Recalibration and Surprises: A Primer on the Middle East and the 2016 Presidential Election

This is a capstone paper for a series of MEI scholar articles titled “The Middle East and the 2016 Presidential Elections." Further papers will follow.

Will the 2016 vote for president be a foreign policy election? How will the Middle East figure in the campaign as it gains momentum? The accepted wisdom is that domestic issues, especially economic matters, will be decisive in voters’ minds.  A year away from the election, it is unclear whether foreign policy issues will figure in a major way but the portent is there.  The turbulent Middle East could easily burst into election politics as it has several times in the past.

Every election, even if the incumbent is not running, is a referendum on the previous president’s policies.  If the Democrats nominate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden reconsiders his candidacy, this aspect is underlined and written in bold letters.  As would be expected, the Republican candidates have been uniformly critical of President Obama’s foreign policy as weak and mismanaged. Since the main arena in which President Obama has carried out his signature foreign policy principles – especially diplomatic negotiation and restraint in the use of force – is the Middle East, his policies concerning Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan in particular figure in the partisan debate.

The past two summers have not been kind to Obama’s legacy.  In 2014, the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul and advances toward Baghdad caused Obama to recalibrate his policies toward greater use of force in late summer, and this year, despite the success in negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, setbacks in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are prompting further reconsideration.  A senior Administration official confided that in the official’s 40 years of dealing with the Middle East, there has never been greater instability in the region.  Similarly, General (ret.) David Petraeus, former CENTCOM Commander and CIA Director, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “The Middle East today is experiencing revolutionary upheaval that is unparalleled in its modern history.”[i] For the Democratic candidates it is a question of to what degree they will defend Obama’s legacy in the Middle East, and for the Republicans it is a question of how vigorously they will attack.

This paper addresses the history of Middle East issues in US presidential elections, assesses Obama’s legacy a year from the 2016 election, outlines candidates’ general perspectives, reviews individual policy issues, and offers conclusions as to prospects for a meaningful debate about US grand strategy in the Middle East during the campaign. 

A Chronology: Middle East Issues in US Presidential Elections

While foreigners do not vote in US elections, events abroad do affect US elections, not always with predictable effect.  In May 1948, Secretary of State George Marshall advised President Truman not to recognize the new State of Israel on the grounds that Truman would lose the November election and win the undying enmity of the Arabs.  Marshall proved only half right; Truman won the election but the Israeli-Palestinian issue continues to cast negative light on the US relationship with the Arab world to this day.  In 1956, President Eisenhower confronted the first “October surprise.” At a time when Ike was campaigning on a platform of peace and prosperity, France, Britain and Israel launched their attack against Egypt to gain control of the Suez Canal.  Ike’s undiplomatic language helped him win a landslide re-election.

In 1968, Middle East issues had little impact on the contest between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon despite the reshaping of the region in the 1967 October War.  Nonetheless what did happen is instructive. President Johnson withdrew his candidacy because of opposition to his Vietnam policy and Republican challenger Richard Nixon defeated Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who could not get out from under Johnson’s shadow.

In 1980, President Carter’s re-election campaign against Ronald Reagan showed the most dramatic and decisive intrusion of Middle East affairs in a presidential campaign.  Carter’s brokering of the historic Camp David Agreement in 1978 boosted his approval ratings by 15 percentage points, to 58 percent.  They eroded to 30 percent by the November 1980 elections because of the Iran hostage crisis and failed rescue mission in April 1980, and Reagan won by a landslide.[ii]

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush found his re-election campaign overwhelmed by US economic issues despite approval ratings of 75 percent after the conclusion of the first Gulf War fifteen months before the election.  Clinton won on a slogan of “It’s the economy, stupid,” assisted by the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot, also running on an economic platform.

In 2004, Middle East issues were front and center because of 9/11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but characterized in terms of leadership. Democratic candidate John Kerry campaigned on the platform of “Stronger at home, respected abroad.”  Incumbent President George W. Bush carried the election in part because of the argument that the country should not change horses midstream and by accusing Kerry of “flip-flopping.”

In 2008, the overriding concern was the Great Recession that unfolded as the mortgage and banking crisis deepened in the months running up to the election.  Still, Iraq and terrorism were determinative issues for many voters.  Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in part because of his consistent criticism of her Senate vote in favor of the Iraq War.  Obama also prevailed over Republican John McCain in no small part because of war-weariness. In contrast to McCain’s robust approach to promoting US interests abroad, Obama promised to wind down the war in Iraq, to fight the “real war” in Afghanistan against terrorism, and to use negotiations to reach out to America’s adversaries. 

In 2012, economic and social issues again dominated.  Middle East issues focused on the playing out of the Arab Spring and the perennial concern of stanch US support for Israel.  In his re-election campaign, Obama’s victory over Republican Mitt Romney hinged little on Middle East policy.

While it is difficult to draw hard conclusions from this short history, two facts stand out:  events in the Middle East have significantly influenced several elections, and the current turbulent Middle East has significant potential to do so again.

