Yves here. This post describes how the US is running its Middle East policies by the seat of its pants, with not surprising bad results.
By Gregory R. Copley, a senior level advisor to governments around the world on national security, intelligence, and national management issues, and author of over 30 books, including “The Art of Victory” (2006) and “UnCivilization: Urban Geopolitics in a Time of Chaos” (2012). Copley is currently the President of the International Strategic Studies Association, based in Washington, DC, and Editor-in-Chief of the “Defense & Foreign Affairs” group of publications, including the government-only intelligence service, the Global Information System. Cross posted from OilPrice
Senior-level sources in numerous Middle Eastern governments have privately expressed bewilderment at recent and current U.S. government strategies and policies toward the region.
But a closer examination of U.S. policies, now almost entirely dictated by the Obama White House, shows no cohesive national goals or policies exist, but rather an ad hoc set of actions and reactions, which are largely dictated either by ideological positions, ignorance, whim, or perceived expedience.
This is unique in U.S. history.
In short, the consistent pattern of policies developed over the past century has now been broken up, apart from some of the physical consistencies of legacy military deployments and basing, and by some trade and weapons program commitments. Even there, military deployments have contracted substantially in the past few years, and new U.S. defense systems sales to the region have been lost to suppliers from France, Russia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Germany, Pakistan, and others
In the 18 months until January 2016, the U.S. missed possibly $12- to $15-billion in sales of defense and energy systems in the Middle East, and a range of major new defense acquisitions from non-U.S. suppliers are under consideration by Middle Eastern states. At the same time, some of the U.S.’ major traditional allies in the region — Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, in particular — have felt compelled, for their own survival, to turn their back on Washington because of a perception of a divergence in values and goals.
Most U.S. policy officials — especially in Defense — insist that U.S. commitments and strategies in the region have not changed, but the actions and policies dictated directly by the Barack Obama White House, and mirrored at Secretary of State level, have proven antithetical to most states in the greater Middle East, with the exception of Turkey and Qatar. Some regional states, such as Oman, are concerned; others, such as Ethiopia and Djibouti, are now left feeling strategically abandoned.
The sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces from their deployment at the Ethiopian air base at Arba Minch — from where Reaper UAV sorties were conducted against al-Shabaab in Somalia — was done in September 2015 without forewarning to the Ethiopian Government in Addis Ababa, and kept secret until an Ethiopian website disclosed it in early January 2016. The U.S. had signed a series of multi-year supply agreements with Ethiopian companies to support the base in the weeks leading up to the withdrawal, a firm indication that the decision to vacate Arba Minch was sudden and hastily planned.
The Arba Minch withdrawal coincided with growing U.S. hostility toward the Government of Djibouti — which is strategically integral to Ethiopia’s fortunes — and the very pointed siding of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Djibouti. This resulted in Saudi and UAE strong military commitments to Eritrea (to compensate for the loss of their Djibouti basing in the war in Yemen), another blow to Ethiopian security. But it also coincided with the visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Addis Ababa to talk at the African Union, where he was accorded a very mixed reception based on his insistence on African states accepting his — Obama’s — stance on gay marriage, among other things.
Significantly, although President Obama’s team was warned against such provocations in advance of his Addis and Nairobi visits, most Obama Administration officials do not understand what they have done to offend some of the nations in the region. Even Kerry’s support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the rift with Djibouti did not win their support for Washington, as both states feared that the U.S. now supported Iran rather than the lower Persian Gulf states. The Iranian Government, however, has been under no such illusions, even among those who supported the G5+1 treaty with Iran to end some of Iranian nuclear weapons programs in exchange for lifting economic sanctions. They, too, see U.S. support for the Saudi coalition against them in Yemen.
The net result has been a bonanza for the PRC, and the deal by Djibouti to welcome a PRC naval base in the country was confirmed and cemented when Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh met in South Africa with China’s President Xi Jinping in early December 2015. This was a strategically successful gathering of African leaders with China’s leader within weeks of the Indian summit in New Delhi with African leaders.
The U.S. has done nothing of consequence to rebuild its position, which means that the strategic framework in the Middle East and Africa will, within a decade, be profoundly different from the beginning of the 21st Century.
