Sometimes I wonder if President Obama reads too many Ben Okri novels. As we transform from a U.S.-dominated, unipolar international order to a non-polar world, virtually everything about his Middle East policy as outlined in the latest National Security Strategy seems to have been infected by a kind of magical thinking. From Afghanistan to Israel/Palestine negotiations, the president needs to better match strategic concepts with a coherent, operational policy. Here are a few White House narratives that need a reality check.
Our Current Efforts in Afghanistan are Working
On the campaign trail in 2008, candidate Barack Obama spoke honestly and eloquently about why military surges don't work. The candidate understood how in a world where U.S. military power means less, a temporary military buildup can at best provide a temporary security aperture for political negotiation to take place. It is useful only if the Afghan government shows that it is capable of competence.
President Obama seems to have forgotten the wisdom of candidate Obama. The president is aware that Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's inept, kleptocratic president, has failed on countless occasions to show his own people that he deserves to be taken seriously as a leader. In this regard, Obama's national security document, which places an emphasis on the surge and improving accountable and effective governance, is deceptive. There simply is no accountable governance in Afghanistan and won't be for some time to come.
In order to win in Afghanistan, this administration needs to acknowledge that the current political and military path is unsustainable both on the battlefield, and ultimately, with the American public. Just as important, the president can best support American soldiers by defining a mission that is achievable. He should stop conjuring up huge nation-building projects with large military footprints that ultimately feed corruption and don't hold the government accountable. Instead, he needs to work to develop smaller, more effective, less costly, more sustainable interventions that address the principle threat in al-Qaida.
We Need a Strategy in Iraq That Goes Beyond Get the Hell Out
After eight years, America's counterproductive presence in Iraq is finally coming to an end and that's a campaign promise well kept. But while the White House has set a certain date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq (50,000 by the end of August and another 50,000 next year), it has failed to enunciate much less execute a political vision for the region once those troops are gone.
Obama gambled that the March elections would bring about a peaceful, pro-American transition as Iran's closest allies lost ground and Ayad Allawi, a pro-western Shia moderate, managed to win a narrow contest over Nouri al-Maliki. Instead of sealing this deal by attempting to hammer out a compromise between the two major candidates that would ensure a stable Sunni-Shia order and facilitate relations between Baghdad and Washington, the administration chose to stand on the sidelines. In the ensuing political vacuum, negotiations for the new government began to take place between Shia leaders in Tehran. Obama can certainly claim that his administration respected the democratic process. But our active non-participation comes at a cost: Iraq now threatens to recede into sectarian violence while Iran extends its influence.
This failure has been complicated by administration's inability to outline and communicate clear post-departure policy goals and actions to the rest of the region. Now that the U.S. presence is receding, other Middle East nations are feeling more vulnerable. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states are well aware that as much as Tehran threatens Israel, they are equally at risk. These states are already threatened by Iran's ability to manipulate Shia minorities to ferment instability. They are ready to expedite the development of their own atomic programs if Tehran itself goes nuclear. The administration needs to outline in detail its strategic relationship with the region with specific emphasis on how it will make good on its security promises. The new security strategy speaks of the need for U.S. policy in the region after U.S. troops depart, but makes no mention of what exactly this strategy entails. This makes the region less stable and puts America at greater risk of having to fight a war with Iran.
Proximity Talks Are Serious
For U.S. Envoy George Mitchell, it has been a supreme struggle to get any kind of negotiation under way between the center-right government of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas. So when the United States announced that ''proximity talks'' between the two sides began last week, there was a great sigh of relief that at least something resembling negotiations was taking place.
But when Mitchell returned to Washington on May 20, it was clear the two sides wanted to talk about completely different issues. Netanyahu issued a statement saying the second part of their meeting focused on water issues, while the first part of the talks dealt with such questions as gestures Israel might make to the Palestinians. At the same time, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, said the discussions centered on final-status issues such as borders and refugees.
Given the substantial distrust between the two parties, proximity talks are not the worst thing in the world. After all, the first Camp David accord reached between Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin came as the result of proximity negotiations. The security strategy talks about how the region has ''an interest in a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict—one in which the legitimate aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians for security and dignity are realized, and Israel achieves a secure and lasting peace with all of its neighbors. But in order to achieve this goal, the administration has to spend political capital. It has to stop babysitting and start engaging in real mediation—clearly defining the terms of the discussions and using a set of identifiable carrots and sticks in concert with the Europeans to get the parties to work together. Without a well-outlined U.S. peace plan, it will not take long for the talks do disintegrate into a cynical exercise.
Iran Sanctions Represent a Strategy
When Iran reached a surprise nuclear agreement to provide 1,200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, the consensus was that the move threatened to undermine the Obama administration's efforts and subverted the U.S. diplomatic strategy of imposing sanctions. ''There is a recognition on the part of the international community that the agreement that was reached in Tehran a week ago between Iran and Brazil and Turkey only occurred because the Security Council was on the brink of publicly releasing the text of the resolution that we have been negotiating for many weeks,'' Hillary Clinton told reporters in Beijing late last month. ''It was a transparent ploy to avoid Security Council action.''
The Obama administration cannot confuse strategic goals with tactics. The security strategy rightly puts forward the goal: ''Promote a Responsible Iran." In this instance, that goal is to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear device.
Given Tehran's behavior thus far, it is clear that sanctions, if implemented, will not deter the regime from pressing ahead with its nuclear ambitions. Obama needs to remember that the threat of sanctions represents a diplomatic tool while their actual imposition will likely signal a failure in securing the strategic objective. Imposed sanctions may make for brownie points with a frustrated American public, but in the wider world it will be negotiations (and a credible military threat) that will dissuade Iran from going nuclear.
The Iran crisis gives us the most striking evidence of the end of a unipolar world. Obama has done an excellent job in working with both China and Russia to develop a joint approach to Iran—one aspect of the National Security Strategy that has become a reality. That needs to continue, even if it means including nations like Brazil and Turkey in averting a conflict. Obama should listen carefully to his allies and develop a real multi-track strategy that modulates the sanctions' effort in the United Nations with negotiations.
My guess is that the White House is well aware that a political path that involves addressing Middle East realities head on is itself famished. We are on this road because the previous American president relentlessly sold us nonsensical, dangerous illusions. A year-and-a-half into his term of office, the very worst mistake president Obama can make is to continue to feed us magic instead of realism.
Greg Beals is a political analyst based out of the Middle East. He has worked for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and for the U.N. Security Council Somalia Monitoring Group. You can contact him here.