Obama’s Legacy in the Middle East

In the 2008 election campaign and his first weeks in office, President Obama outlined the premises for his Middle East policies: 1) negotiations with our adversaries “if they will unclench their fist” and renewed talks between the Israelis and Palestinians; 2) prudence in the use of force starting with winding down the US commitment in Iraq and emphasizing the fight against terrorism in the “real war” in Afghanistan; and 3) the promotion, but not imposition, of democracy and respect for human rights.[iii]

Negotiations have produced the hallmark accomplishments of Obama’s presidency, not only with Iran but also outside the region with Cuba and the Asian trade partners in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  These results are already issues in the campaign. The Israeli-Palestinian talks, after strenuous efforts by two special envoys and multiple trips by Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry, have little prospect of coming to fruition.  While this failure is not now an issue, support for Israel is.

Regarding the use of force in the Middle East, President Obama has set out a nuanced approach. He has averred to use “all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.” These he has defined as “confronting external aggression against our allies and partners,” assuring “the free flow of energy from the region to the world,” dismantling “terrorist networks that threaten our people,” and not tolerating “the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.” In his view, “the most important policy consideration, particularly when the United States contemplates using lethal force, is whether our actions protect American lives.” Still, because “America must move off a permanent war footing,” he has placed “prudent limits,” the most important of which has been as commander in chief he will not commit US “armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” or for that matter, in Syria.[iv]

The corollary to this informal doctrine is “when issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States are at stake – when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction – then the threshold for military action must be higher.” In such circumstances, “the United States should not go it alone.” Instead, Washington must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. The US must “broaden its tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and – if just, necessary, and effective – multilateral military action.”[v]

In line with the first of these guidelines, Obama has authorized the use of force in clear-cut cases such as drone strikes against terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen and high-risk special operations to neutralize Osama bin Laden and to rescue kidnapped Americans. He also has consistently supported strong military ties and precedent-setting arms sales to regional allies, especially Israel and the GCC states.

While critics have described this undeclared doctrine as “self containment,” [vi] Obama’s former National Security Council Director for the Middle East Philip Gordon characterized it as follows:  “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.”[vii] Foreign Affairs magazine editor Gideon Rose extends the argument to conclude, “If the Middle East is bent on convulsing itself in costly disasters, as seems unfortunately true these days, trying to play a constructive role from the sidelines rather than getting embroiled directly represents not weakness but prudence.” [viii] Obama himself has noted that if the advice of his Republican critics had prevailed, the US would now be involved in seven wars. [ix]

Obama offered further insight into his decision-making on the use of force when he described the context for his decisions about Syria:

When I make a decision about the level of military involvement that we're prepared to engage in, I have to make a judgment based on, once we start something we’ve got to finish it, and we’ve got to do it well.  And do we, in fact, have the resources and the capacity to make a serious impact -- understanding that we’ve still got to go after ISIL in Iraq; we still have to support the training of an Iraqi military that is weaker than any of us perceived; that we still have business to do in Afghanistan.[x]

These prudential sentiments regarding the use of force have found favor with the US public over most of his presidency but the past year has seen increasingly broad public approval for the use of force.  As of this writing, Obama’s approval rating is hovering around 46 percent, with approval of his foreign policy lower at about 40 percent.[xi]

Regarding democracy, human rights and development, Obama declared their promotion as part of US interests in the Middle East at the beginning of the Arab Spring. Later at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism in February 2015 in Washington, and during meetings in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly, he emphasized that diplomacy, development and defense initiatives all are required to respond to the legitimate political and economic grievances at the root of the Middle East’s troubles.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East Anne Patterson has mentioned in particular the poor governance and illegitimacy of many Middle East regimes, their records of human rights abuses and the high unemployment among the 65 percent of the Middle East population under 25.  Compounding these problems are historical, regional and sectarian rivalries. All are long-term problems that will far outlast the Obama Administration.[xii]  Its course has been a policy of particularism that recognizes that there is no cookie-cutter approach to these nested problems, and the reality that for reasons of national security the United States must “work with governments that do not fully respect the universal rights of citizens” but not “stop speaking out” on these matters. [xiii] When she was secretary of state, Clinton developed the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) in order to align US policy in this regard.

The Candidates’ Perspectives

The coincidence of the first two Republican presidential debates with the period for congressional action on the Iran nuclear deal thrust Obama’s legacy in the Middle East to the forefront of campaign issues. All the Republican candidates see a failure of leadership, denigrate the concept of “leading from behind’ and proclaim a variation of Donald Trump’s slogan: “Make America Great Again.” 

The three Republican candidates now leading in the polls – Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina – lack experience not only in foreign policy but also in governing, and have not produced a coherent statement about their views on Middle East policy.  Playwright David Mamet has likened the political process to the theater; the first act establishes character and builds interest and the second act deals with substance. New Yorker commentator Ryan Lizza raises the question whether Donald Trump as well as some of the other candidates will have a second act.[xiv] Trump remained quiet during much of foreign policy discussions during the debates except to register that he would “have the finest team anyone has put together”, and he would ”know more about the problems of this world” by the time he is in the White House.[xv] When the press questioned him later on lack of specifics on foreign policy, he added, "I don't like talking so specific –(saying) I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that, like a fool. I want to be unpredictable."[xvi] Dropouts Scott Walker and Rick Perry failed even to make the curtain ending the first act, a winnowing is to be expected in such a large field.

