The most fascinating aspect of President Barack Obama’s unusual interview with The Atlantic was his liberation from Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Now the establishment is striking back. The president of the Council of Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, led the charge with the startling observation that Obama’s refusal to use force in Syria was comparable to President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The latest broadside came from a former career diplomat, Nicholas Burns, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a likely secretary of state or national security adviser in a Hillary Clinton administration. Burns’ old thinking on national security policy is exactly what President Obama had in mind in breaking with the traditionalists among the so-called foreign policy mandarins.
Burns, like so many members of the orthodox establishment, is particularly critical of the president’s failure to use military force against Syria after drawing a “red line” on Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In fact, without using military force, the United States and Russia were able to get Assad to admit to having chemical weapons, to give up the weapons, and to join international organizations responsible for monitoring such weapons.
Burns fails to mention that President Obama had parked five cruise-missile destroyers off the Syrian coast, which points to a important success for coercive diplomacy. Nor does Burns mention that even Israeli President Netanyahu praised the efforts of the Obama administration. Burns also ignores the observation that the intelligence regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons was not a “slam dunk.”
Burns also castigates President Obama for his criticism of Britain and France for performing as “free riders” in the Libyan campaign of 2011. Unlike Burns and Hillary Clinton, who defend the use of force in Libya, the president understands that the Libyan operation was a “shit show” and that the incompetence of Washington’s European allies has made Libya one more haven for ISIS. Obama understands that the Middle East must be deemphasized, and that it would be a “basic, fundamental mistake” to try to “govern the Middle East and North Africa.”
Burns believes that the president’s major failing in Libya was allowing the United States to take a secondary role in an important NATO mission for the first time in its history. No, the president’s failing was in acceding to then Secretary of State Clinton’s push for regime change in Tripoli. The U.S. policy of regime change, which began in Iran in 1953, has never worked. See the Congo, Chile, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. etc. etc.
Burns is critical of the president for his criticism of the Saudi royal family, arguing that it “never works to embarrass a friend publicly.” Unlike Burns, President Obama understands that for too long Saudi Arabia (and Pakistan) have sponsored an intolerant variant of political Islam that has poisoned countless Muslim minds with virulent propaganda and recidivist violence. Obama understands that the Middle East is far less important to the security interests of the United States, and that it is time to stop treating Saudi Arabia (and Israel) with kid gloves.
In arguing that President Obama has “ceded too much ground to Russia, Iran, and others” in the Middle East, Burns displays his ignorance of the limits that Moscow and Tehran face in gaining leverage in the region. Iran, a non-Arab Muslim nation, will have difficulty gaining influence over the long term. Russia, a nation in political and economic decline, cannot afford to invest heavily in the backwardness of the Middle East. The notion that President Vladimir Putin has enhanced Russia’s credibility and influence with his moves in Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria could not be more wrong.
President Obama can be credited with understanding that the Middle East is “no longer terribly important” to U.S. interests and that, even if the region were surpassingly important, there would be “little an American president could do to make it a better place.” The United States has lost credibility and power with its misuse of military force in the region, but Burns and the foreign policy establishment rely on the old shibboleths of credibility and force to make a case for the use of military power. Obama’s attack on these shibboleths is critical.
Finally, the president understands that the long-term goal of U.S. diplomacy in the region is to increase the number of diplomatic stakeholders in the Middle East and to nudge Iran and Saudi Arabia toward a less confrontational approach. There will be no stability in the region until and Sunnis and their Saudi backers and the Shia and their Persian benefactors come to their senses and seek conciliation. Burns and Haass believe that more military force is necessary in the Middle East; the president understands that our overextension in the region has harmed our economy, compromised our ability to seek opportunities elsewhere (particularly in the Pacific), and unnecessarily endangering the lives of Americans in a region where there is less American national security interest.