Via Defense and Foreign Affairs Special Analysis
Could someone kill the idea that “going forward” is a synonym for “in the future”? The history of just about everything shows that the future may just as well involve going backward or sideways. Or standing still. As this article illustrates, contradicting its title.
Good Cooment, timotheus!
amen. ‘going forward’ is NOT needed in that statement. or many others that I see it included .
Love the site and what I learn. sorry to go all pedantic …
Thanks, Timotheus. Personally, I think removing “Going Forward” and asking the question “Has the U.S. ever had a Middle East Strategy”? would be more appropriate.
“Going forward” should be eliminated from usage for awhile.
This for me has been one of the most disappointing things about Obama. We heard a lot of his much vaunted intellectualism and cosmopolitanism when he was first elected. So I think it was reasonable to expect that his international policy would be coherent and to some extent culturally sensitive (at least in comparison to Bush). But I find it impossible to detect any coherent approach or philosophy, beyond ‘lets steer some sort of middle course between the uber-interventionists and the realists’. You can apply it all over the world from the Ukraine to Asia to South America, but the current bizarre pick and mix policy in the Middle East is particularly obvious in making no sense – strategically or morally. Even the good work with Iran is being rapidly undone by stupidity elsewhere. At least you could rely on a Republican president to be consistent in his cynicism and wrongheadedness.
I actually find myself feeling sorry for John Kerry sometimes. He seems to be trying to do his best, but in the absence of a President ensuring a firm coherent line, it seems that every one of the major arms of foreign policy (there seems to be dozens of them) are following their own course.
Well, incoherence is better than the Cheney-Bush policy, which created a terrible mess. It would have been better for Obama to take the opposite tack to Bush, but would that have been politically feasible?
Anyway, the British had their empire, and have perfected the art of muddling through. Maybe it is our turn to do the same.
The UK “muddling through” their loss of empire? If you take away money laundering and sales of corrupt and toxic financial products the UK would be more like Belgium right about now, I wouldn’t call that “muddling through”. They were on their knees, flat broke, after WWII, the pound sterling standard was in tatters, their gold and 90% of their territorial empire was gone. And yes, the exact opposite strategy to Bush/Cheney would have been entirely politically feasible, but the one-term state senator had no actual clue and no actual moral compass to guide him so he just did what he knew white folks would like, appointed all the same fascists and continued all the same policies. Drone bomb everything in sight, say yes to everything banks and multi-national corporations and spy agencies want, play footsie with terrorists who friend him on Facebook, and then exit stage right to your library and speaking gigs while telling America they should just go find the cure for cancer after you leave.
does us have a foreign strategy (not just for me, but general)? talk about imperial decline..
does a big, bristly, angry russian bear sh!t in the forest ??…anyone?..Bueller…?
The foreign policy blunders of the Obama regime over the past year is what really convinced me that these people are utterly inept and incompetent. That’s quite a turn around from my former opinion, when I thought they were all viciously evil masterminds. Look–these people are dangerous precisely because they are so utterly dumb. It’s like giving a three year old powered chain saw and setting him loose on a crowded playground. Not much intelligence there, but plenty of opportunity for mayhem.
As I was alerted by Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, the neocons in the Obama regime changed the nuclear doctrine in the US from a passive/reactive stance to first strike is OK stance. 1) Completely stupid and 2) Utterly psychotic. These people infesting the national security state are near brain dead, and yet at the same time have their fingers hovering over the red button just itching for an excuse to push it. It sure is a sick twist of fate that we’ve arrived at this point.
Your views are not mutually exclusive. I think Obama has relatively few things that he cares enough about at any point in time to manage well. He’s fundamentally lazy. On those things, he has often been masterful. He’s done a great job of neutering the organized left, for instance. But he’s never cared much for foreign policy, and it shows.
I’m also reminded of Lyndon Johnson, a president much more wily and committed to change than Mr. Hope and Change yet completely neutered by the foreign policy establishment, which is all that presidents seem to listen to and wish to impress. Johnson said that he had a recurring dream of people shouting “coward’ and “weakling” at him if he changed course on Vietnam. Presidents seem to be able to weather many a storm, but being called a pussy by the talking heads and on the Op-Ed pages of the NYT and the WP is too much for any of them to bear.