Regarding the Middle East, three candidates -- Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Lindsey Graham – already have on-record material for the second act. Rubio, serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presented his views in an article titled “Restoring American Strength” in Foreign Affairs magazine[xvii].  He focuses on Iran, advocating “a strategy for strength” because “the world is at its safest when America is its strongest;” Russia and Ukraine, favoring a policy of “open for business” to protect “an open international economy in an increasingly globalized world;” and China, arguing for “defending freedom” to give “moral clarity” regarding America’s core values.

Jeb Bush got off to a wobbly start when he said he would have invaded Iraq as his brother had done even knowing what we know now and then backtracked in the face of criticism.  Addressing Middle East issues in more detail at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in August,[xviii] he castigated Obama for his “minimalist approach of incremental escalation” that has enabled a “terrorist pandemic” including the establishment of the Islamic State, and offered specific proposals on Iraq and Syria, embracing greater US engagement.

Lindsey Graham (still at the “undercard” forum in the debates) has codified voluminous comments from his years of service on the Senate Armed Services Committee into a “National Security Strategy Overview;” he would “confront head-on the threats to our security. The plan is very simple: whatever it takes, as long as it takes, until we defeat them.”[xix] Other Republican candidates have only sound bites, those concerning the Middle East usually stressing solidarity with Israel and Obama’s weak leadership across the region.

The Democratic candidates are arrayed in a different fashion.  Hillary Clinton not only has her record as Secretary of State but also delivered a major speech at the Brookings Institution on the Iran deal and other Middle East topics.  She is the most hawkish of the group, favoring a no-fly zone in Syria.

Other contenders – Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb -- have thin public records of their views.  In the first Democratic debate October 13 in Las Vegas, Sanders, who has chaired the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, explained he is not a pacifist and would use force in certain circumstances despite his filing for status as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. O’Malley, who has no appreciable experience in foreign affairs, was generally supportive of Obama’s policies in the Middle East and on his website cites former Obama adviser Philip Gordon’s view as to US national interests in the Middle East.

Chafee, who has served on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, called in the debate for “a new paradigm” in the Middle East but offered no details as to what it might be other than “prosperity through peace.”  Webb, a former Marine who served as Secretary of the Navy under Reagan and as a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, favors a strong defense. In the debate he objected to the US involvement in Libya because it detracted from what he regards as the major US security problem – China.   Both Chafee and Webb have now dropped their bids for the Democratic nomination but Webb is considering a run as an independent.

Issues: Prospects and Vulnerabilities

President Obama will be leaving much unfinished business as his legacy in the Middle East.  On his negotiation agenda, the nearest thing to finished business is the Iran nuclear deal - conceived, negotiated and signed during his presidency. In contrast, the Israeli-Palestinian talks are suspended. Regarding the use of force, the issues divide into two sets: those Obama inherited from Bush 43 that should be considered as a joint legacy spanning both the Bush 43 and the Obama Administrations -- Afghanistan, Iraq, and terrorism; and those new in the time of the Obama Administration – Syria, Yemen and Libya. Finally, under the unfinished rubric of promoting democracy, development and human rights, fall Egypt and Tunisia.

The Negotiation Agenda

Iran: The Iran nuclear deal came to fruition not only because Obama was willing to negotiate but also because the June 2013 Iranian presidential election produced an Iranian partner.  For both proponents and opponents, the deal struck in July 2015 is a model of either what should or what should not be done. 

As a positive model, the deal narrowed the scope to Iran’s nuclear program, the most portentous issue between the US and Iran; it successfully harnessed sanctions to a negotiated result constraining the Iranian nuclear program; and it avoided costly military action with possibly great unintended consequences. In the words of former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, the deal is “an epochal moment” that “should not be squandered.  Negotiated agreements, the only ones that get signed in times of peace, are compromises by definition; it is what President Reagan did with the Soviet Union on arms control; it is what President Nixon did with China.”[xx] Hillary Clinton, in a stance largely echoed by the other Democratic candidates, strongly favors the deal but stresses the imperative of strict compliance.

To detractors, it is a model of what should not be done because the agreement fails to end Iran’s enrichment program and fails to address Iranian mischief in the region. Moreover, it offers unnecessary concessions because of a weak US negotiating strategy, namely an unwillingness to walk away from the talks and to seriously threaten the use of military force.  Most Republican candidates have promised to either abrogate or renegotiate the deal once in office. Trump has called it “the worst negotiated deal ever” and said he would “police that contract so tough that they (the Iranians) don’t have a chance.”[xxi] The Republicans likely will try to make the Iran nuclear deal a framing issue in the 2016 campaign much like Obamacare was in 2012.

Whether the deal will play out to one side’s advantage during the election period is unclear. Implementation day, the date expected in late spring or summer 2016 when Iran has fulfilled its initial obligations and the West lifts sanctions and allows access to blocked funds, falls in the heat of the campaign. The longer the deal goes on without Iranian infraction, the stronger the view of former Secretary of State Colin Powell is likely to hold sway:  “We have a deal, let's see how they (the Iranians) implement the deal. If they don't implement it, bail out.  None of our options are gone.”[xxii] In contrast, increased Iranian meddling and provocations, as the deal moves toward implementation would provide further fodder for criticism of the Obama Administration’s outreach to Tehran.

