America heading east?


Obama is looking for a “reset strategy” in relations with Moscow while launching his ‘pivot to Asia’, but the Middle Eastern question is still a thorn in his side.


“It’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them”. Barack Obama admitted this much while outlining the new timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the longest war in United States’ history.

With two years still to go on his second presidential mandate, Obama, who had promised to “turn the page on more than a decade in which so much of our foreign policy was focused on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq” is still bogged down in the Middle Eastern chaos.

The administration’s priorities were others. When Obama first took office, he was focused on a “reset strategy” for relations with Moscow that soon fell foul to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Eastern Europe (and elsewhere). Obama also launched his “pivot to Asia”, a plan meant to redress the balance of relations with the Asian continent and China in particular. At the end of last year, he announced the fall of the ’wall’ with Cuba and sanctions in response to supposed North Korean cyberattacks. 

While all these fronts are still open, there seems to be no end in sight for “the forever war”, a term coined by former New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins, who reported from Iraq and Afghanistan. With the rise of the Islamic State (IS) Caliphate and the resurgence of Taliban activities, there’s been talk of a new, extended Middle Eastern ‘pivot’. But even without going to these lengths, it has to be said that this region still represents a difficult test – perhaps the greatest test – of American leadership.

The president has been criticised for a lack of strategy. His caution is also linked to a stated ambivalence towards the use of military force. On the one hand, there’s a desire to reduce involvement in unpredictable asymmetrical conflicts in the Middle East; on the other, there’s the awareness that an early withdrawal is not a solution. Obama wants to be the president to welcome the troops home, not the one to have recalled them too soon. In Afghanistan in particular, there’s the risk of being faced with the same problems encountered in Iraq. A promised withdrawal was completed in December 2011, but the war hasn’t actually ended. The rise of IS and the dissolution of the Iraqi army – due primarily to sectarian power wielding by the Shiites – have forced the US into action once more with bombings and the dispatch of soldiers (a total of 3,100) cautiously termed “consultants” and “absolutely not combat troops”. In Afghanistan, the 10,000 odd troops left after the supposed end of the war last 31 December are more than expected and could be at risk. They have two years in which to train the Afghans and combat al-Qaeda but that doesn’t mean they won’t take on the Taliban if threatened.

A lesson learnt by the United States over the course of the last decade is to avoid sending ground troops so as not to get embroiled in conflicts that grow out of proportion. Up to now, the primary military action in Iraq and Syria has involved air raids, even though (as some experts have noted) the raids are unlikely to change the tables on IS in any decisive way. Moreover in Syria, American planes have to share the skies with those from Damascus (fuelled by Moscow). Thus, they are ostensibly establishing an alliance with the regime, though the Pentagon in the meantime is sending 400 troops to train the rebels.

But perhaps the most irksome problem concerns the democratization process. The president has clearly stated that the US must not and cannot deal with issues that are essentially local. At the same time, however, he has acknowledged that his greatest regret in foreign policy is having bombed Libya without worrying about the subsequent democratic transition. Obama said to columnist Thomas Friedman that each time one is considering whether to engage in military operations, one should ask oneself “Do we have an answer for the day after?”

The leader’s caution reflects public opinion. Americans are largely tired of endless and expensive wars that, except for the killing of Osama bin Laden, don’t seem to have done much for US interests. But public opinion changes. After chemical weapons were used against Syrian civilians, the majority of US citizens claimed they were against waging war against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, after the release of the videos showing the decapitations of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, two-thirds of Americans said they were in favour of raids against IS.

A key move could be the one suggested by Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic: if Obama is truly set on his ‘pivot to Asia’, he must continue working on détente with Iran (clearly without falling out with Israel and the Saudis). The dialogue does not just concern the nuclear program. Tehran is already collaborating in the fight against the Sunni extremists in Iraq with troops, advisers and air raids. In Afghanistan, it could act as a buffer against Pakistani and pro-Taliban Saudis. In Yemen, Iraq sponsors the Houthi tribe, enemies of al-Qaeda, and the country could even counter the Chinese influence in the Persian Gulf. In fact, this path is one that has already been taken, and one of the main differences between this and the previous administration.

This is a bumpy road due to mutual suspicions that are partly unresolvable. But one thing is certain: timetables and deadlines don’t suit Middle Eastern developments which are interconnected with other scenarios in Russia and Asia. And the president, whether he likes it or not, will be judged by his actions (or lack thereof) in this area as well.