Yves, I think the more apt word for Obama is avoidant, not lazy. The work load of a modern president is crushing, and I think he puts in at least as many hours as most of his predecessors. Obama seems to try his best to dodge things that he is disinterested in or can’t “win”. But the man I saw campaign for President is not lazy.
I read Obama differently than you do. Go look at his calendar. Obama vacations and golfs a great deal. Congressional staffers I know deem him to be lazy. He’s spent less time with Congressional leaders than any recent predecessor, and by a large margin. He was similarly lazy about the financial crisis. He hadn’t campaigned on it and it did not interest him. As President, you don’t have the luxury of sloughing off work because it does not appeal to you, but that’s basically what he did with the crisis. He was perfectly content to let Geithner and Bernanke run with it. And Obama is arrogant and chilly. I wouldn’t call him avoidant, which I see as someone who is fearful of confrontation. If you read Suskind’s Confidence Men, Obama likes being in charge, or at least the appearance of being in charge and was not hesitant about slapping down people that he thought had overstepped their role.
Working hard to get a job is not the same as working hard at the job. His reputation was secure the minute he won the election: “first black President”.
Yves: I am glad that you brought up “lazy.” I think that we all tend to dance around this character flaw because of the implications of racial stereotyping. So let’s attribute the laziness to his white forbears. (Sorry!)
For a long time, I have seen Obama as all tactics no strategy. In the Middle East, he has gone from destabilitizing country (Libya, Syria, Yemen) to destabiliting country at the behest of our so-called allies (Syria for Israel and Turkey, Yemen for Saudi Arabia). A great nation does not rely on Israeli resentments to create its foreign policy. I note the mention of Oman in the article: Somehow, Oman has eluded the tender mercies of the Obama administration. It is the counterexample.
With regard to Iran, he ran up against two rocks: The stupidity of the foreign-policy experts like McCain and Graham, who want still another land war in Asia. (Did McCain truly attend a service academy?) And 5,000 years of Persian and Iranian history as a leading nation of the region. (The influence of Persian culture extends from Turkey to China and from Kazakhstan to Oman.) No need for a strategy here when the reality is so stark: Negotiations ensued.
Obama, who is totally corporate, is lazy in the way that many senior executives are lazy: The public face is much in evidence to shore up his position in the company (yet there won’t be legislation to control repeating rifles and ammo / nor will he step in to prevent further destruction of labor unions). Yet the detailed work of accomplishing something isn’t done–even what he claims to want (ACA as crapification by committee). There is no concern for building a competent staff (Victoria Nuland? Hillary Clinton? Larry Summers?). He doesn’t like retail politics–pressing the flesh of the people in the cubicles. And I also detect a rather strong sexist streak, all covered up in corporatespeak.
DJG – I think your final paragraph is absolutely accurate. Before he was elected and I read his books what struck me most of all was how narrow his range of interests were – he seemed to show not the tiniest interest in economics or the environment or technology. I think this is a sign of exactly the sort of mentality you often find in senior execs – they excel at one or two key things – enough to impress people with how smart they are – but never have the intellectual curiosity to explore more.
Everyone who has worked in a bureaucracy knows that the best senior managers display a curiosity about the various specialities who work under them. Even if they are not scientists or engineers, if they manage these people, they will show a natural curiosity about what they do (so long of course as they don’t think they know more than the specialists), and this inevitably makes them better managers. Obama seems to know a certain few things, everything else is a general haze of establishment opinion, which he never shows any interest in challenging. He seems to be exactly like the sort of manager who impresses in his or her first year, and then gradually runs the organisation into the ground.
I doubt he ever had any interest in anything other than getting his house on the Vineyard and discussing with some true patrician neighbor the best way to grow roses.
Not that it would have made any difference. European leaders like Hollande or Merkel are probably intellectually a lot less shallow. Results are the same. It’s out of their hands basically. Neoliberalism governs itself.
whenever I see Obama, all I see is a cynic wearing a powdered wig, with lotsa cheek rouge……acting like the noble man he ain’t !
I have one minor quibble. The primary results meant Hillary needed to at least turn down a major job. State is a reduced position with the National Security Council and Defense filling much of the former role. Then what with phones and such, the President can just call the Kremlin.
