Firefighters extinguish a blaze in Baghdad on Feb. 13. The Obama administration is sticking with plans to solve problems in the Middle East primarily through diplomacy. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — The US is still searching for solutions to the various problems that ail the Middle East, but the administration is making it clear: military action isn’t the only, or even preferred, answer.
It was a message President Barack Obama delivered in his State of the Union address last month, but it has been gaining texture as administration officials begin to articulate their vision for stabilizing the Middle East.
“I strongly believe our leadership and our security cannot depend on our outstanding military alone,” Obama said in January. “In a world of complex threats, our security, our leadership depends on all elements of our power including strong and principled diplomacy.”
More than three years into the regional upheaval following the Arab Spring, the current squeaky wheel is Iraq. Increased violence in recent months has led to public scrutiny of the US withdrawal from the country following the failure of US and Iraq negotiators to strike a deal for a continued US presence.
But while criticism has been on the rise, with representatives questioning whether a continued US presence could have prevented the degrading security situation, administration officials disagreed.
“At the height of the American presence in Iraq, at the height of the surge, 170,000 troops, we had levels of violence that we’re seeing right now in Anbar,” said Elissa Slotkin, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, at a House hearing Feb. 11. “So, I’m not sure that a remaining force of 10,000 would’ve been able to prevent this.”
Instead, the push by the administration has been to ship more arms to Iraq, part of a broader effort to help allies fight their own battles and use diplomacy to avoid military action.
“The investment we make up front in training their military, their security forces, and military education and [civilian-military] relations pays big dividends for us later on in preventing conflict, preventing spill out of extremist groups, you name it,” Slotkin said. “Certainly, from the Defense Department’s perspective, I’d always rather have diplomacy be the order of the day than be forced to take military action.”
And with instability in the region following the Arab Spring in late 2010, diplomacy has had plenty of opportunities, whether it be continued efforts to guide the military rulers of Egypt or trying to help new democracies gain their footing.
Obama doesn’t view the instability as being easily eliminated by military force, said Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“The Arab Spring is not about the United States, so the US ability to affect the trajectory is limited,” said Bash, now a managing director at Beacon Global Strategies. “In general, [Obama’s] administration has viewed the region through the prism, through the lens that there is no military solution to most of the problems raised during the Arab Spring.”
The major exception, Bash noted, has been Libya, where the US did turn to military action to assist in the elimination of that nation’s dictator. That’s a demonstration that there are situations in which, despite an inclination toward diplomacy, military action might still be necessary.
“His strong preference is to avoid military engagement and to use diplomatic means, but by no means is the president a pacifist,” he said. “He has undertaken the most aggressive counterterrorism operations in the history of our country. He has not been hesitant to use military force where it’s warranted.”
The withdrawal from Iraq, however, has created credibility issues with countries in the region for the US with regard to its willingness to commit to military action, House Republicans have charged.
“What I hear from a variety of countries and US people who visit those countries is they have real doubts about the US position, whether we’re a reliable ally,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said at the Feb. 11 hearing.
Thornberry, who is the front runner to take over as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, pointed to Iraq and several US diplomatic endeavors — including the continued negotiations with Iran to eliminate that state’s nuclear weapons program — as diminishing US credibility.
“Part of it is the negotiations with Iran,” he said. “Part of it is the pivot to Asia. Part of it is our unclear policy with Egypt and Syria. And my fear is that doubts about our credibility increase the dangers in that region. And nothing would cause that to be in greater doubt than for us to abandon Afghanistan in the same way we did in Iraq.”
Fear that Afghanistan will suffer a fate similar to Iraq’s has been gaining traction as US negotiators continue to struggle with forming an agreement that would allow for a US military presence in the country beyond 2014.
The idea that the US has lost credibility, or more dramatically, power in the region, has been pushed by a variety of commentators, including those closely aligned with Israel.
“Impressions in the Middle East are absolutely cardinal, and the peoples of the region, if you were to poll them, they’re not going to agree on anything, but I’m willing to wager that if you were to ask Sunnis, Shiites, Iranians, Israelis, Druze, they would overwhelmingly agree with the proposition that America’s power in the Middle East is on the wane and that the age of American preeminence is over,” Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the US, said at an Atlantic Council event Feb. 10.
Israel and its allies in the US have been adamant that no deal with Iran should be concluded because any deal would fail to provide the assurances Israel wants that no weapon can be produced. That approach has led to congressional debate, as the Senate came close to passing additional sanctions against Iran that would violate the preliminary nuclear agreement in which the US pledged to not add sanctions for six months.
“They saw what happened in Libya, they saw what didn’t happen in North Korea, and they draw conclusions from that,” Oren said, speaking of Iran. “So getting them to give up this program will be very, very difficult, especially in the absence of a credible military threat, which, frankly, doesn’t exist right now.”
That military threat, or lack thereof, depending on the commentator, will likely have a continued impact on Obama’s efforts to employ diplomacy. One of the obvious factors on the ability to provide a military threat is the US defense budget, which continues to face pressures.
“If Congress wants the president to have an effective military option to handle issues in the Middle East, it must provide the funding and flexibility to make that possible,” Bash said. “If not, diplomacy is the president’s only option.”
While the US military still has significant wherewithal, Obama has been pushing the march of American ideals as the greatest force at his disposal.
“No other country in the world does what we do,” he said in his State of the Union speech. “On every issue, the world turns to us, not simply because of the size of our economy or our military might but because of the ideals we stand for and the burdens we bear to advance them.” ■