By Jeremy Havardi
As we begin 2016, Barack Obama’s Middle East legacy remains a matter of intense dispute among policy experts. Some view Obama’s regional outlook as poorly thought out and cowardly: procrastination over Syria, a rushed intervention to overthrow Gaddafi and a disastrous courting of an Iranian regime, all of which appear to have had a detrimental impact on a turbulent region.
Others have rejected this verdict as unrealistic and unfair, arguing that no president of any background had the capacity or the resources to resolve the region’s problems.
Robin Shepherd, senior adviser to the Halifax International Security Forum, believes that Obama should have been ‘far tougher’ on Iran before lifting sanctions. Such money, he argues, “frees up money for Tehran, part of which will continue to go to terror groups”.
For many years, Iran has been a leading sponsor of both Hezbollah and Hamas with the latter playing an important role in the Syrian conflict. Both groups are also responsible for several wars against Israel, with both groups sworn to destroying the Jewish state.
A deal that empowers such organisations can only fuel more instability, rejectionism and violence. For Shepherd though, criticisms of the administration’s Syria policy are harder to call. Removing Assad “could well have led to ISIL taking over the whole country, including Assad’s chemical weapons” while it would have been “politically impossible” to mobilise a massive intervention against Assad and ISIL.
But he does argue that Obama has been a “pretty disengaged U.S. president… dragged, reluctantly, into dealing with problems that he should have engaged with much earlier.”
He certainly appeared to be dragged into the Libyan quagmire, an intervention on humanitarian grounds that has led to a broken state, a civil war and the expanded presence of ISIL in the Sahel. Some of these criticisms are echoed by Tom Wilson, a research associate at the Henry Jackson Society.
Wilson is clear that “feverish conspiracy theories about Obama’s foreign policy disasters being intentional” are wrong. “Foreign policy,” he adds “was never the priority for the Obama administration and the neglect has shown.” But criticisms should be made. Obama’s legacy on the Iranian nuclear programme is, “at best a temporary solution, at worst a legitimation of Iran’s formerly illegal nuclear program”.
A better deal would have been possible, he adds, “if the Iranians thought that Obama would resort to the military option”. Indeed, one of the strongest criticisms of Obama is that in his desperation for a deal, he was prepared to eschew the use of force as a credible option. Israeli criticisms of the West’s Iran policy were dismissed as “background noise”, something that played into Tehran’s hands.
As regards Syria, Wilson adds that when it became apparent that Obama “had no intention of enforcing his red lines” he sent a simple message for Iran, Assad and indeed Putin: “They could get away with an unprecedented level of rogue behaviour.”
In 2012, the President famously declared that the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians would cross a red line. However, the US failed to take decisive military action, with Obama outsourcing any decision to Congress. With the President ‘leading from behind’ Vladimir Putin took advantage, putting in place a disarmament agreement that has failed to deter Assad from using his remaining chemical weapons.
However Shashank Joshi, of the Royal United Services Institute, believes that many of the grumblings against the President are “extreme, crude, and opportunistic”. While Obama has made mistakes over Iran, Joshi says we should remember that “he negotiated with Iran as part of a six-nation bloc.” Further, the deal with Iran “will have a largely positive legacy” because Iran will remain “one year away from being able to make enough fissile material for a bomb,” which is “enough time to detect and stop it, using diplomatic or military means.”
However, what concerns many is that in adecade from now, the constraints will be weakened under the Vienna accord. Iran will be able to produce as much nuclear fuel as it wants after 15 years and purchase ballistic missile technology after eight years.
Joshi admits that at this stage, “another crisis could re-emerge if Iran decides to ramp up its nuclear programme.” In the long term, the deal involves unprecedented uncertainty which can only fuel tension, as well as a nuclear arms race.
Echoing Shepherd, Joshi believes that matters are more complicated in Syria. IS grew more from Al Qaida in Iraq “and separate failures of the Iraqi government” and therefore might have emerged regardless of the Syrian conflict. No magic wand was available to solve this most complex and protracted civil war.
What is so surprising is that with all the rogue actors proliferating in the Middle East, Obama has managed to fall out with the region’s
only democratic nation.
His public spats with Netanyahu over both Iran and settlements have been a constant feature of the last seven years, souring diplomatic
relations between the two countries.
Given the range of problems to deal with, this may be one dispute that Obama will come to regret.