Will Obama Be A Hawk Or A Dove After Paris?
20 November 2015
By Andrew Bowen
U.S. President Barack Obama entered office with a commitment to end his
country's over-expansive involvement in the Middle East. In the twilight
months of his presidency, however, he faces the stark reality that the United
States and its partners' security cannot be guaranteed with a hands-off
approach to regional problems.
Obama's legacy may not be so much defined by a rapprochement with Iran or a
free-trade tilt to Asia, but how he responds to the challenge of the Islamic
State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the wake of the Paris attacks, and what
risks he is willing to take to secure America's future and prosperity.
Events, which often shape opinion polls and drive Obama's foreign policy more
than strategic design and intent, may force him to take more risks than he
While it is too early to say to what degree he will go to respond, it is hard
to see how, with deepening Russian and French involvement in the anti-ISIS
campaign and a public outcry at home, Obama could sit on the sidelines when
the security of the United States and its allies is threatened.
The most hawkish response so far has been a call to send U.S. ground forces
into Syria and Iraq. For Obama, who has defined his legacy on ending two wars
in the Middle East, he is unlikely to take such an option - even if it is
necessary - based on his stated proclivity against such an option, and the
risks he faces in response from his Democratic Party base.
Washington arguably has placed too big a bet on trying to suspend Iran's
nuclear program without investing time and resources to confront larger
challenges to international security: ISIS and Iran's regional behavior.
These two challenges are arguably interrelated. Tehran's expansive behavior,
from Yemen to Syria, helped stoke the sectarianism that has helped fuel ISIS.
Iran's mismanagement of Iraq, and its support of the Syrian regime, have
enabled ISIS to form a state in both countries.
A more sustainable path would be to reinvigorate ties with regional and
international partners, and enhance current assets employed, including
expanding military options. One critical area is the need to rebuild and
strengthen the critical alliances that have underwritten security in the
region since the end of the Cold War. Obama has devoted too many resources
and time to building new relations with Iran, at the expense of maintaining
strong partnerships with America's longstanding regional allies.
In the aftermath of Paris, Obama should reinvigorate cooperation with the
United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Jordan against the common threat of
global extremism. Washington should enhance its support for the Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) in its efforts to resolve Yemen's civil war.
Yemen's future stability is essential for ensuring that the state does not
become a deepening outpost for ISIS.
Washington should more robustly support Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
in his efforts to bring stability and economic prosperity to his country, and
also to address the deepening crisis in the Sinai. The United States should
also continue to back efforts to resolve Libya's civil war, and work with
Egypt and the UAE to roll back ISIS's territorial expansion.
Washington should increase diplomatic pressure to make the Vienna talks a
sustainable path for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's eventual departure
from power. Equally, more pressure needs to be put on Iraqi Prime Minister
Haidar al-Abadi's government to make meaningful reforms to empower Sunni
communities in Iraq. Without inclusive governance in Syria or Iraq, ISIS's
reign of terror will be seen by some as a better alternative to sectarian
rule from Damascus and Baghdad.
Washington needs to deepen its support for GCC security through enhanced
military cooperation and deepening investment in member states'
counter-insurgency capabilities. Without such action, Obama risks leaving a
legacy defined more by inaction than pro-active and sustained American
leadership to confront common global challenges.
Andrew Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East
Studies at the Center for the National Interest.