‘Reset,’ ‘Pivot,’ ‘Leading from Behind,’ ‘Red Lines,’ – the catchphrases of President Obama’s foreign policy are now often read as markers of failure, though non-intervention has been popular at home. What are the consequences of US retrenchment for the Middle East, and where will US policy go next? Fathom advisory editor Ben Cohen talked to Michael Doran about America’s global dilemma.
As I approached the end of an interview with Michael Doran that explored in detail America’s place in the world, the former high-ranking defence official in the George W. Bush administration, now a Senior Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy in Washington, wondered aloud whether he was ‘living in 1927 or in 1977.’ It was a playful question that illustrated the historic tendency of US foreign policy to slide from one extremity to the other over a relatively short space of time.
At the end of the 1920s, Doran explained, with memories of the First World War still fresh, America was inward-looking and distrustful of foreign engagements. Nonetheless, a little over a decade later, the US was fighting Axis forces in Europe, Asia and Africa in the war against fascism.
Similarly, at the end of the 1970s, America’s foreign policy mood was haunted by the withdrawal from Vietnam. But the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US Embassy hostage crisis in Iran, and the election of Ronald Reagan all contributed to a renewed American assertiveness in world affairs and, ultimately, the collapse of the Communist Bloc.
‘In both those decades, one or two slaps in the face and we were back out in the world,’ Doran said, as he surveyed the deeper implications of Barack Obama’s foreign policy. ‘Maybe that’s the kind of situation we’re in again. Or maybe we are looking at something much more structural, a situation in which we really pull back.’
If it is correct, as Doran argues, that periods of retreat can be abruptly ended by major, sometimes cataclysmic, events that remind America of its unique global power and position, then the current period finds the Obama administration more adamant than ever in its resistance to foreign military deployments. And yet, as it enters the final stretch of its second term in office, the administration’s pacific approach has been dogged by failure.
Consider the fate of Obama’s foreign policy catchphrases. The ‘reset’ in bilateral relations with Russia announced in 2009 – whereby Washington pulled back from its advocacy of NATO expansion in exchange for greater Russian cooperation in countering Iran’s nuclear programme – lies in tatters amid the debris of the Russian intervention in Ukraine. The ‘pivot’ first outlined in 2011, which determined that US foreign policy priorities would shift from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, keeps tilting back to the former because events there will not permit the Americans an easy exit. The ‘leading from behind’ policy in Libya, a phrase coined by an Obama adviser to reflect the administration’s preference for a less visible international role, has become a subject of derision. Most famously of all, the ‘red line’ which Obama declared over Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, was not quite so red after all.
Even so, as uncertain and inept as all this may seem to certain foreign policy wags, the president has certainly derived political benefits from his stance. ‘The place where Obama ended up, which is non-intervention, has been popular politically,’ Doran observed. ‘That’s the thing the president has understood all along – these policies of pulling America back, they’re popular at home.’
More than a decade after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq, the spectacle of an America in retreat has left many American allies frustrated with Washington to the point of anger. In the Middle East, this is especially true of the conservative Arab Gulf states, who fear that Washington’s most pressing priority is the creation of a functioning relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, their most detested enemy. It is also true of Israel, historically America’s closest regional ally, and yet the recipient of a marked frostiness during the Obama years. The president’s attitude to the Jewish state was best expressed in a 2009 meeting with American Jewish leaders, when he insisted that during the Bush presidency, ‘there was no light between the United States and Israel, and nothing got accomplished.’
Has Obama’s consequent distancing damaged Israel in any way? Doran, who had just flown back from Tel Aviv when we spoke, described the country’s security predicament as ‘the best of times and the worst of times.’
‘You really can’t, when looking at the whole history of the conflict, remember a time when Israel was less threatened by the regular militaries of its neighbours,’ Doran said, describing the best of times. ‘It’s very hard to imagine a conventional war breaking out that Israel couldn’t win very handily.’
This current strategic balance contrasts favourably with the existential threat faced by Israel during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the last time the Jewish state was confronted by a combined Arab force. ‘That was one of the two most dangerous moments in the history of Israel’s existence,’ Doran noted, the other one being the 1948 War of Independence. ‘You had a coalition of Arab armies bearing down on Israel, supported by the Soviet Union. There’s nothing like that kind of threat out there now.’
There are still threats, nevertheless. ‘The worst threat is the missile arsenal of Hezbollah, which is definitely very threatening, but Hezbollah is really bogged down in Syria, and very unlikely and reluctant to get into an out-and-out conflict with Israel,’ Doran continued. ‘And if such a conflict were to break out, Israel would win. There’s no doubt about it. Hezbollah could definitely cause a lot of damage and a lot of harm – there’s no doubt about that either – but Israel would win.’
