U.S. disengagement from Middle Eastern affairs, highlighted by the Obama administration’s withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, its failure to lead an international stability force in Libya after the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime, and its unwillingness to enforce self-proclaimed red lines in Syria, has reduced U.S. influence in the region to an all-time low. The ramifications of these policies have been a significant reduction in the U.S. administration’s ability to influence the trajectory of events, the alienation of longtime allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, a humanitarian and political catastrophe in Syria and Libya, the empowerment of Iran, and the rise of Islamist groups such as the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State. The recent claim by an administration official that Saudi Arabia shares a long border with Syria (a simple look at the map will show Jordan in the intervening space) is symbolic of U.S. detachment from the Middle East. U.S. national security interests there are clearly in jeopardy.
The United States must assume three obligations in order to stabilize the downward spiral of the security situation in the Middle East and to restore the confidence of its regional partners in American leadership:
1. Lead. American leadership is essential to knitting together the broad regional and international coalitions required to deal with the instability, terrorism, humanitarian crises, and endemic violence rupturing the Middle East today. Although the Obama administration was elected on a platform promising the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the events of the past six years have proven that the United States does not have the luxury of removing itself from regional affairs. The United States is a great power—now it must act like one.
2. Go “all in.” Strongly worded demarches and verbal red lines are not enough to convince reluctant partners to engage in tough missions. Arab and Islamic states must cooperate in Syria, Iraq, and Libya in order to prevent the narrative of a “clash of civilizations” to take root and encourage jihadists to flock to the banners of Islamist groups stoking these conflicts. But regional actors will look to the actions of the United States to ensure that America is committed to its policies before they commit to difficult actions in turn. U.S. airpower alone is not sufficient to show American commitment to its war against the Islamic State. If the president wants Arab regional partners to commit ground forces to the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he will have to show U.S. willingness to put American soldiers alongside them. Backing off the president’s rhetoric of “no boots on the ground” would be a good start.
3. Persevere for the long haul. The war in Iraq and Syria will not end anytime soon, and Libya likewise will remain a regional basket case for years to come. Rather than continuing to trumpet a rebalancing of U.S. resources to Asia, the administration needs to recommit to a policy of stability (not democratization) in the Middle East. Given its impact on the world economy and its status as the fount of Islamist radicalism, the Middle East cannot simply be ignored or wished away. Furthermore, such a policy is likely to gain bipartisan support, a rarity these days in the nation’s capital. Such support is essential, for if the last decade plus of war in Iraq has taught us anything, it is the enduring nature of conflict in the cradle of civilization.