“Secretary of State Colin Powell told this president the Pottery Barn rule,” said then-Senator John Kerry in the final months of the 2004 presidential campaign. He was referring to the dismal state of affairs in Iraq 19 months after the coalition invasion. “Now if you break it, you made a mistake. It’s the wrong thing to do. But you own it. And then you’ve got to fix it and do something with it.” 11 years later, and Kerry is the highest-ranking Cabinet official in an administration that has presided over a proliferation of conflicts in the Middle East. President Barack Obama’s attempts to radically transform regional power dynamics makes George W. Bush look like a custodian of the status quo. Today, the Middle East and North Africa are in a state of crisis. But what looks outwardly like chaos is, in fact, a predictable realignment brought about by the president’s eager and overly ambitious effort to extricate the United States from regional affairs. The results of this project have been devastating to America’s stature in the Middle East and the long-term security of the West.
The menace of the Islamic State militia movement — a proto-state that devours the corpses of Iraq and Syria from within and which threatens the viability of the very Westphalian system of nation-states with defined borders – is an immense and growing one. Only after intense external pressure did Obama agree to craft two distinct coalitions to fight the same war on either side of the functionally nonexistent Iraqi-Syrian border. Nearly one year after the commencement of initial coalition airstrikes on ISIS targets, the ragtag militia group and the territory it controls remains largely intact. More disturbingly, the strategy the president embraced to prevent American involvement in the conflict is faltering.
By this point, the administration had hoped to train a substantial number of the thousands of Syrian rebels it needed to roll back ISIS in Syria. As of July, only 60 had been trained and equipped. Similarly, the Iraqi Security Forces and the Shiite militias aligned with Baghdad that were to serve as the indigenous “boots on the ground” in Iraq have only enjoyed limited successes. The ground forces on which the West pinned its hopes have largely failed to stem the ISIS tide. The Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria that have made substantial gains against ISIS are the exception to this rule. It is a testament to the fecklessness of the West’s strategy to combat ISIS that its most productive ally on the ground is now being targeted from the air by another.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently decided to use the opportunity provided by Islamic State terror attacks inside Turkey and on the Syrian border to launch a regional war on the region’s Kurdish population. While Ankara has also mounted a series of belated airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria, Turkish warplanes are also invading Iraqi airspace and targeting Kurds linked to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Marxist Kurdish militia, though ideologically aligned against the West and which the president called “terrorists” just two years ago, has nevertheless served as an effective partner in the war on ISIS. “Some senior U.S. and British diplomats said the time has come for the U.S. and some European states to consider a broader rapprochement with the PKK,” the Wall Street Journal reported last week. Not if Turkey has anything to say on the matter.
Turkey’s airstrikes on Kurdish positions in Iraq has sent shockwaves through the anti-ISIS alliance. “In Iraq, which is fighting to regain large areas from Islamic State militants, the government declared the Turkish attack on the P.K.K. in Iraqi territory ‘a dangerous escalation and an offense to Iraqi sovereignty,’” the New York Times noted. “A senior American official, discussing operational planning on the condition of anonymity, said over the weekend that the Turkish attacks on the P.K.K. were ‘complicating the relationship’ with the Syrian Kurdish militias. The official said the United States was pressuring Turkey not to attack the Syrian Kurds.” But Turkey, a NATO member state, is not listening. For now, Ankara has refrained from engaging in hostilities with other Kurdish militias – the PKK-aligned Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and its armed forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – but it does not appear inclined to allow the opportunity to neutralize Kurdish separatists in Iraq and Syria go to waste.
The chaotic course of the war against ISIS is merely one facet of the realignment in the Middle East facilitated by Barack Obama’s ideologically motivated desire to extricate the U.S. from regional security matters. The kinetic military dimensions of that realignment are only the most outwardly perceptible sign of this tectonic shift. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have conducted unannounced airstrikes on militants in the shattered Libya that NATO forces failed to secure after speeding the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. A ten-member Sunni coalition, led by Saudi Arabia, continues to conduct strikes on Yemeni territory where the Iran-backed Houthis are stationed. Iran, the world’s foremost sponsored of state terrorism and the beneficiary of a grand rapprochement in the form of a nuclear accord with the West, maintains its campaign of terror across the region. The sustained target of its wrath, Bahrain, a nation the Islamic Republic regards as its “fourteenth province,” suffered a deadly terrorist bombing just Monday in which two police officers were killed and six others wounded. “Early information suggests that the explosives used in today’s terrorist attack are of the same type that were recently intercepted coming from Iran,” Bahraini state television reported prior to the announcement that the government in Manama had recalled its ambassador in Tehran.
The diplomatic repercussions of the president’s withdrawal from the region are even more striking. Anwar Sadat’s determination to decouple the fate of Egypt from that of the U.S.S.R. has been all but undone by Obama’s disinterest in the region coupled with Vladimir Putin’s revanchist determination to revive Soviet glories. Russia has compensated for the military aid the United States cut off to Cairo following the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has even flirted with membership in Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, an economic zone comprised of former Soviet Republics designed to compete with the EU. The Saudi Kingdom, too, has turned away from its suddenly untrustworthy allies in Washington. Riyadh instead turns toward France and Russia in pursuit of nuclear technology in the event that it must prepare for an atomic arms race with Iran. They host the Yemeni government-in-exile that was chased out of Sana’a by a Houthi militia group that Washington courted and sought to legitimize despite its virulent anti-Americanism and links to Tehran. Most strikingly, Washington’s favoritism toward Iran has compelled the Saudis to, for the most part, bury their historic animosity toward Israel. This represents an astounding détente, particularly considering Riyadh’s rejection of the Camp David accords that yielded normalized relations between Jerusalem and Cairo. But whereas Jimmy Carter ensured that the United States was central to that new understanding between formerly hostile powers, today America is on the outside looking in as Israel and the Saudis reconcile.
If you break it, you own it. That’s the supposed rule that Democrats imposed on the Bush administration as it allowed Iraq to descend into bloody chaos. If George W. Bush owned the Iraqi disaster, Barack Obama owns the implosion of America’s position in the Middle East. The region he will bequeath to his successor makes the Middle East he inherited appear placid and stable by comparison.