Here’s How Obama’s Foreign Policy Is Working Out in the Middle East

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The argument against President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is by no means a new tale.

Some of his critics say Obama’s approach, although based in a strong desire not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessor, is misguided — that it does not provide for the many complex situations that have arisen during his presidency. Others contend that his hesitance to take action internationally is the function of inexperience. All see his reluctance to use American power a problem.

The president himself has said his organizing principle is not sexy, and Hillary Clinton has mocked his concept of “don’t do stupid stuff” as a poor substitute for a coherent and workable foreign policy doctrine. With the easing of the economic crisis that plagued the early portion of Obama’s term in office, the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, and the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq in 2014, the absence of a guiding strategy in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” or John F. Kennedy’s inauguration pledge that the U.S. would “pay any price, bear any burden” in order to “assure the survival and the success of liberty” has become all the more pressing, especially as the 2016 presidential election draws closer.

The unfolding crises across the Middle East are the starring players in Obama’s foreign policy drama. Reports from The New York Times warn that the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen may turn what has been a civil war between competing sects of Islam into a wider regional conflict. The decades-long cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran has begun to receive sizable press. The yet-to-be inked nuclear agreement with Iran has divided Washington. The civil war in Syria has dragged into its fourth year, displacing millions and serving as another flashpoint for powers in the region. And as Iraqi militia continue to successfully recapture territory from ISIL hands, new concerns for sectarian violence are born.

Each crisis adds a new wrinkle of complexity for the Obama administration, and broadly, the Middle East is a case study of the White House’s foreign policy rhetoric, its negotiating prowess, and its grasp of the history of the region. This “descent into chaos,” in which “virtually every country from Libya to Afghanistan is involved in a military conflict” for the first time since the second World War, has prompted Foreign Policy editor David Rothkopf to say the “situation in the region is unprecedented.”

“The degree of chaos, uncertainty, and complexity among the twisted and often contradictory alliances and enmities is mind-boggling,” he wrote. Obama does not have the luxury of walking away from these problems, according to Rothkopf, but he believes the president’s policies have been an “egregious failure.” Here’s a look at what is currently happening in these trouble spots.

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For nine months, the extremist group known as ISIL, ISIS, or the Islamic State quickly captured great swaths of territory across Iraq and Syria. As recently as March, The New York Times noted that the area controlled by the group has not shifted significantly since last summer, meaning ISIL controls a region in the Middle East roughly the size of the United Kingdom, with a population of about 8 million. Not only were its leaders willing to push their conception of an Islamic caliphate into existence through violence, but it seemed ISIL was capable of holding ground much more than al Qaeda ever was. However, over the past month, that narrative has begun to change.

Many analysts say ISIL is slowly loosing. The evidence? The Iraqi army, with help from Shia militias (which are often supported by Iran) and the airstrikes of the United States-led international coalition, is retaking territory. There are several reasons the tide has changed. The group’s massive territorial aspirations are mostly at fault. First, ISIL made the mistake of penetrating Kurdistan. The Kurds, a fiercely independent minority group located in an oil-rich region of northern Iraq with whom the United States has had a decades-long but occasionally uneasy partnership, have been able to stall the Islamic State’s advance thanks to its independent fighting force known as the Peshmerga.

Typically, airstrikes such as those Obama ordered to “degrade and destroy” ISIL are not effective against terrorist groups. But because acquiring land is essential to the Islamic State’s mission of creating a caliphate, the airstrikes have actually disrupted its territorial aspirations. Analysts believe ISIL will soon lose its territory in Iraq and become what it was a year ago, “a delusional group of hardened warriors festering in the chaos of a Syrian civil war,” as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp and Johnny Harris wrote. In many areas of its so-called caliphate, ISIL is on the defensive. A White House factsheet reports that “more than 1,900 U.S. and coalition airstrikes have blunted ISIL’s momentum in Iraq and degraded its military capability.”

“Since late last year, evidence has been mounting that the Islamic State has reached a point of diminishing returns in controlling the territories it has seized and exploited. Despite a year of military successes, it’s losing popular support,” wrote Foreign Policy’s Christopher Holshek. “The reasons for this should be all too familiar to those who followed the United States’ military-led adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan — it’s easier to campaign than govern, as the saying goes.” The group’s strategic setbacks come not from military misfortune but from difficulties stemming from its efforts to blend utopian state-building with the realities of governing the diverse communities within the conquered territories.