Important not only to Obama’s legacy but also to the role that the Iran deal plays in the election campaign is the Obama Administration’s follow up to its promises for developing a regional strategy for the Gulf.  This undoubtedly will involve new arms sales and further initiatives to coordinate missile defense and other GCC military activities.

In an important step in this regard, Secretary of State Kerry and his GCC colleagues meeting as the US-GCC Strategic Cooperation Forum on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September reiterated their opposition on Iran’s support for ”terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the region” and pledged to “work together to counter its interference, particularly attempts to undermine the security of and interference in the domestic affairs of GCC member states.” In language not unlike the consultative commitments of the North Atlantic Treaty, the Ministers stated, ”In the event of such aggression or the threat of such aggression, the United States stands ready to work with our GCC partners to determine urgently what action may be appropriate, using the means at our collective disposal, including the potential use of military force, for the defense of our GCC partners.”[xxiii]

The Iran deal will also have implications for world energy markets as Iran seeks to increase its exports after Implementation Day.  This downward pressure will likely work to assure low US energy prices, especially for gasoline, keeping energy largely a non-issue in the elections.  So far Saudi Arabia and the other GCC states have received little attention in the campaign. Trump has taken the stance that “Saudi Arabia, if it weren’t for us, … wouldn’t exist. They should pay us” for US support.[xxiv]  Paul has suggested the Clinton Foundation should return Saudi contributions because of Saudi violation of women’s rights.[xxv]  Energy was virtually ignored in the Republican debate on economic issues.

Israeli-Palestinian Issue: The Israeli-Palestinian talks figured significantly in the 2008 campaign, with Obama promising to appoint a special envoy to facilitate the negotiations.  He appointed former Senator George Mitchell, who resigned in frustration after three years.  The pattern repeated itself in his second term when Secretary of State Kerry and his Special Envoy Martin Indyk made over twenty trips to Jerusalem and Ramallah to little effect. Indyk, like Mitchell, resigned, and he suggested in exit interviews that the two-state solution might already be dead.

In the Middle East, it is joked that “there is dead, really dead and resurrections.” It is fair to say that until there is change in what Henry Kissinger called the “objective conditions,” the Israeli-Palestinian talks appear dead, perhaps on their way to being really dead, but still not beyond resurrection--if the Israelis were to have a government that would be willing to take significant risks for peace and the Palestinians were to have a united, fully empowered authority.  Neither is likely to happen in Obama’s final year. 

Obama will almost certainly pave the way for a new administration with arms deals to Israel intended to smooth relations in view of severe strains in the bilateral relationship over the Iranian nuclear deal. The most troubling part of the failure to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian issues is the near certainty that frustration will lead to the outbreak of renewed violence.  The Obama Administration will likely leave a legacy of crisis management rather than the hoped-for conflict resolution.

The Use of Force: The Joint Obama-Bush Legacy

Writing in 2000, William Quandt, historian and former White House official, argued in an essay called “America and the Middle East: Fifty Year Overview” that US interests had been “surprisingly well protected” over the previous half century “despite mishaps and some blunders” because the “United States has managed to avoid costly (to America) military engagements.” He judged overall “the scorecard does not look so bad.”[xxvi] The Gulf War in1990-91, he argued, did not violate this generalization because it was limited in scope and actually profitable for the US both politically and monetarily.

George W. Bush changed that tradition after 9/11 with good reason in Afghanistan and with quite questionable reason with his invasion of Iraq in 2003. In a series of essays on “Obama’s Foreign Policy Record” in Foreign Affairs magazine, Obama critic and Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens asks, “When does the statute of limitations on blaming President George W. Bush for the record of the current administration finally expire?”[xxvii] The answer on terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq is, “Not yet.”

The shared legacy of Obama and Bush on these issues is mixed for both presidents.  The Bush 43 Administration approached these issues with the goal of military victory but failing, in the view of its critics, to take into account the political, economic and social perquisites to produce a stable end-state.  Except in the case of combating terror groups, Obama’s objective has been a political settlement without, in the view of his critics, sufficient regard for the military perquisites for a satisfactory negotiated deal.

Afghanistan: In response to 9/11, Bush launched attacks against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in October 2001 with wide public support. At the National Defense University in the next three months, the Pentagon first commissioned and then squelched studies of possible exit strategies from Afghanistan as the US military shifted gears from considering a limited involvement there to preparing for the “long war” subsequently named the “Global War on Terrorism.” From the perspective of 14 years later, the Bush 43 Administration was right about the “long war” on terrorism but wrong in not considering exit strategies. At minimum, such studies could have highlighted the magnitude of the task and discouraged the thinking that led to taking on the largely unrelated discretionary mission of driving Saddam Hussein out with the invasion of Iraq 18 months later. 

