Aug 28th 2013

The Absence Of Strategic Vision

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

The question often raised by many is, does the Obama administration have a cohesive strategy toward the Middle East that addresses the developments of events in the context of that strategy?

The overwhelming response to this question by top officials, the academic community and ordinary people in the region is that the Obama administration simply reacts to various critical developments and has no strategic vision.

The US’ reaction is often seen as too timid, stumbling through from one crisis to another, while losing both credibility and influence.

Many examples typify Obama’s hesitant approach to these events that may well define the US’ future role in the region as well as its capacity to shape or, at a minimum, influence events as they evolve to serve America’s and its allies’ national interests.

The civil war in Syria is certainly spinning out of control, especially following the use of chemical weapons for the second time by the government, which may well lead to the disintegration of Syria (if it hasn’t already) unless decisive and purposeful measures are taken by the US immediately.

President Obama warned the Syrian government that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” that would prompt a punitive American reaction.

The so-called red line has been crossed twice, yet it took the White House several months to assess the first use of such weapons when it was already ascertained that the Assad government was behind it.

Only after the use of such weapons for the second time (which have killed more than a thousand civilians) did the White House finally admit that the Assad government is the culprit.

The clock is ticking on Iran’s race to develop a nuclear weapons program. Many observers believe that Obama’s repeated assertion that all options (including military) are on the table to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons bears little credibility, and his reaction to the developments of regional events confirm that.

Many believe that once Iran musters the technology to produce nuclear weapons in short order, the President will settle for containment, which is a cause of major concern for Israel and the Gulf states.

President Obama has done little to inhibit Iran from its unwavering commitment to save Assad’s regime by providing military and economic assistance. Moreover, the US failed to pressure Iraq to end Iranian overflights loaded with weapons and munitions to Syria.

Should Assad succeed (thanks to the ineptitude of the West) in quelling the rebelliousness, Iran will achieve a second stunning victory, surpassing the handing over of Iraq to Iran on a golden platter in the wake of the Iraq war, which bears major regional repercussions.

The President has taken no action to prevent Hezbollah from joining the battle in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime and has ignored its dire repercussions on Lebanon, which has now been drawn into the Syrian civil war.

Syria and Iraq have become the battleground between the Sunnis and the Shiites, aided by Jihadists from both sects who are flocking in from several Arab and Muslim countries and adding fuel to the fire which will burn in the region for decades to come.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems manageable, though absent real progress in peace negotiations, which require intense American pressure on both sides, the negotiations could unravel and push the Palestinians to rise in an effort to end the Israeli occupation.

Finally, in its push for democracy, there is a clear disconnect between what the US would like to see and what the realities on the ground in many Arab states dictate. Even worse, the US turns a blind eye on gross human rights violations in other autocratic Arab states because of special strategic interests.

In sum, Obama has no cohesive strategy that effectively addresses multiple conflicts that impact on each other, producing a picture of timidity and aloofness.

Maybe I am off in my assessment of President Obama’s foreign policy conduct; I am not wrong, however, about the perception that the President has created in and outside the region, and perception matters, especially in the Middle East, as much as reality does, if not more.

The perception of weakness, timidity, inaction and a lack of strategic vision by the Obama administration could lead to three troubling consequences:

First, the continuing alliances with the US could become ones of necessity that could be abandoned should the regional power equation change and a more reliable partner is found. Russia, although criticized for allowing the slaughter of civilians to continue unabated, is also admired for its unwavering support of its ally, Assad.

Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union, for example, from the early 1950s to the early 1970s was an alliance of necessity which was forsaken once the late Egyptian President Sadat concluded that Egypt’s fortunes lay with the US.

Second, countries that depend on the US for security, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and others, and countries that fear the US, such as Iran, Syria or even Iraq, could be emboldened to act unilaterally on matters they deem necessary to safeguard their national interests.

Third, other powers such as Russia could continue to defy the US, knowing full well that President Obama’s extraordinary cautious approach leaves wide openings for Moscow to act and fill the vacuum of leadership with near impunity.

As a result, the US continues to lose both credibility and influence and thereby is effectively ceding power to other regional or global players.

