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April 20, 2016 6:54 am

Salvaging America’s Mideast Policy After Obama

avatar by John Bolton

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President Barack Obama announcing the Iran nuclear deal, with Vice President Joe Biden. Photo: Screenshot.

President Barack Obama announcing the Iran nuclear deal, with Vice President Joe Biden. Photo: Screenshot.

On June 21, President Obama will attend his last summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the six oil-producing monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula. Afterward, press handlers will doubtless spin euphemistically that their “mutual exchange of views” was “full and frank.” In plain English, “brutal” (albeit diplomatically polite) would likely be more accurate.

Fundamental strategic misconceptions underlie Mr. Obama’s Middle East actions, including that America should be essentially neutral in the region’s great conflicts; our efforts, over decades, to protect our interests and allies have reduced, not enhanced, peace and security; and a detached, minimalist US role henceforth will permit local actors, without our meddling, to reach their own accommodations more readily. These precepts have caused innumerable foreign policy blunders, including Mr. Obama’s sustained maltreatment of Israel, the Iran nuclear deal, and the failure to suppress the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist threats.

So stated, the basic isolationism of Mr. Obama’s strategy becomes clear, ironically similar to that advocated this year by several presidential candidates. Describing Saudi Arabia and other Arab friends as “free riders” was both revealing and far from casual, as was the president’s previous sneering dismissal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Obama has implemented his approach as rigorously as possible, albeit sometimes deflected by domestic political calculations or bureaucratic forces, particularly the Pentagon, whose institutional culture never accepted his worldview.

But these are simply exceptions from Mr. Obama’s grand strategy, not examples of his core beliefs. And his persistence means that it will not suffice for a new president just to reverse this or that individual policy. Russia’s air base at Latakia is but one concrete example on an unfortunately long list of such durable adverse consequences that merely changing policies cannot erase.

Similarly, the Iran nuclear deal was a US setback of enormous proportions, a diplomatic Waterloo. It cannot be fixed or renegotiated, but must be immediately, unambiguously terminated by the new president. Make no mistake, however, abrogation alone will not restore the status quo ante. Mr. Obama has fundamentally weakened our position by scuttling international sanctions, unfreezing assets and tolerating belligerent Iranian behavior that shows its utter contempt for the deal itself. Tehran has disproved any idea that acceding to its nuclear demands would cause basic shifts in its international conduct. The new president must, therefore, institute planning to oust the ayatollahs, a necessary but arduous task needlessly complicated by Mr. Obama’s mistakes.

The most urgent task, starting Jan. 20, 2017, and not by rhetoric alone, is emphasizing that America has a new strategic vision, as Ronald Reagan did so well in 1981. Reagan could not overnight reverse the decline in US defense capabilities wrought by Jimmy Carter, nor act decisively everywhere he wanted because the list of inherited problems was so long. Nonetheless, Reagan moved quickly to change both the global perception and the reality of America’s resolve and competence.

The new president should, therefore, stress to Middle Eastern friend and foe alike that America is not neutral in the region’s major, long-standing conflicts, and that a strong US political, economic and military presence in defense of its interests is a force for peace and stability. From this strategic vantage point, some mistakes can be corrected rapidly and dramatically, starting with revamping our Iran policy as noted above. Next, we must be serious about ISIS. Mr. Obama says he aims to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS. His successor can be more economical in his language: His goal should be to “destroy” ISIS, without qualifiers. Remember “the fierce urgency of now”? Seeking to eliminate ISIS more swiftly will save lives, especially innocent civilians around the world who remain at risk of ISIS terrorism as long as its privileged sanctuaries survive intact.

Moreover, America’s Middle East friends also face less well-known perils. Washington, therefore, needs a “rear areas” strategy both to reduce the pressures they face, and to show we understand regional realities. We must assist and encourage the GCC nations to forge a solution in Yemen that effectively eliminates ISIS and al Qaeda there, and thoroughly destroys linkages between the Houthi rebels and Tehran. We must also help Egypt (and Israel) reimpose order on the Sinai Peninsula, perhaps readjusting the role of the Multilateral Force and Observers (created by the Camp David accords) to participate in anti-terrorism efforts. And we need to decide a strategy with Egypt and Israel that chokes off external support for Hamas (especially from Iran) in Gaza.

By proving his resolve on these festering “rear area” problems as well as the headline-grabbing, big-picture issues, Mr. Obama’s successor can show he is indeed serious about ensuring Middle Eastern peace and security. This is a challenge, but hardly an impossibility. Implementing it will require time, attention and resources, and the new president must make his determination clear on Inauguration Day. And it is yet another reason why 2016 should be a national security election.

John R. Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was originally published by The Washington Times. 

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  • Yale

    Mr. Bolton:

    Do you seriously believe that Hillary Clinton can repudiate Obama’s foreign policy after having served as his Secretary of State? If she was going to do that, she should have announced it already since that would likely improve her chances of winning the election.

  • Brian

    Clinton will be the same as Obama. Ignorant, arrogant.

    • Tabitha

      Don’t make the mistake of thinking Obama and Hillary are ignorant. Anyone who is really ignorant could not have done such damage, time after time. Ignorant means 50% chances either way. All the evil that’s been done has been intentional, well planned and well orchestrated. Hillary is absolutely no better; she has done plenty of damage in the Middle East, pandering to our enemies and pocketing their donations in her foundation. These people deserve to be recognized for their accomplishments, and handled accordingly.

  • Howard Wohl

    So now we hear “words of wisdom” from a Neocon who helped strengthen Iran by destroying Iraq. Who champions the policies of George W Bush which included a failure to act against Syria’s nuclear ambitions. Who denigrated the European countries which refused to buy phony stories concocted by Dick Cheney. Who ignored warnings about terrorism and then used the War on Terrorism as a shield to ward off criticism of his policies. Who sent thousands of young Americans to lives of despair, if not death. While he told the American populace to spend money, buy homes no matter how mortgage companies deluded both buyers and bond owners. Who brought us to economic disaster. So, after the complete and utter mess made by the Cheney-Bush administration, we have an apologist who blames the Obama administration for all the ills. Instead of praise for removing Iran’s nuclear capabilities, we have crocodile tears shed. No wonder why the Republican voters have said an Emphatic no to the Neocons. They would rather put their faith in a misguided missile named Trump. I am sure that will strengthen America, its relations with our allies and bring wisdom and strength to Israel. I can believe that as much as Bolton’s call to return to Egypt as slaves. How sad it is, that memory has been lost and freed slaves somehow believe that life under Cheney-Bush or the the pharaoh were the really good days.

  • stevenl

    The ideology of this President fundamentally led him to the total undermining of the western world position in the world.
    These are not blunders but calculated components of his strategy to promote Islam from the WH and to damage the Western world.
    Bolton is being to kind towards this president!

  • Lia

    Congratulations, Mr Bolton, for seeing the ‘bigger picture’ so clearly, for highlighting the separate problems and for pointing out how to rectify them.