The task of exit strategies from Afghanistan fell to the Obama Administration.  When President Obama ten months into his presidency doubled the number of US troops deployed there to 60,000 with the mission “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda,” he also announced “after 18 months our troops will begin to come home.”[xxviii] The language reflected Obama’s compromise between the positions of Secretary of State Clinton who favored the deployment and Vice President Biden who wanted a targeted mission with limited duration.[xxix]

Given the overwhelming nature of the mission, Douglas Lute, the White House official responsible for Afghanistan 2007-2013 spanning both the Bush 43 and Obama Administrations, explained his primary job was to say “good enough” to stem mission creep. Otherwise, the job, he stressed, would be overwhelming: the starting point of military training is teaching literacy so Afghan troops can read the serial numbers on their weapons; the country is still developing a legitimate central government, and there is an accepted tradition of corruption.[xxx]

US Commander in Afghanistan General John Campbell testified in early October before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Afghan forces “are holding. The Afghan government retains control of Kabul, of Highway One, its provincial capitals and nearly all of the district centers.”[xxxi] However, the Taliban’s unexpected, easy capture of Kunduz and a UN report stating that the Taliban’s reach is widest since 2001 vouch for the continuing security problem.

Because “Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be,” President Obama has temporarily suspended drawdown of the 9,800 American troops currently in Afghanistan and established a new goal that would leave 5,500 troops at the end of 2016.[xxxii]

Regarding terrorism, Obama has personally approved drone targets, overseen special operations including the successful assault on Osama bin Laden’s compound, and worked to build strong cooperative relationships to confront the metastasizing Islamic State and other terrorist threats in North Africa, Mali, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere. 

Afghanistan so far has been a minor issue in the campaign, with Republican candidates saying that Obama is rushing to get out of Afghanistan as they allege he did in Iraq and assaulting him for refusing to use the term “Islamic terrorists.”  Bush has asked the question “Are we safer today then we were in 2009?” implying a negative answer.  Graham has condemned Obama’s latest decisions, even though they go in the direction he has favored, saying the President once more has ignored the advice of his military commanders.

In 2009, Obama remarked about Afghanistan, “I just don’t want to leave this kind of mess for my successor.”[xxxiii]  At this point, the fulfillment of this legacy is likely to be a matter of degree. 

Iraq and ISIS Strategy: Despite the dozen years since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush 43 legacy figures both in the situation on the ground and in the presidential debates.  On the ground, the invasion and the lack of planning for its consequences opened the Pandora’s box that Ryan Crocker, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs at the time and later ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan, warned against prior to the invasion. In hindsight, given what has happened in Syria and other Arab Spring countries, it is not unreasonable to assert that the US invasion merely set off conflicts and disputes that would have occurred on their own accord at a later date.  Still, at a minimum, the Bush 43 Administration bears the responsibility of not heeding the warning of likely broad societal consequences and planning accordingly. 

On the positive side, President Bush did recognize in the fourth year of the war that “staying the course” was not working and took the risks of a surge based on the strategy of population protection developed by General Petraeus.  He also signed on December 14, 2008 during his final trip to Baghdad an agreement on the “Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq” that set the date of December 31, 2011 for final withdrawal of all US combat forces.

In the presidential campaign, Iraq has figured as a prominent retrospective issue. Jeb Bush in his comments on the Middle East entirely ignores the fact that his brother signed the withdrawal agreement and blames Obama for the current situation because of his “rush” to get US combat forces out of Iraq. In the Democratic debate on October 13, all candidates regarded the 2003 invasion as one of the greatest blunders in the history of US foreign policy, and Bernie Sanders and others criticized Hillary Clinton for her vote in the Senate in favor of the invasion. She acknowledged it was a mistake.

As for Obama’s legacy, critics allege he could have tried harder to obtain Iraqi permission to retain a residual combat force much as he has decided to do in Afghanistan. Still it is not clear whether this capability and leverage would have altered the erosion of readiness and the morale of Iraqi Security Forces that led to their collapse when the Islamic State attacked Mosul. The primary cause of that calamity was then-Prime Minister Maliki’s corrupt political intrusion into the military chain of command that eroded both effectiveness and willingness to fight.  The Obama Administration, especially Vice President Joe Biden who holds the White House portfolio for Iraq, is vulnerable to charges of coddling Maliki, allowing Iranians to solidify influence while the Administration considered what to do after the fall of Mosul, and refusing to deploy forces sufficiently empowered to be effective.

Republican candidate Lindsey Graham has been the most specific in his criticism, favoring deployment of 10,000 or more US troops, up from the 3,500 there now.  He also favors a much higher “ops tempo” with greatly increased airstrikes.  No one has challenged the premise of US involvement:  that the US and its coalition partners should provide support and air cover while the Iraqis provide the boots on the ground. The concept worked when the Kurds were doing the fighting, but former JCS Chairman Martin Dempsey just before he retired at the end of September called the situation “tactically stalemated.”[xxxiv] Sectarian differences mar the effectiveness and willingness of Shia forces to deploy to retake Sunni territory in Anbar from the Islamic State, and the recapture of Mosul and other Islamic State-held territory in the north appears unlikely in 2016.  Current political wrangling in both Baghdad and Erbil could cause further deterioration and have an impact on countrywide efforts to defeat the Islamic State.

