In the wake of the nuclear parameters framework agreement, the Obama administration is facing criticism for mishandling American relations with countries in the Arab world.
As David Rothkopf argues in Foreign Policy, “although [Obama] raised hopes of a new, better era in regional relations…ultimately, his only real efforts to change relations ‘for the better’ in the region were not with Arabs at all but with the Persians.” Such engagement, critics claim, makes America’s Arab allies feel insecure.
The Obama administration’s refusal to take a more active role in managing the region’s crisis also irks many commentators. According to Rothkopf, the Obama administration has responded to the wave of crises in the Middle East with three flawed strategies: “walking away”, “halfway measures”, and “reactive or largely improvised initiatives”.
Critics are right. The Obama administration’s policies have not advanced what most understand to be America’s strategic interests. But these policies are the product of deliberate choices rather than poor leadership, and reflects a coherent strategy in the face of political restraints, rather than an incoherent ad-hoc strategy.
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”. Obama recognizes the partial truth of this roundly criticized Bush administration maxim. While the United States may change the world when it intervenes abroad, Obama believes American actions often contort reality for the worst, especially in a dynamic, complex world.
As such, while commentators like Rothkopf accuse Obama of incoherence and indecisiveness, his foreign policy actually follows a rational strategy for situations of uncertainty: minimizing maximum losses.
If one looks closely at the administration’s policies in the Middle East, they have clearly been inspired by this principle: reluctance to engage militarily in Syria without an endgame, but a willingness to intervene in Libya when genocide appeared imminent. A (tentative) nuclear deal that prevents a regional war. Limited airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, yet decisive airstrikes against Al-Qaeda in Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan. The Obama administration is willing to exert itself abroad, but only to prevent huge losses.
Status quo bias
Much of the criticism leveled against his policies suffer from status-quo bias. While Obama turned to the heuristic of minimizing maximum losses in the climate of uncertainty produced by the Arab Spring, many turned to a different, and less effective heuristic; status quo bias.
Critics of Obama’s leadership simply judge his actions based on whether or not they preserve or undermine the strategic status quo bequeathed to him. However, this heuristic is deeply flawed.
The current turmoil in the Middle East stems from the dogged insistence of previous Administrations on preserving the pre-Arab spring status quo. As just one example, the legions of underemployed, frustrated young men that decide to affiliate themselves with groups like ISIS and Jabhat-al-Nusra grew up in unresponsive, economically stagnant states in large part because the U.S. was willing to prop up their dictators and oligarchies in the name of “stability” and the free flow of oil. More alarmingly, ostensible U.S. allies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia acted as crucial “angel investors” for ISIL and Jabhat-al-Nusra, giving them the critical “seed money” they needed to establish themselves at the beginning of the Syrian uprising.
Conventional understandings of who America’s “friends and enemies” are also overly deterministic, and lead to flawed criticisms of Obama’s policies in the region. For instance, rapprochement (however limited) with Iran is criticized for scaring America’s Arab allies, and empowering Iran to further destabilize the region by expanding its’ sphere of Shiite influence.
And certainly, while Iran’s patronage of Hezbollah and the Assad regime are troubling, castigating Iran for spreading instability and sectarianism while letting America’s ostensible allies off the hook is laughable. Iran’s patronage of Shiite militias in Iraq has proved a decisive factor in efforts to defeat ISIS there, whereas Saudi Arabia’s highly sectarian–and less effective–patronage of Sunni groups that “openly boast” of purging Syria of Alawite “filth” in Syria is above reproach.
Saudi’s patronage of extremist, anti-Shiite groups with ideological and operational affinities in Pakistan is as well. However, since the status quo deems Iran an expansionist, radical threat, and Saudi Arabia a stalwart ally–giving Iran a stake in the regional order through a nuclear deal undermines American interests, whereas kow towing to the ultra conservative regime in Saudi Arabia bolsters them.
So, the Obama administration is trapped in a strategic box. All it can do is attempt to minimize maximum losses because yielding to advancing American interests as defined by status-quo orthodoxy would reproduce the same problems America faces in the region today, and pursuing options outside of the status quo (like further pressuring Israel to change its’ settlements policy, or moving closer to Iran) are deemed heresy.
The next administration will be trapped in the same box, and their foreign policy will also appear half-hearted and indecisive, unless the American public fundamentally rethinks and, redefines America’s interests abroad. Good leadership advances the status quo we want, rather than preserving a damaged, inherited status quo out of intellectual laziness.