“We’re seeing basically a failure of the central tenet of ISIS ideology, which is to unify people of different origins under the caliphate,” Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Washington Post’s Liz Sly. “This is not working on the ground. It is making them less effective in governing and less effective in military operations.” ISIL is also failing at providing basic goods and services.

Progress appeared to be the unofficial theme of the recent bilateral talks between Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. It was the Iraqi leader’s first visit to Washington since the international bombing campaign against ISIL was launched last summer. Thanking al-Abadi and the “sacrifices” of the international coalition, Obama noted in the press conference followed their meeting that “we are making serious progress in pushing back ISIL out of Iraqi territory.” The group has lost approximately a quarter of its territory.

“Thousands of strikes have not only taken ISIL fighters off the war theater, but their infrastructure has been deteriorated and decayed,” Obama said. He credited Abadi with playing an instrumental role in reversing the advancement of the Islamic State and expressed confidence that Abadi’s government would be more inclusive of Sunni and Kurdish factions, an important achievement, as sectarian differences led to the country’s current problems. Obama gave the Iraqi prime minister a full-throated endorsement.

As ground troops begin to take land back from the Islamic State militants, important questions on the scale of American involvement, the direction of the military campaign, and what to do about Iran’s involvement in the training of Shiite militias fighting ISIL will need to be answered. Obama gave hints that he desires to keep U.S. involvement limited, emphasizing that America’s role is to help Iraq, not lead the fight.

The joint press conference held by Obama and al-Abadi was generally optimistic about both the overall direction of the fighting and the working relationship between American and Iraq. “So far, Iraq has managed to make great strides in this regard and to liberate a large part of its territory with support from the coalition,” al-Abadi said. However, the differences between the two men’s goals was evident in their remarks.

Obama wants to focus on the victories and downplay the fact that ISIL is still very much a powerful force in Iraq. Gen. Martin Dempsey insists that the loss of Ramadi — capital of the country’s largest province of Anbar and situated just 70 miles from Baghdad — would not be a strategic disaster. But the president’s war resolution has stalled in Congress as lawmakers push for more U.S. military action in Iraq.

Abadi’s visit to Washington was to request additional aid, and Obama pledged to commit $200 million in additional humanitarian funds, only a small percentage of the sum Abadi sought. Humanitarian aid is sorely needed, with thousands displaced because of ISIL’s advancement on Ramadi alone, but assistance is also needed to shore up Iraq’s economy, which is suffering as the price of oil declines globally.

The Iraqi prime minister had a fine line to walk: It behooves him both politically and diplomatically to highlight how successful the U.S.-led international coalition has been. But since the war is by no means won and al-Abadi still expressed fears that the militants could become unstoppable, he also strove to underscore the dangers of the current ISIL offensive. The fight against the Islamic State is at a pivotal moment.

Tikret — Saddam Hussein’s hometown — has been retaken, a victory Abadi described as a “case study” for the liberation of Iraq. But even as the two leaders met, ISI: was taking greater control of Ramadi, threatening the upend the delicate and recent power shift. The fall of this city would be a major symbolic defeat for Abadi’s government. Militants have already executed hundreds of tribesmen belonging to the Sunni Awakening movement, a group key in helping the United States drive jihadists of Anbar province, The Guardian reports.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the four-year-long civil war has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than 11 million people, or about half the nation. Obama famously chose not to get involved in that conflict. Of course, no response the president picked would have come without risks or been guaranteed to work. But his continued inaction has drawn international criticism. Ordinary Syrians “have been bombed out of their homes, tortured, abused and denied food, water and health care. Families have been torn apart. Communities have been destroyed,” Valerie Amos, U.N. under-secretary general, recently wrote in The Washington Post. “During every visit I was asked the same thing: Why has the world abandoned us? Why does nobody care?”

In February, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown noted, “Some years from now the world will look back and ask why so many of us did so little.” Obama’s desire to decrease the United States’ global footprint on international relations has some support, but The Washington Post editorialized that amid such human rights violations, Syria might not be the best test for the president’s “never again” mantra.

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Obama has achieved his breakthrough with Iran, provided there is no backslidding. The White House announced that the United States and five other world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia — had come to a “historic” agreement with Iran in early April. “A diplomatic solution is the best way to get this done and offers a more comprehensive and lasting solution,” one that benefits the security of the American people and the world, the president said. [A]fter many months of tough, principled diplomacy, we have achieved the framework for that deal.”

