The "Obama Doctrine," part II

Friday, March 18, 2016

Whoa! Three JMB posts in one week? I guess it must be spring break at the Borderlands Lodge. 

The snow has been a tad light up here lately

Earlier this week I put up a post detailing what I see as the bright side of the "Obama Doctrine" discussed in a recent article in the Atlantic. In this post, by contrast, I'd like to discuss some of the disadvantages of Obama's approach to foreign policy. 

As was discussed a fair bit in the Atlantic piece, Obama is seeking to disengage--as much as possible--from the Middle East. And frankly, I think that this could end up being good for the region. At the same time, however, I think that relative US disengagement from the region has also contributed to some issues which, over the long term, may end up being more problematic for both the US and the region more generally.  

Sub-contracting Syria policy  

I think that the biggest problem with Obama's relative disengagement from the Middle East, especially with regard to the Syria crisis, is that this development has led the Obama administration to basically sub-contract its Syria policy to Ankara and Riyadh. And the sad truth of the matter is that the governments of Turkey and Saudi Arabia do not necessarily share the objectives of the Obama administration. This is a particularly vexing situation vis-a-vis Turkish-American relations, as Turkey is a member of NATO. 

The problem with not caring so much about the Middle East, and focusing upon east Asia in the manner that Obama supports in the Atlantic piece, is that such a policy can mean leaving your policy in someone else's hands. For too long, Obama was willing to follow the truculent lead toward Syria of Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan. Not that Syria's Bashar al-Assad is a great guy, but hadn't we already learned, by the time of the not-so "red line" of August 2013, that the overthrow of even really bad dictators can end up going horribly wrong? 

Hadn't we seen this movie before?

So, as bad as Assad is, I think Obama's relative lack of interest in the Middle East--which in some ways is actually a good thing--ended up allowing the US to follow policies that were detrimental to US interests in the region. This is because in this case it wasn't so much the United States that was looking to stir things up, I think, but rather Obama's regional allies.

And shouldn't we have also have learned this lesson after Libya? 

The US and the Kurds

While sub-contracting US policymaking vis-a-vis Syria to Ankara, the Obama administration ended up taking Ankara's side in the war against Kurdish forces that Turkey's President Erdogan launched last July. I wrote about this at the time, but what seems to have happened is that Erdogan made a deal with the US whereby Ankara would get a free hand to go after Kurdish forces in Iraq (an operation that inevitably spread to southeastern Turkey and Syria), and the US would be allowed to use the Incirlik airbase in Adana, Turkey in order to go after ISIS/Daesh. 

Even back then it seemed fairly obvious what would happen next: 


So now relations between Ankara and Kurdish-rights organizations are worse than they've been for years. And by the way, I wonder how Kurds in Iraq and Syria now view the US? For years, the Kurdish area of northern Iraq was one of the few places in the Middle East where the United States was genuinely popular. And now? I imagine that Kurds in northern Syria may well be more positively inclined toward Russia, rather than the United States. 

Turkey/Russia tensions and implications for NATO

And speaking of Russia, what are NATO's responsibilities with regard to any conflict that Ankara might find itself vis-a-vis Moscow? Given the tense relations that exist right now between Russia and NATO's periphery, there is, I think, absolutely no way that the United States can appear to be doing anything less than fully backing up its NATO allies in whatever spats they may find themselves engaged in with Russia. This gives Turkish President Erdogan a free hand to act as belligerently as he wants, which means he can do things that shoot down Russian planes without having to worry very much about the consequences. He knows that the US has got his back, and that he's got Obama over a barrel. 

A lot of my friends in Turkey, those who despise Erdogan, tell me that I've got it wrong, and that Erdogan is much too stupid to be thinking this far ahead of everybody. Erdogan, they are convinced, must be Obama's puppet, while the breakup of Turkey is in America's interest. I don't agree with this idea, but I repeat it here because it reflects how different the perspectives on these matters can really be between one place (Istanbul) and another (Montana). 

Just for the record, I don't think the US is trying to break up Turkey, and do think that Turkey's President Erdogan had that Russian plane shot down as a means of changing the international conversation that was taking place at the time. Think about it: the Russian plane went down just a couple of weeks after the attacks in Brussels, at a time when French President Hollande and others were calling for Russia and the US to ally against ISIS/Daesh. How better to end that talk by creating not only a crisis between Turkey and Russia, but one between Moscow and NATO? 

As I wrote at the time: 


Erdogan can do whatever he wants, I think, within reason, because at this particular moment in history what US president would risk appearing to not fully back up a NATO ally in a conflict with Russia? 

Putin avoiding his quagmire? 

And now the Kremlin has announced that Russia is withdrawing its forces from Syria. This announcement seems to have come as some surprise to Americans, who had earlier predicted that Syria would turn into a quagmire similar to what the United States faced in Iraq. 

To be clear, it should be noted that Russia isn't pulling out of Syria entirely. Indeed, Russia still has a base in Syria, and could be easily drawn into future conflicts in the country. Nevertheless, it seems clear that policymakers in Russia have learned from the mistakes that the US committed during the W. presidency. 

Instead, Russia's intervention in Syria is a bit more reminiscent of American interventions in Iraq (1991) and ex-Yugoslavia (1995, 1999) under the HW Bush and Clinton administrations, in which the aims were limited and the point was to avoid biting off more than one could chew. In Russia's case, the goal was to prop up the Assad regime and secure Russia's naval base in Tartus, and in this respect Moscow has succeeded, at least so far.

Contrast this approach with what the United States has accomplished in Syria. A half-billion dollars spent on a handful of rebels trained to overthrow Assad. And for what? So that the United States can help rid the world of another dictator? And replace him with what? 

In this case, way too much time was spent pursuing the agendas of US allies in the region, rather than those of the US itself. 

A mixed legacy

While I appreciate the fact that Obama is trying hard to keep the United States out of the Middle East, I think the unofficial policy of subcontracting US policymaking vis-a-vis Syria--as the United States now "turns toward Asia"-- has been disastrous. Not because the US has somehow "lost" the region to Russia, but rather due to the fact that--like it or not--the United States is still engaged in the Middle East. 

So, I think it's probably a good idea to pay attention to what our allies our doing in our name and the impact that these actions have upon our alliances, and on NATO in particular. President Obama might not want to be so engaged in the Middle East--and who could blame him?--but if the US is going to be engaged anyway, then it's probably wiser to not let others set the agenda. 

Also see: 

Looking at the Bright Side of the "Obama Doctrine"

More on Turkey-Russia Conflict

Erdogan vs Putin: The Streetfighter and the Agent Face Off

Turkey Shoots Down Russian Warplane

The US, Turkey, ISIS and the Kurds: What's Going On?

180 librarians can't be wrong! Order a copy of Turks Across Empires for yourself--or your library--today. 

More commentary, photos, and links can be found, as always, in the Borderlands Lounge. 

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