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Obama's Failure to Learn in the Middle East

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"Whether you count yourself a fan of President Barack Obama's Middle East policies or a foe, one thing should be stunningly obvious by now: A good part of the president's foreign policy travails in this region stem from a pattern of needlessly high-flying rhetoric," writes Aaron David Miller.

Whether you count yourself a fan of President Barack Obama's Middle East policies or a foe, one thing should be stunningly obvious by now: A good part of the president's foreign policy travails in this region stem from a pattern of needlessly high-flying rhetoric. Indeed, time after time again, Obama has gratuitously and unnecessarily raised expectations and then failed to deliver on them.

These largely self-inflicted wounds created an early gap between Obama's words and his administration's deeds -- a gap that damaged America's credibility and fed doubts about U.S. resolve in the minds of allies and adversaries alike.

That gap has never closed, and far from learning from his mistakes, Obama has carried on his pattern of making commitments upon which he cannot deliver. Consider the following.

Israeli-Palestinian peace: The pattern of setting high bars in the total absence of a valid or even compelling policy reason started almost immediately. Two days after his inauguration, Obama, in a personal appearance at the Department of State, appointed George Mitchell as his special Middle East envoy. No president since Jimmy Carter had invested so much so early in an issue that simply was not ready for prime time. The matter was made worse by  administration's calls for a comprehensive Israeli freeze on settlements that it was unwilling or unable to pressure Israel to accept, and for a peace agreement within two years, a notion that even then looked like a fantasy. It was also hampered by an intensive effort by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013-2014 to produce a draft peace accord that had zero chance of becoming reality. Today, the administration's peace process lies in ruins. It has no credibility among Arabs and Israelis.

‘Assad Must Go' and the Syrian Red-Line: Next came two more examples of presidential rhetoric outstripping U.S. willingness and motivation to act. Perhaps understandably, in response to the Assad regime's savage use of air and artillery strikes against civilians, including the use of barrel bombs, the president repeatedly called for the removal of the Syrian dictator and in 2011 warned that the regime's use of chemical weapons was unacceptable, suggesting a tough U.S. response. The backstory of Obama's retreat from the so-called redline need not detain us here. The point is that for a second time in the Middle East, on a crisis far more important than the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian problem, the president committed himself to actions he did not take. There was no military response to the red line's crossing by Assad. Not only does the dictator still hold power, but the United States may well have no choice -- if there is a political process to end Syria's civil war -- but to accept Assad as part of the solution.

Defeating ISIS: Having first underestimated the danger of the Islamic State, characterizing it in 2014 as a JV team, the president soon began to talk of degrading and ultimately destroying the putative terror state. The latest rhetorical formulation Obama used was that of being "on track to defeat" ISIS. The president cannot afford to take the threat lightly. But none of the words he has used  - first destroy, then defeat -- seem to have any grounding in reality. A year after the Islamic State established its caliphate, it is ensconced in Syria, and in Iraq too. And while the United States has had success in killing ISIS fighters and leaders, and in working with local allies to recover territory, the Islamic State seems here to stay. Recent reports that the administration has only trained some 60 Syrian recruits for the battle against ISIS - some of whom were promptly killed or captured by Jabhat al-Nusrah, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria -- only attest to the gap between promises and delivery.

The Iran Agreement: Clearly the nuclear deal is the one issue on which the administration has actually delivered on its commitment. Paradoxically, it is also the one issue over the past several years on which the president and his advisers have actually low-balled their expectations and not raised hopes to unrealistic levels. But even here, there seems to be a tendency to oversell, with Kerry suggesting that inspections would be carried out forever or saying that the United States has absolute certainty that it will know what Iran may be hiding. Selling the agreement to Congress is more difficult because of the administration's earlier commitments to seek anywhere, anytime inspections and to ensure that Iran will come clean on the so-called possible military dimensions of Iran's past nuclear activities. Neither of these objectives was probably ever achievable; and the administration likely knew that at the time.

All administrations promise more than they can deliver. Just look at Obama's predecessor when it came to Iraq. What is odd is that this president deemed himself a realist, not a transformer, when it comes to the Middle East; and yet he seems to fall into the expectations gap so frequently. 

Part of the problem is that when you do not or will not act, words become substitutes for deeds. Part of the problem may be that the administration sees the world the way it wants it to be, not the way it really is. Perhaps part of the issue is a desire to deflect pressure by the use of bold-sounding words. But whatever the explanation, to have credibility in foreign policy you must say what you mean, and mean what you say. Sadly, far too many times, the Obama administration has done exactly the opposite. 

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author. 

This article was originally published on Real Clear World.

About the Author

Aaron David Miller image

Aaron David Miller

Global Fellow
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more