Huh? George Bush was also lazy and I’ve called him that. He also was very generous with his vacations. and golf schedule And he did not come into office with a Depression level crisis underway.
An idea I picked up from Chris Hedges: in 2007/2008 the bankers thought that they’d been found out and decided that they were about to get reamed, and so bought themselves a president. That president being Obama. Campaign “donations” and close ties with banksters throughout his campaign team and in his subsequent presidency bear that out.
By that line of reasoning, Obama’s only real job in office was to protect the bankers from prosecution and coddle their failing banks with loving care. Apparently he isn’t really good any thing (he tried to gut social security–nope. He tried to do gun control–it backfired, etc). And combined with his natural apathy and laziness, he’s been a real work of art as president.
Actually I’m thankful for Obama though. It’s because of him that I’ve realized just how worthless and decrepit the current system is, and I was able to completely severe all emotional and psychological attachment to it. If not for Obama I might still be wasting my time trying to salvage America. He’s done a lot of good in this way for the younger generations.
I think Obama has poor judgment. Look who he picks as advisors and Secretaries.
Colonel Pat Lang calls his foreign affairs advisors the Children’s Crusade.
But the man I saw campaign for President is not lazy.
That Obama, however, never entered the White House and perhaps never really existed. OTOH, I am loathe to label Obama “lazy” since he moves mountains when he really wants something, like TPP, for instance. What you and Yves suggest is accurate, IMO: Obama avoids conflict by aligning with and servicing the powerful, then marginalizing and attacking the weak opposition. He is a classic bully.
There is a difference between hard and sexy work. Plenty of local and state government candidates lose because they want to fuss about commercials instead of just canvassing.
Campaign rallies are fun even if physically wearing. Hearing people tell you how great you are is fun. Researching the concerns of a questioner at a town hall and fitting it into current policy is hard work.
Not lazy. Shallow, diffident, narcissistic. Really concerned with dazzling people with how smart he is. Not really interested in making decisions. Not much glory in the scut work of foreign policy so he can’t be bothered. I also agree with the idea that Wall Street bought itself a president.
I disagree. I think he ‘cares’. As a constitutional lawyer, he certainly knows that the only real job a US President has, one he controls separate from Congress, is foreign affairs. The US prez is Head of State AND head of government. Name one other major country that has that. None that I know of. Our head of state can do things no other head of state can do because he also has the power of the USA and its economic and military engine behind him. Nixon did China without Congress because he could. It was his prerogative.
The problem is that he’s really bad at it, and as I remarked elsewhere, above or below, his judgment is poor. I’m still facepalming and shaking my head at how he handled Crimea voting in March 2014 to become part of Russia. He actually thought Russia took it over (!), instituted sanctions (and imo, jump-started China becoming the reserve currency in about 15 years, the current T-bill daily market notwithstanding); he certainly upset the balance of powers. The fact that no one within the entire State Dept, or his hand-picked National Security Council, knew the 1992 Ukrainian Constitution granted Crimea the legal right to make that vote, and could legally and constitutionally choose Russia over the Ukraine by referendum, is just phucking stunning. I realize that Clinton and Rahm Emanuel’s pals stupidly rid the State Dept. of the long-standing Arabist and Russian experts in the 90s, but Obama could have done what Bush Pere did: call in real experts from both sides of an issue to Camp David to make their case in front of the National Security Council and Secretary of State brass; then make a decision.
I remember Michelle Obama early in the 2008 election process being asked to name her husband’s main character flaw. It was a local event and she was being interviewed on a local radio show. She said something like he could be too sure of himself, too confidant in his own abilities (I can’t remember the exact word she used, ostensibly to humanize him but still make him appear ready to take over the reins of power). I should have listened to her.
Lawrence Wilkerson refers to American strategic ineptitude with the sort of blunt insight that NC readers know and love.
His view is that rapprochement with Iran is necessary, but our Saudi and Israeli allies view this as an existential threat.
(Oct 2014, all that’s changed is Russia in Syria.)
The premise of this article is that the US should strive to continue to be a global power especially militarily. Why this should be is unquestioned. But we really don’t have any particular interests in the East, far, middle and near or Africa, or Europe for that matter. Consequently, our policies will always be unduly shaped by the idiosyncratic illusions and vanities of individuals who manage to gain some position of importance within the foreign policy establishment.