In the latest revisions to the Administration’s strategy for dealing with the Islamic State, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and new JCS Chairman General Joseph Dunford testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the “Iraq First” strategy of a year ago has been amended to emphasize the “Three Rs”. Carter explained the first R is increased airstrikes, training and assistance to support moderate Syrian opposition fighters seeking to retake Raqqa in Syria; in the first publicly acknowledged deployment to Syria, the White House has also announced that about fifty Special Forces will help in this effort on the ground. The second R is assistance to Sunni fighters seeking to retake Ramadi in Iraq, and the third R is seizing on actionable intelligence for opportunistic raids elsewhere. Just returning from Iraq, Dunford related that he had made clear that any request for Russian airstrikes in Iraq would risk US support, and reported that Prime Minister Abadi had assured him that Iraq has no intention of making such requests.

In short, while the situation in Iraq is not as unstable as that in Syria, it is dynamic and has the potential to thrust itself into the campaign in a major way.

Use of Force: “Leading from Behind”

An unnamed White House official used the term “lead from behind” to describe the US role in Libya in 2011.  Although it is an apt description for the US role in Libya as well as in Syria and Yemen, Administration spokespersons and Democrats avoid it because Republican critics use it derisively to indict what they see as weak Administration leadership.  In Republican critics’ views, a prime example is Obama’s decision in 2013 to abandon his “redline” threat of military force in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in favor of a negotiated deal brokered by Putin.

In Obama’s view, these situations evoke issues of “global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States.” In such circumstances, the United States “must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action and broaden its tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and – if just, necessary, and effective – multilateral military action.”[xxxv]  

Syria: The situation in Syria has the potential of seriously discrediting Obama’s conception about the use of force. After more than four years, the Islamic State controls a large swath of Syria and Iraq, 250,000 Syrians have died, half the Syrian population has been displaced, refugee flows are destabilizing the Levant and are testing the political fabric of the EU, and the recent Russian intervention could have geopolitical ramifications far beyond Syria.

Much like President Bush’s persistent stance to “stay the course” as the situation in Iraq deteriorated in 2005-2006, President Obama insists his policies are right-headed and supported by a broad coalition of 65 countries. Russian airstrikes are targeting CIA-supported groups. The Administration has had to reformulate programs to train and equip moderate opposition forces after the collapse of initial efforts. The UN and other relief agencies have not come close to meeting the immense humanitarian need for lack of safe corridors for aid delivery.  While everyone vows only a political solution will work, and external powers recently met in Vienna, none of the Syrian parties have shown any readiness for serious compromise.

Regarding the new Russian assertiveness, Obama believes the Russians have entered into a self-defeating quagmire, from which he has prudently kept the US clear. He has vowed to continue diplomatic efforts and to support the moderate opposition, but “what we are not going to do is try to insert ourselves in a military campaign inside Syria.”[xxxvi] Overall, he sees Putin’s new intervention in Syria as a desperate move to save Russia’s only ally in the Arab world. [xxxvii]

Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee emphasized that the negatives will impact on Russia sooner rather than later as the Sunni countries bring to bear their objections.  She described concern about a transformative, newly empowered Russian role as “exaggerated” and argued Russian vulnerabilities have provided Secretary of State Kerry opportunities for negotiation.[xxxviii]  Kerry himself called the Vienna discussions with foreign parties to the Syrian tragedy including Iran “the best opportunity we have” to get “the political solution that everybody has talked about.”[xxxix]

General (ret) John Allen, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL testifying jointly with Patterson, reported on his recent trip to the region.  Reinforcing Patterson’s comments, he related that the Gulf states fear that the new Russian presence will increase the inflow of foreign fighters.[xl] He commended Turkish cooperation in stemming the flow of foreign fighters and in opening Turkish bases to Coalition operations. He noted, however, the “very delicate, diplomatic process" the Administration faces in trying to work with Turkey and at the same time partnering with the Kurdish Syrian affiliates of the terrorist-designated PKK that the Turks staunchly oppose.[xli]

Among Democrats, Hillary Clinton has sought to distance herself from Obama’s Syria policies.  While still secretary of state, she joined with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and CIA Director David Petraeus to recommend arming the moderate opposition in 2012, a policy Obama rejected until a year ago. More recently, she advocated a no-fly zone in northern Syria and the establishment of protected corridors to deliver humanitarian relief. [xlii] Calling similar suggestions by others “half-baked,” Obama has refused to label Clinton’s comments such but contended she “would be the first to say that when you’re sitting in the seat that I’m sitting in, in the Situation Room, things look a little bit different -- because she’s been right there next to me.”[xliii]

Other Democratic contenders have generally lined up behind the President. Sanders called Syria “a quagmire in a quagmire” and stressed that a no-fly zone could get the US into “a very dangerous situation.” O’Malley agreed with Sanders and called the no-fly zone “a mistake.”  All Democratic contenders have also supported admission of Syrian refugees into the United States, and Clinton and O’Malley have explicitly endorsed an UN-suggested number of 65,000.

