Detours from Asia

[caption id="attachment_55247644" align="alignnone" width="620"]US President Barack Obama at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House December 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. Incumbent South African (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) US President Barack Obama at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House December 5, 2013 in Washington, DC. Incumbent South African (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)[/caption]US Secretary of State John Kerry’s substantive diplomacy to secure a preliminary agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and his revival of the Arab–Israeli peace talks has helped bring 2013 to an end on a surprisingly high note for President Obama’s Middle East diplomacy. The president is being praised by some who see these steps on Iran’s nuclear program and on the Arab–Israeli conflict as signs that Obama is engaging the Middle East pragmatically and effectively, if in a limited way.

However, fear in equal measure now pervades many public and policy circles across the region about what effect Obama’s engagement with Iran is going to have, not only on the security of the Gulf and of Iran’s neighbors in the future, but also on the intractable civil war in Syria. American Congressmen are also voicing growing alarm that the pragmatic US president may make a deal with Iran at the expense not only of America’s wider interests in the region, but also of Israel’s security.

Obama’s fourth year in office ends, then, on a mixed note about the future of America’s engagement with the region going into 2014. For a president who has wanted to become America’s first “Pacific” president, in 2013 he finds himself caught more in the waters of the Gulf and the Mediterranean than he would have liked. The Middle East, more than any other region in the world, has consumed his presidency, but he has yet to articulate a clear strategy for responding to the changes in the Arab world since 2011, or to address the deepening regional crisis resulting from Syria’s civil war in a substantive way. In particular, the president is woefully unprepared to address the growing threat that the scores of jihadists in Syria, who increasingly espouse a global jihadist worldview, pose to the United States and its allies.

With the entire Levant and large parts of North Africa in flux and an absence of American policy and engagement, it’s hard to see how a few small steps on the long road to Tehran and the equally well-trodden road to Jerusalem amount to much more than small stops, planned or unplanned, on a wider pivot to Asia.

Disengagement, if it can be called a strategy, essentially defines President Obama’s current Middle East policy. Iran is essentially is a fire-fighting exercise, more than the building of a new relationship with Tehran, carried out in the hope that negotiations will prevent Israel or the US from becoming dragged into another war in the region. Obama has repeatedly emphasized that the regime in Tehran is ideologically opposed to the United States on a broad number of issues. While Kerry is engaging Israel and Palestine, it is yet to be seen whether President Obama will expend the political capital needed to reach an agreement. The president has shown a keen aversion to substantively engaging or understanding the changing political atmosphere in the shifting and turbulent political landscape in the Levant, Iraq and North Africa. As a result, America’s position and influence in these states has been on the back foot, and there are no signs that President Obama will take any action to correct this.

This laissez-faire foreign policy approach has also led many of America’s oldest allies in the region to question its commitment to their security. Concessions to Iran to reach a preliminary agreement on its nuclear program have been seen by many in the Gulf as potential back-door deals that secure Iran’s position in Syria. Obama’s decision in August 2013 to pull back from enforcing his “red lines” on Syria further underscored a view that President Obama is not prepared to back his administration’s security commitments to its allies.

Going into 2014, Obama will likely maintain his present course towards Asia, with a few small detours to Tehran and Jerusalem. He will likely find himself dealing with other issues and crises in the Middle East driven more by events than by strategic vision or planning. The Geneva II talks on Syria, if they are held in January, could potentially lead to progress towards a political solution to Syria’s civil war, but the dynamics on the ground point to another year of war at least. Obama’s present course has risks. Without a clear strategy to recalibrate America’s position in the region, protect US interests, and support its allies, the events of 2013 suggest that in 2017, President Obama may bequeath to his successor a weakened US position in the Middle East.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.