At this stage, the deal is only preliminary. An official version will not be signed until June 30, and there is a possibility the deal could fall through. Congress is attempting to seize greater control of the negotiating process: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in mid-April 19-0 to advance legislation allowing Congress 60 days to review any final deal, and the broader Senate voted May 7 98-1 to give Congress that right.

The lifting of sanctions will be dependent on a 30-day review of compliance, and even though opposition to the nuclear deal has been loudest among Republicans, this was a bipartisan decision. This agreement is hugely important for Obama’s legacy, so he has agreed to sign the bill. The president has little to lose by signing it. If the Senate chooses to reject the agreement, Obama could veto that legislation, which requires only 34 senators to uphold.

Throughout the final days of negotiations, opposition rang loud in Washington. Ahead of Obama’s announcement of the nuclear agreement, 47 Senate Republicans signed an open letter to the Islamic Republic of Iran, warning its leaders that any nuclear deal signed by Obama would not last beyond the end of his term in office. The move was born out of concern that Obama would agree to weak or dangerous terms.

While most political experts believe it would not be so easy for the next president or a future Congress to revoke or modify the terms of the agreements, GOP lawmakers wanted the Iranian regime to have second thoughts about dismantling its nuclear program. Now that a tentative agreement has been reached, both Republicans and Democrats alike worry Iran will not be prevented from creating a nuclear bomb and want more congressional oversight.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Congress and the Iranian government do not agree on when the sanctions should be lifted. The White House said “Iran will receive sanctions relief, if it verifiably abides by its commitments,” and U.S. and E.U. nuclear-related sanctions will be suspended after the [International Atomic Energy Association] has verified that Iran has taken all of its key nuclear-related steps.” But Iran wants international sanctions to be removed immediately upon the completion of an agreement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has taken issue with what he calls congressional meddling. “We announce that the side that we deal with is not the U.S. Senate or the House of Representatives — it is a group called the P5+1,” he said April 15 on Iranian television, referring to the five members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. More specifically, the legislation means that the nuclear talks will be more politically charged, thus opening the way for retaliation on the part of the Iranian parliament. And “having this lingering uncertainty about whether we could deliver on our side of the deal was probably a deal killer,” a senior administration official told The New York Times.

Meanwhile, Russia has lifted a ban on the sale of a sophisticated air-defense missiles to Iran.

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As two factions fight for control of the government, Yemen stands at “the edge of civil war,” according to the U.N.’s special adviser. Primarily, the conflict is between forces loyal to the Sunni government of deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced the leader to flee Yemen’s capital city of Sannaa in February, ending what had been a decade-long insurgency.

Yemen is also the home base for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the country is experiencing both tribal disputes and secessionist movements in the north and the south. What had long been an internal strong has now morphed into a regional conflict. Just as the “Great Game” played out in Afghanistan between Great Britain and Russia more than a hundred years ago, Yemen is the backdrop for an ongoing strategic rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Their battle for power and influence in the Middle East stems largely from ideological differences: Iran is the leader of the Shia Muslim world, while Saudi Arabia heads the Sunni Muslim world.

Their rivalry is playing out in other spheres, as well. Iran backs Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, and the Shia government of Iraq. Iran has also supported Shia efforts to undermine governments in Bahrain and the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a threat that so concerned Saudi Arabia that its government sent troops to quell an uprising in Barain in 2011.

The conflict in Yemen may seem minor in comparison with the other conflicts of the Middle East, yet the struggle for power is strategically important for the security of the West. On April 20, the United States sent an aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, to Yemen, where it will assist other American vessels preparing to intercept Iranian ships carrying weapons for the Houthis. “We have seen evidence that the Iranians are supplying weapons and other armed support to the Houthis in Yemen. That support will only contribute to greater violence in that country,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said at a news conference.

“These are exactly the kind of destabilizing activities that we have in mind when we raise concerns about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East,” he added. “The Iranians are acutely aware of our concerns for their continued support of the Houthis by sending them large shipments of weapons.” The United States has also provided logistical and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia-led coalition bombing the rebel group.

For Iran, Yemen is desirable simply because it could serve as a friendly ally and a strategic pawn in its conflict with Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s location on the southwestern tip of the Gulf peninsula, its position on Saudi Arabia’s porous southern boarder, its weak government, and its strong concentration of Shia Muslims make it a prime target.

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