Spotlight West Asia

West Asia, US, and Obama’s Statesman-like Legacy

10 May, 2016    ·   5026

Amb Ranjit Gupta assesses President Obama’s successes and failures in the region

Ranjit Gupta
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow

The US has been the main architect and central pole of the West Asian security landscape since World War II. It has sought to maintain security through a web of bilateral and regional military alliances and militaristic solutions to political problems and issues – including direct military interventions of its own. The US’ unconditional patronage and protection of authoritarian Arab regimes has acted as a major disincentive to domestic economic, political or social reform. This pervasive American dominance and the abject subservience of the rulers of Arab countries to the West has been a major factor in the growing public anger and frustrations among the Arabs at large.

The standout hallmarks of the US’ past policies in West Asia – the unconditional patronage of and support to Israel; the fallout of the exceedingly shortsighted creation of the modern jihad in Afghanistan; the demonisation and sanctioning of Iran for decades; the utterly and completely unjustified invasion of Iraq; and the even more foolish wholesale disbanding of the former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s army and government, have been major contributors to the rise of phenomena such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State in addition to the hugely destructive and rampaging spread of militant Islamist extremism throughout the Arab world.

The surge of hope and optimism that swept through the Arab world in the winter of 2010-11 – which swiftly felled two longstanding dictators – was subsequently brutally suppressed by autocratic rulers and compounded by self-serving foreign intervention, plunging the Arab world into the worst ever period in its long blood-soaked history.

US President Barack Obama had vociferously opposed the war in Iraq and sought election on a platform of withdrawing US troops from West Asia and Muslim countries. Despite intense domestic criticism and excoriation from allies – both European and Arab, particularly trenchantly from Saudi Arabia – and from all prominent figures within his own administration, to his great credit, Obama has had both: the intellectual perspicacity to recognise the hugely negative consequences of past US policies, as well as the political courage to refuse to get militarily involved in new military interventions in West Asia, even going to the extent of effectively reneging on a red line he himself had laid down.

In that context, Obama said “I’m very proud of this moment,” Jeffrey Goldberg quotes, in his April 2016 article in The Atlantic, ‘The Obama Doctrine’ – a must read on Obama’s West Asia policy. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake, that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made—and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make....any thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome…..What I think is not smart is the idea that every time there is a problem, we send in our military to impose order. We just can’t do that,” Obama added.

His prescription for regional security is clear: “[The Saudis] need to “share” the Middle East with their Iranian foes … and institute some sort of cold peace.” Obama believes that leaders in West Asia are “failing to provide prosperity and opportunity for their people” and that they need to “do more to eliminate the threat of violent fundamentalism.” Obama has had doubts regarding the value of the Washington-Riyadh alliance from before he became president. April 2016 saw his fourth visit to Riyadh, but the deep chasm that has developed between the two countries remained – there was no strategic congruence about Syria or Iran.

Had the US intervened in Syria, the nuclear negotiations with Iran would not have taken place. Obama reaching out to Iran and the nuclear deal are testaments of a particularly statesman-like and visionary approach that he has also exhibited vis-à-vis Myanmar and Cuba. Historians will judge him positively for his transforming US policy approaches towards and in West Asia.

Washington refraining from military interventions in West Asia is the first absolutely indispensable step that is necessary for new approaches to conflict resolution in that region. The most immediate consequence has been that Riyadh’s traditional calibrated, cautious, circumspect foreign policy has been jettisoned and replaced by completely uncharacteristic reckless assertiveness in Syria and particularly, in Yemen. Despite Turkey’s even more aggressive stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they cannot militarily defeat and overthrow him; and if Assad has to go, it will only be via a negotiated settlement with Russia and Iran being on board.

Saudi Arabia cannot militarily trump Iranian influence and power in West Asia even in tandem with other Sunni powers such as Turkey and Egypt; and although bloodletting is likely to continue for some more time, ultimately, Riyadh will have to talk and negotiate a modus vivendi with Tehran, even if it is likely to take time and increasingly rising costs for this realisation to finally sink in.

History will give Obama great credit for forcing this to happen, ultimately.

[See ‘Saudi Arabia and Evolving Regional Strategic Dynamics’, IPCS Commentary #4843, 2 March 2015, and ‘King Salman: The Boldest Ever Saudi Monarch?’ IPCS Commentary #4868, 5 May 2015]