What of the worst of times? ‘There is this incredible upheaval going on all around Israel,’ Doran declared, citing the unprecedented regional political changes of the last five years, one consequence of which has been a mushrooming of Islamist terror groups. ‘You can imagine Israel’s borders being infiltrated by Salafi jihadis in a manner similar to the infiltration of the 1950s’ – when Palestinian guerrillas launched the first cross-border raids into Israel, which frequently ended in bloody gun battles. ‘We’ve already got Salafi jihadis on Israel’s southern borders, in Sinai, and we’ve got an increasingly porous border with Syria, or at least the threat of a more porous border,’ Doran warned.
As a veteran observer of Al-Qaeda, Doran stressed that the jihadi groups still pose a significant threat to both the United States and Israel. At the same time, he is wary of invoking Al-Qaeda as a ‘catch-all for putting together lots of different groups which may share certain ideological affinities, but which will never work together in a coordinated fashion.’
‘You see it now so clearly in Syria, where you’ve got Al-Qaeda in Iraq actually fighting the Nusra Front,’ Doran remarked. ‘So these two different elements, which are supposed to be united against the United States and Israel and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, are really fighting each other, because underneath it all, there are factors other than ideology that are driving the behaviour of these groups. And the same holds true in Sinai. When you scratch Al-Qaeda in Sinai, you find that there are tribal elements there that are the traditional losers in the Sinai order, and they have aligned themselves with the global jihad because it’s a good way to make everyone sit up and take notice of them.’
I pointed out to Doran that a similar tendency was visible in Iraq’s Anbar province, during the fierce fighting there in 2008. ‘Exactly,’ he answered. ‘There was a very interesting report when I was in the Defense Department at that time. We did a study of detainees in Iraq that looked into the question of why they had joined Al-Qaeda, and the findings were rather surprising. The number one rationale for Iraqis to join the jihad against the United States was economic. They were paid to do it.’
Other factors that pushed Iraqis into the arms of the jihadis included intimidation carried out by the jihadis themselves, along with personal grievances against the US military. ‘It’s only really when you get past all that that you get down to the real diehard ideologues, who made up only a small percentage of the total,’ Doran said.
Israel’s dilemma, Doran asserted, is to determine whether these jihadi groups are the principal threat it faces, or whether that honour belongs to the mullahs in Iran. The ongoing war in Syria sheds important light on this choice, he added. ‘It’s not clear to the Israelis that Assad is going to come out of this capable of policing the border in a way that’s going keep Israel happy,’ he reflected. ‘Still, their position is that as long as the Al-Qaeda factions and the Assad regime are fighting each other, then they’re not focused on Israel itself, and that’s the best that the Israelis can hope for in the current situation.’
Doran was unequivocal that Iran remains the ‘number one threat’ to American and Israeli interests in the region. As a result, he has encouraged the Israelis to rethink their long-standing reluctance to support the overthrow of Assad, given that the slaughter in Syria has demonstrated just how destabilising the Iranian alliance system – composed of Iran itself, Hezbollah, the Assad regime and elements of Hamas – can be. ‘My feeling is that the Israelis should want to do everything they can to weaken the Iranian alliance system,’ said Doran, ‘even if that meant taking on some risks on what would follow Assad in Syria. But neither the Israeli leadership nor the White House is entirely in agreement with me on this.’
Indeed, as Doran sees it, the present American administration remains convinced that Al-Qaeda embodies the main threat. ‘The United States is tilting towards Iran in the region and it goes way beyond the nuclear question,’ he said. ‘To all intents and purposes, the US is carrying out a pro-Assad policy in Syria and in Lebanon.’
Pro-Assad? ‘That descriptor needs to be qualified,’ Doran responded. ‘The administration, without announcing it clearly, has decided that the biggest enemy of the United States in Syria is Al-Qaeda, and not Iran. And therefore when it talks about support for the opposition in Syria, it’s really talking about support for the opposition that might stand up to Al-Qaeda. Similarly, it’s also thinking of Hezbollah as a potential partner against Al-Qaeda in Lebanon.’
Doran is scathing when it comes to the Obama administration’s conviction that Iran can yet become a responsible actor. ‘Iran has a track record of years of hostility to the American order which the regime continues to celebrate,’ he asserted. ‘I think our administration has come to the conclusion that Iran is a tired power, that it pays lip service to its revolutionary goals, that those are not the real drivers of its policy on the ground. And I think that’s a mistake.’
The extent of the mistake, Doran argues, can be seen in the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, which resulted, last November, in a Joint Plan of Action agreed in Geneva. ‘If the Iranians decide they want to cut a deal, then we’ll have a deal, but all of the initiative is really on their side,’ said Doran. ‘It’s unlikely to be a deal that would satisfy the United States. Because in order to get such a deal, the Iranian regime has to be placed before an either/or decision. It has to be faced with a decision of continuing the nuclear programme and suffering devastating economic sanctions or worse, or coming to an enduring agreement. And the Obama administration has very consciously avoided placing Iran before that kind of stark decision.’