Imagine there’s no country, it’s easy if you try.
Thank you for that opening observation. I welcome Washington’s mid east policy blunders – like Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s greatest error – as steps hastening the end of the Amerikaner Reich.
The “blunders” are not accidental, but rather purposeful, as a means for more profits for the MIC, and thereby more funds for the corruption of politicians. Constant war and chaos is the agenda for the men behind the curtain.
It’s not “accidental” that the vaunted US satellite surveillance system totally missed the convoys of new and armed Toyota trucks and the convoys of tankers carrying stolen oil from Iraq and Libya to Turkey.
Additionally, it was not “accidental” that a thorough examination of stock trading immediately preceding 9/ll revealed a shorting of the stocks of the 2 airlines involved and the long positions of MIC stocks.
At the crest of the wave, it’s all foam and bubbles, not further upward motion.
quantum foam ?
It’s been said that when Robert McNamara took over as Defense Secretary he looked at SAC’s targeting scheme for the Soviet Union and said, “Gentlemen, what you have here isn’t a war plan, it’s some sort of horrible spasm!” We might say much the same about US policy in the Middle East over the past 70-some years–not a policy much less a strategy, but a series of spasms. The Cold War provided the closest thing to a coherent policy: containing the USSR in the Middle East and elsewhere. Meaning that for the past 25 years the US has been blundering around looking for a unifying principle that is simply no longer there.
I think the “unifying principle” our gov. settled on was extragovernmental: a mental lunacy that the free market and all its financial joys would save the world. On the one hand one can forgive well-meaning idealism – globalism/capitalism will eliminate wars because it will create economic interdependence, blablablah. What they didn’t count on was the abrupt destruction of sovereign government regulation and guidance. The Bush I administration was too anxious to spsread capitalist oligarchy; Obama continues this delusion with his love for a TPP/TTIP/TISA devastation of sovereignty and the planet. It is as big a contradiction as the delusion that austerity will stabilize currencies and thereby fix ailing economies which is the exact opposite of what we need. And perhaps the delusion that we can “grow” our way out of global warming without bringing it on big time. Obama wasn’t up to the task. But maybe doing nothing was better than doing something – that’s always a good possibility.
I know this is one old allusion but it’s been Open Doors and Oil for the Lamps of China now for over a century. American elites believe in their Manchester School economics and the whole edifice of 19th century liberal dogma the way Catholics believed in the Immaculate Conception. It’s what makes their ideology so distinctive. Free trade, free flows of capital, and elective bodies answerable to propertied elites will make war obsolete and herald the New Jerusalem. All will be best in the best of all possible worlds governed by the invisible hand of the market and those it favors. Any opposition to these notions is an automatic sign of perfidious intent and must be suppressed for the good of all.
I don’t know that it is entirely ideological. I do think American industry was so dominant worldwide after WW2 that it was easy for US elites to conflate US interests with an ideological commitment to free trade. After all, free trade at that time meant the rest of the world buying lots of American stuff. But I’m not sure that is the case now.
An alternative to the view that globalization over the last 40 years represents slavish devotion to a non-sensical ideology is that the globalization we now have is the product of competition and compromise between elites of different nations each trying to impose a different, nationally-advantageous, version of globalization on the world economy. The fact that US elites pushed a version with free trade, weak unions, finance-dominated, etc. may have been because this was the version that worked best for them, whereas German, Japanese, and Chinese elites would have promoted different visions. Over time, finance elites everywhere came to see the value (to them) of the US version, and that version has come to dominate world-wide.
The current global economy bears only superficial similarity to the “free market:” extended patent protections, no free mobility of labor, huge defense spending not “demanded” by any consumers, the key role played by un-free China, etc. But it sure has been good for US elites.
I’ve just returned from China, where there’s an endless ocean of people who for the first time have a washing machine and a car and a new outfit, and they’re absolutely giddy about it all. But for every one of the faces I kept thinking about the faces of the people who bought all that stuff for them, steel workers in Michigan and middle managers in Atlanta, who are now done eating their seed corn and are hoping WalMart is still hiring as they worry about whether their kids will get educated or ever get to see a doctor. But “free mobility of labor” was not required for this shift.