Among Republican candidates, Bush, Kasich, Rubio, Fiorina and Christie have also called for a no-fly zone.  Bush, whose views are more nuanced than the others, described Putin as “an agile adversary” who is exploiting a vacuum of US leadership in Syria and elsewhere. In Bush’s view, “How to deal with him (Putin) is to confront him on his terms, not to create a more bellicose environment but to simply say that there is going to be a consequence.”[xliv] The others have advocated a shoot-down policy treating Russian sorties “no different than any other adversary” in Rubio’s words.[xlv] Ted Cruz favors “a real, robust campaign that maximizes our overwhelming air advantage” but he did not specify what that would entail.[xlvi]

One outlier is Trump, who has supported Russian airstrikes on the grounds that Moscow will eventually go after Islamic State targets, but he did acknowledge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a "bad guy" whom Russia is "probably trying to prop up."[xlvii] Talking about Putin, he stated, “I would talk to him. I would get along with him.” At the other end of the spectrum, Rand Paul has declared a no-fly zone “a terrible idea” that would “trigger World War III.” [xlviii]

The refugee migration set off a similar range of views among Republican candidates. Trump first said “possibly yes” regarding the US accepting Syrian refugees but shifted to “no” within a few days; Fiorina, Cruz and Huckabee have all joined Trump in rejecting the admission of any Syrian refugees on the grounds that they could pose a security threat through Islamic State infiltration.  Bush, Rubio and Kasich are all open to admission if the refugees can be properly vetted.

The bottom line is that the extremely dynamic situation is Syria combined with substantial questioning of President Obama’s policy give it top honors as the Middle East crisis most likely to rock the presidential campaign.

Libya and Yemen: The Obama Administration proclaimed both Yemen and Libya as models in certain moments in the recent past, but neither has worked out well so far.  In Libya, European and Arab allies importuned the Obama Administration to lead a NATO operation, authorized by the UN Security Council under a “responsibility to protect” resolution, to end Qaddafi’s savagery against Libyan civilians after the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolt in Libya.  While Operation Unified Protector succeeded in ousting Qaddafi, President Obama found himself trapped in Bush’s Iraq problem: lack of planning for “the day after” when Qaddafi had dominated all aspects of Libyan life for 40 years.  The consequences have been bloody and enduring.

The aspect likely to figure in the campaign even more than “leading from behind” is the terrorist attack on US diplomatic offices in Benghazi in 2012 killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. While several Republican-led congressional hearings have exhaustively explored the circumstances, the discovery by a House special investigatory committee of Clinton’s private email server when she was secretary of state has constituted headline-grabbing news for months.  As Clinton’s recent October appearance before the special committee showed, Benghazi will likely continue to be an issue if she secures the Democratic nomination.

Obama had cited Yemen as a model of combating terrorism with a minimal footprint on the ground.  US forces with support from Saudi Arabia and other GCC states partnered with the Hadi government to conduct a counterterrorism strategy based largely on the use of drones.  After the Houthi movement successfully drove Hadi to seek refuge in Riyadh, the US backed a Saudi-led coalition to reinstate him by airstrikes and deployment of GCC ground forces in support of loyal Yemeni tribes and armed groups.  So far advances from the south and the east have facilitated Hadi’s return to Aden but not succeeded in retaking Sanaa and driving the Houthis back to their traditional sanctuary in Saada in the north.  Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the situation to strengthen its control in parts of the country.  The US has regretted the deteriorating humanitarian conditions and the loss of life and encouraged the convening of UN-led negotiations for a ceasefire with little success. As in Libya, the US embassy staff has been evacuated.

In the campaign, Republican candidates have occasionally cited Yemen as another example of a failed Obama foreign policy that has allowed Iran to gain influence in the region, but they have not offered any alternatives.  Another attempted terrorist attack launched from Yemen on the US homeland as has happened two or three times before could propel Yemen into the election limelight. Barring some such clear-cut event, the situation in Yemen is far too complicated for electioneering.  Even a successful US-supported mediation resulting in a ceasefire and a new government would likely redound in the campaign with minimal impact.

Egypt and Tunisia:  These two countries are the exceptions among the Arab Spring states because they have not posed serious questions regarding US use of force.  An important reason is that both have stronger institutional structures and civil societies than Syria, Yemen or their common neighbor Libya.  The military prevalence in Egypt compared to its limited role in Tunisia reflects the differing potency of the military in the two countries’ institutions. [xlix]  Still the importance of Egyptian military cooperation to the US military posture in the Middle East has been a primary factor in the mellowing of US policy toward Egypt after General al-Sisi ousted the democratically elected government of President Mohammad Morsi.

Conclusion: 2016 a Foreign Policy Election?

If the general election were held now, it would not be a foreign policy election.  In the debates so far, overwhelming attention has been paid to domestic issues, especially economic ones.  The October Gallup poll of the nation’s most important problems reflects this observation as well. It shows the economy heading the list of concerns at 33 percent, with dissatisfaction with government at 16 percent, and immigration/illegal aliens at 8 percent. Way down the list are foreign policy, international problems and national security issues. If grouped together, the cluster would amount to about 15 percent of those polled. [l] In this total, “Middle East issues” and “Situation with ISIS” polled two percent each.

The common wisdom is that a day is a lifetime in politics. Given the degree of turbulence in the Middle East, the year until the 2016 elections provides enough scope for seismic shifts.  Henry Kissinger claims it is already occurring and reaches the conclusion that “The U.S. must decide for itself the role it will play in the 21st century; the Middle East will be our most immediate—and perhaps most severe—test.”[li]  A catalyst thrusting the Middle East to the fore in the elections could well be an event such as the Islamic State’s capture of a downed American pilot, Special Forces Advisor or other American hostage; its beheading of an American in Syria in 2014 set off public support for a stronger US response to its atrocities. Similar mistreatment of a Russian hostage could also unleash Russian reprisals that would cause the situation to veer into new directions. Even successful negotiations on Syria might renew Republican attacks on Obama’s record because any deal would doubtless fail to give the US all that the Republican critics want. 