As a result, Doran continued, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been presented with ‘a third option, and that’s continuous negotiations.’ ‘The interim deal is for six months and can be rolled over by mutual consent for another six months and another six months, interminably,’ he explained. ‘The Iranians are very good negotiators, so they will work to string this along for as long as possible.’
When it comes to the specific measures agreed in the interim deal, which included generous sanctions relief in exchange for Iranian commitments to reduce uranium enrichment and suspend work on key sites like the enrichment plant in Natanz, Doran is unimpressed. ‘The administration is using rhetoric like “we have halted the project for a nuclear weapon” or “we have frozen the nuclear programme in place,” but this rhetoric is a mischaracterisation of what the interim deal actually does,’ he said. Critically, Iran’s ability to install advanced second generation centrifuges in its nuclear facilities, a prospect labelled ‘disturbing’ by Secretary of State John Kerry, remains largely unaffected.
‘If the Iranians and the Americans walk away from the negotiating table, the Iranians will be immediately able to put in place these second-generation centrifuges, which will give them the thing we’re most fearful of, and that is an undetectable nuclear break out capability,’ Doran warned. ‘That would force the president either to acquiesce to weaponisation, or take drastic action – meaning war, or severe sanctions that could drag the president into a war. Those are actions that by his body language the president shows he doesn’t want to take.’ What, then, is Obama likely to do in the event that talks collapse? ‘He’ll argue for a continuation of the negotiations,’ Doran predicted.
I asked Doran about the differing opinions between the Israelis and the Americans over whether Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium at all – a question that is bound to resurface given the recent report by the UN Panel of Experts, which monitors compliance with the Security Council’s sanctions regime on Iran, showing that Tehran continues to circumvent sanctions in acquiring sensitive components and materials for the nuclear programme. ‘I’m not in 100 per cent agreement with the Israelis that we have to have zero enrichment. I think a small amount of enrichment, with a very vigorous inspections regime, is something that we could live with,’ Doran replied. ‘But in order to get that, we have to be very tough negotiators. They traded temporary and reversible concessions to us for final status concessions from us. The Obama administration gave them something permanent – this recognition of what the Iranians call their “right to enrich” – in return for concessions which they can reverse in a day.’
What of the Russians, in whom Obama placed so much hope as a partner to secure a deal over Iran? Doran reminded me of the president’s classification of Russia as a ‘regional power,’ a phrase, he said, ‘that was perhaps intended as a slight on Vladimir Putin.’ In that regard, Obama was correct.
‘The Russians don’t have the ability to threaten the entire European order, and they don’t have the ability either to remake the entire Middle East. But they can play a game that incrementally increases their power and influence at the expense of the traditional American role,’ Doran observed. ‘The same mentality that influences Putin’s attitude towards Eastern Europe also works in the Middle East, his sense that the fall of the Berlin Wall was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century. All that’s left of the traditional Soviet position in the Middle East is the relationship with Syria. For that reason alone, the connection to Assad is important – it plays to this desire to return to a world order in which Russia has a greater role.’
That also explains why Russia has what Doran calls an ‘alignment,’ rather than an ‘alliance,’ with Iran. While Putin certainly has ‘qualms’ about Iranian nuclear weapons, Doran acknowledged, he also understands that Russian policy is not the decisive factor in preventing this outcome. Therefore, his aim is to exploit an evolving crisis to Russia’s strategic advantage.
‘The model for Russian behaviour with regard to the Iranian nuclear programme is Syria,’ said Doran. ‘They will tell the Americans that they really are concerned by the growth of Al-Qaeda in Syria, they will stress the fact that they have shared interests with the United States in the stabilisation of Syria, but at the same time they will give the Assad regime all of the weapons and the diplomatic support it needs in order to prosecute its war against the insurgents. And when Assad uses chemical weapons, they will produce reports that say, “No, it wasn’t Assad who used chemical weapons, it was the insurgents.” They’ll play that same game with the Iranian nuclear programme.’
Where would this trajectory leave Obama’s successor? Doran was candid that foreign policy is, short of another ‘cataclysm,’ unlikely to play a major role in the presidential election of 2016. ‘The only things I can imagine being likely to change that are an Iranian nuclear weapon or some kind of push by China in the South China Sea,’ Doran said. ‘Short of something like that, I think that what we saw in the last election is what we’ll see in the next.’
Doran’s definition of Obama’s Middle Eastern posture as based on a policy ‘where America’s friends are not entirely aligned with it and its enemies are not entirely opposed to it,’ arguably applies to the administration’s foreign policy as whole. Six years after George W. Bush left office, the US is closer than ever to wishing away its hegemonic status. The election of a Ronald Reagan-type figure as president might reverse that process, but Doran does not see such an individual lurking in the wings.
Instead, he recommended playing close attention to Rand Paul, the Republican Senator from Kentucky whose isolationist tendencies are hardly a secret. ‘Rand Paul is much more indicative of the mood of the 1920s than of the late 1970s and 80s,’ said Doran. ‘Watch how he does in the Republican primaries.’