a commitment to get engaged, particularly in Syria, particularly in Ukraine, arguing we needed to harbor and protect our resources, be in it for the long game, be prepared for the rise of China in the long term,” Damon Wilson, a foreign-policy advisor to Ms. Clinton’s campaign, told Handelsblatt. “The problem is, how do we get to the long term with the short term on fire?”
Mr. Wilson said he’s confident Ms. Clinton will show a tougher approach if she gets into office. “I actually think it might take a little bit of muscle movement in Europe, the Middle East and East Asia – all within the first six months.”
“Iraqis really don’t know what to expect from either a Trump or a Clinton presidency. They don’t understand how the two possible administrations will differ from the Obama administration.”
A case in point is Syria, he said. “Syria is not easy but it’s not going away…You’re not going to see a dramatic change [under Clinton] in terms of a commitment of substantial U.S. ground forces. It’s not in the cards. But you will see a recognition I think, unlike the Obama administration, that we do have a profound interest at stake,” Mr. Wilson said.
But what exactly does a tougher foreign policy look like? What will change in the Middle East under a Clinton or Trump administration?
“That’s actually incredibly easy to answer – we have no idea, whatsoever,” said Michael Doran, a former Bush administration foreign-policy advisor who is now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.
For many in foreign-policy circles, the election has been frustratingly lacking in detail when it comes to the Middle East. When the candidates have discussed Syria, for example, Mr. Doran says both candidates have sent mixed signals.
“Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are rather black boxes,” he added in an interview with Handelsblatt Global. “What we’re hearing from both candidates just doesn’t really add up.”
Ms. Clinton, for example, is trying to sound more hawkish on Syria than her actual policies suggest, Mr. Doran argued. She’s advocated imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, for example, but hasn’t said she wants to expand the resources at the military’s disposal.
Donald Trump has been far more vague when it comes to concrete policy. While he famously promised to “bomb the s*** out of ISIS,” he’s also repeatedly insisted that to reveal his plans for defeating the extremist group, active both in Syria and Iraq, amounts to “telling the enemy your strategy.”
When he has been more detailed on the Middle East and dealing with the region, he’s been inconsistent. Mr. Doran points to his tough talk on Iran but rather conciliatory talk on Russia for example.
The ongoing conflict against Islamic State in Iraq is another case in point. Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton have spent much of this 2016 campaign looking backward, trading accusations about who supported – or didn’t support – the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
But what either candidate would actually do about Iraq’s crisis today is an open question.
“Iraqis really don’t know what to expect from either a Trump or a Clinton presidency. They don’t understand how the two possible administrations will differ from the Obama administration and how they will differ from each other,” Nussaibah Younis, a fellow of the Atlantic Council in Washington, said in a panel discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute in Washington Friday.
“The foreign policy platforms of these two candidates has been very, very unclear,” said Ms. Younis, who leads a task force on Iraq’s future at the Atlantic Council. “Where they have been pushed, they’ve been pushed on the Syria issue and … very rarely been asked about what they would do differently in Iraq.”
That’s a serious problem for Iraq, which remains extremely fragile, said Feisal Istrabadi, a former ambassador of Iraq at the United Nations, who spoke on the same Hudson Institute panel.
When the subject has come up, it’s been focused on the “narrow mission” of defeating Islamic State, he said. That effort has gathered steam in recent weeks and is culminating in an invasion by Iraqi forces of Mosul, the extremist group’s last major stronghold in the country’s north.
The problem: Neither the Obama administration nor the candidates have articulated “a vision for the political future,” of Iraq, Mr. Istrabadi warned.
Even if a current military offensive against Islamic State is successful, the next U.S. president should pledge a sustained commitment to Iraq and engage its political players in a lasting solution if it wants to ensure that radical groups can’t take root again in the future. That kind of political engagement is also critical to reducing the influence of other foreign powers like Iran and Turkey in the country, he said.
The fact that there is no clear vision may be partly the fault of the current Obama administration, said Ms. Younis of the Atlantic Council. President Obama has hoped that the military offensive against Islamic State in Iraq can be wrapped up before he leaves office. It’s left his successors “off the hook” when it comes to advocating policies that would help secure the country’s future.
To be sure, the United States has become rather war-weary ever since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the first part of this millenium. The idea of committing more troops or other support to the Middle East isn’t especially appealing to most Americans.
Ms. Younis warns that could be rather short-sighted. While the “cost of engagement” may be high, the “cost of disengagement” could be much larger down the road.
Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. He spent six years as a correspondent in Washington DC. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org