The turmoil in the Middle East is matched by uncertainties that confound traditional patterns in US electoral politics.  The rise of Trump as well as Carson and Fiorina on the Republican side and Sanders on the Democratic side reflects the discontent of the 69 percent of the American public who believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.[lii]  Ideally, the election would produce an informed debate on American grand strategy in the Middle East but the opening act is not promising.  We wait for the substance of the second act.

Whoever wins the nominations and November 2016 elections, the Middle East will remain turbulent for the new president’s term.  Given the very mixed record of the use of force in the Middle East spanning the four terms Presidents Bush and Obama have been in office, questions about the efficacy of use of force should be a major issue in the campaign for 2016, even though the election may not hinge on it.   As Secretary Kerry notes, he is commonly asked, “’Why should we care about the Middle East? After all, we’re on the verge of energy independence, so why don’t we just walk away?’ And the answer is that it would be directly and profoundly contrary to our nation’s interests to try and do that.”[liii]  An intelligent, informed public debate in the campaign could help to build the support for recalibration when a new Administration takes the baton in January 2017.

What will Obama’s legacy likely be?  First, he has reintroduced negotiations with adversaries as a primary instrument of foreign policy.  While the Iran nuclear deal may prove flawed, the idea will remain -- and be reinforced if the deal is a success.  Scowcroft gives the reason: “Negotiated agreements, the only ones that get signed in times of peace, are compromises by definition.”

Second, the essence of Obama’s unofficial doctrine of the use of power will likely endure in modified form no matter who wins the White House because it makes sense that others take a leading part where they have strong capabilities and interests to do.  This is especially true if crises outside the Middle East demand a greater portion of US resources and attention. The reason is that resource constraints will limit the options of any president taking office in 2017.

Finally, Hillary Clinton and all Republican candidates except Rand Paul would lower President Obama’s high bar for US military action in circumstances that do not directly threaten American core interests.  Just as Obama’s restraint in the use of force is a corrective to Bush’s 43 over commitments in Iraq and elsewhere, the new president will move to counter what is perceived as American disengagement in the Middle East.  Still there is a fundamental question to be asked, “What will work?”  As Trump is quick to point out, the US record of military engagements is not an unchallenged string of wins.




[i]Testimony, Senate Armed Services Committee, September 22, 2015.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] See Josef Joffe et al, “Dissecting Obama’s Foreign Policy: America Self-Contained,” The American Interest, May/June 2014.

[viii]Gideon Rose, “What Obama Gets Right,” Foreign Affairs, September October, 2015, p.9.

[ix]Greg Jaffe,  “Afghan decision tests Obama,” Washington Post, October 13, 2015.

[xii] Testimony, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, October 28, 2015. See http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/102815_Patterson_Testimony.pdf

[xiii]Keiswetter, Op. Cit.

[xv] Transcript, Second Republican debate, September 16, 2015, See http://time.com/4037239/second-republican-debate-transcript-cnn/

 [xvii] Marco Rubio, “Restoring America’s Strength,”  Foreign Affairs, September-October, 2015

[xxiii]  Joint Communiqué Following the Fifth Ministerial Meeting of the GCC-U.S. Strategic Cooperation Forum, September 30, 2015, at http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2015/09/247658.htm.

[xxvi]P. 59, Chapter 4 in Diplomacy in the Middle East, edited by L. Carl Brown, I.B. Taurus, 2001.

[xxvii]See “What Obama Get Wrong,” Bret Stephens, Foreign Affairs, September October, 2015.

[xxix]Peter Baker, “A Biden Challenge to Clinton Would Expose a Policy Split,” New York Times, October 10, 2015.  P. 1.

[xxx] Remarks by Douglas Lute, DACOR-Bacon House, October 1, 2010.

[xxxi] Testimony, Senate Armed Services Committee, October 6, 2015.

[xxxiii]Op. cit.  Greg Jaffe

[xxxvi]Greg Jaffe, “Obama says he isn’t planning to shift strategy in Syria,” Washington Post, October 13, 2015. 

[xxxvii]See report on Obama’s interview on “60 Minutes, October 11, 2015“ at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/obama-interview...

[xxxviii] Testimony October 28, 2015.

[xxxix] Speech, Carnegie Endowment for Peace, October 18, 2015.  See http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2015/10/248937.htm

[xlii] Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates both have publically advocated for a no-fly zone.  Former CIA Director David Petraeus has gone further to also favor using drones to shoot down Syrian Air Force planes delivering barrel bombs.

[xliii]Transcript, first Democratic Presidential Candidates debate, Las Vegas, October 13, 2015.

[xlvii] Interview, CNN political reporter Don Lemon, October 1, 2015.

[xlviii] See http://www.valuewalk.com/2015/10/syria-world-war-3-rand-paul/

[xlix] Conversation with MEI Scholar David Mack, October 23, 2015.

[liii]  Kerry, Op. Cit.