What I was taught in economics was that the quid pro quo for the Marshall plan was free trade, so the US could export to Europe. Whether the trade-off was quite as explicit I don’t know, but it would not surprise me.
You omit to mention the backwash of Middle East police on Europe which is finding the US a very dangerous partner. The destabilisation of North Africa, then Syria after Iraq and Afganistan, Ukraine, has led to the invasion of Western Europe which will lead to civil war in France and most likely Germany, if not a return to 1923 in Germany when the country fragmented, and the Brexit solution for the Uk which will render it peripheral to European politics.
The US will be alone in coming decades as alliances realign and nations look to another lodestar
I categorically reject analysis that doesn’t extend beyond Obama. The executive branch is not the domain of one individual. Many of his administration’s diplomatic blunders can be ascribed to his national security team. The question is why are these things even happening?
This specific incident is not a symptom of imperial decline. The closest answer is what I pointed out recently.
This display of cultural arrogance can be empirically observed over and over on television. Which judging by demographics and television ratings suggests that the women on Obama’s national security team were fans of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. This show involved an out-of-her element Bostonian bourgeois lady doctor imposing her social mores on the working class whites of the western frontier. The difference is that In the fictional world of television everything turns out well in the end.
In the real world… not so much.
Like it or not, the American people imitate behavior and take their social cues from television. This includes those folks in the political establishment and the US intelligence community. The wide disconnect between fantasy and reality leads to predictably dismal outcomes.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Maker with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
The idea that their are universal values is built into both the Enlightenment and the founding of this country. Mock if you will, but whatever good we’ve ever accomplished here (and compared to Germany, England, France, Russia, China, Japan, and a lot of other countries, that good is not negligible) is due to the calling in of that promise. I don’t think that it should be our policy to enforce those beliefs at gunpoint, but I’m damned if I think we should stand by while the thugs in Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan or Myanmar or wherever act like barbarians. We can and should open out mouths when the Israelis treat Palestinians as helots. We should cooperate with others as best we can, and certainly not bomb people for believing differently than we do, but that doesn’t mean all values are created equal and we should say, as too many idiot academic lefties did for too long, that when Africans cut out women’s clitorises or stone people for witchcraft (as they’ve been doing in recent years in Kenya) we should just say “it’s their culture” and sweep the atrocities under the rug in the name of misbegotten multiculturalism.
The purpose of those remarks wasn’t to mock Obama’s national security team. It was to understand how they could be so insipid in their diplomatic interactions with other countries.
The idealistic sentiments in the Declaration of Independence articulated by Jefferson are wholly different from the pragmatism that he had to exercise as president. This doesn’t necessarily mean that any foreign policy should be driven by a lack of principle nor am I suggesting that self-interest will be entirely absent. What I am saying is that an idealistic vision of American foreign policy that seeks to convert the world through rhetoric is doomed to failure.
Other countries, whether friend or foe, are in no mood to listen to self-righteous Americans preach their civic religion. Especially when those values have proven to be so hallow, hypocritical, and as lacking in substance as our political leaders.
This could easily be a symptom of imperial decline – increasingly clueless elites who think only in terms of their own values and culture, and can’t meaningfully engage with people or events outside their rigid intellectual framework.
You’re right. I concede the point.
It also could be an abuse of the moral high ground. Americans are used to thinking of themselves as the good guys. Obama may be selling bankrupt policy as moral and humanistic just because it comes from us, the good guys.
Yves, the fact that Obama has been MIA with regard to high-level schmoozing with members of Congress–which accounts for the fact that even his party allies have felt no particular loyalty to him–is attributable to something other than the L-word. He has been absolutely single-minded about spending most evenings at home having dinner with his wife and daughters. He made it clear, soon after his election, that it would be a high priority for him to be a “real dad”. Unfortunately, we were not given the option of voting for or against a father-in-chief. Given the new, shorter workweek for Congresscritters–they’re in DC only from midday MOnday to late Thursday–those post-5pm socialization sessions are crucial for building loyalty, especially since Presidents no longer, through the party committee, control access to important funding for legislators’ campaigns.