Having inherited two wars and an economy on the verge of depression, Obama’s reluctance to engage the US in another armed conflict in the region is understandable.

However, since America remains the world’s major power with global national security and economic interests, it cannot afford paralysis. It must restore its credibility to enable it to play its still indispensable role in the Middle East and beyond.

The US needs a long-term strategy toward the Arab world, not built around convenient and useful talking points, election cycles or even looming energy crises, but one that deals with the urgent needs of the hour in the context of its long-term strategic vision, starting with Syria’s disastrous civil war.

To bring a swift end to the carnage in Syria and send a loud and clear message to Iran, Hezbollah, Islamic militants, North Korea and even Russia that the US’ tolerance has its limit, President Obama must act now without any further delays.

The President must immediately assemble a coalition composed of major Western powers which may include England and France, along with some key Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with the support of the Arab League to lend legitimacy outside the United Nations Security Council to take joint military actions against Assad’s forces.

The military campaign should not be open-ended but limited in scope and without boots on the ground designed to cripple Assad’s forces. The military assault should target Syria’s air defense system, munitions depots, chemical stockpiles and all military runways to prevent combat aircrafts from taking off.

Most observers do not expect that Syria or any of its allies would retaliate against the US or any of its allies, fearing counter strikes of far greater magnitude.

In addition, the President should immediately authorize the shipment of anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets and munitions, especially to the Free Syrian Army, to finish the job by disabling much of Assad’s infantry.

America’s standing and what is left of its credibility in the eyes of the international community is on the line. The burden falls squarely on President Obama’s shoulders to act to save lives rather than preach the gospel of human rights, as there is no time left to spare.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Sep 24th 2021
EXTRACTS: "We have found that 47 million American adults – nearly 1 in 5 – agree with the statement that “the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president.” Of those, 21 million also agree that “use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” Our survey found that many of these 21 million people with insurrectionist sentiments have the capacity for violent mobilization. At least 7 million of them already own a gun, and at least 3 million have served in the U.S. military and so have lethal skills. Of those 21 million, 6 million said they supported right-wing militias and extremist groups, and 1 million said they are themselves or personally know a member of such a group, including the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys." ----- "..... the Jan. 6 insurrection represents a far more mainstream movement than earlier instances of right-wing extremism across the country. Those events, mostly limited to white supremacist and militia groups, saw more than 100 individuals arrested from 2015 to 2020. But just 14% of those arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 are members of those groups. More than half are business owners or middle-aged white-collar professionals, and only 7% are unemployed."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "That long path, though, has from the start had within it one fundamental flaw. If we are to make sense of wider global trends in insecurity, we have to recognise that in all the analysis around the 9/11 anniversary there lies the belief that the main security concern must be with an extreme version of Islam. It may seem a reasonable mistake, given the impact of the wars, but it still misses the point. The war on terror is better seen as one part of a global trend which goes well beyond a single religious tradition – a slow but steady move towards revolts from the margins."
Sep 11th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Is it not extraordinary that in a country that claims to be as enlightened and advanced as ours, the combined wealth of three individuals – Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett – exceeds the total wealth of the bottom half of Americans? One has to return to the days of the pharaohs of Egypt to find a parallel to the extreme wealth inequality that we see in in America today." ...... "The top tax rate remained above 90 percent through the 1950s and did not dip below 70 percent until 1981. At no point during the decades that saw America’s greatest economic growth did the tax on the wealthy drop below 70 percent. Today it is somewhere around 37 percent. President Biden’s American Families Plan would increase the top tax rate to 39.6 percent – a fairly modest alteration, albeit in the right direction. It is true that there was a time when the top marginal tax was even lower than it is today: in the years leading up to the Great Depression it hovered around 25 percent."
Sep 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "But Biden can’t be blamed for the rise of the Taliban, or the fragile state of a country that has seen far too many wars and invasions. The US should not have been there in the first place, but that is a lesson that great powers never seem to learn."
Sep 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "The world is only starting to grapple with how profound the artificial-intelligence revolution will be. AI technologies will create waves of progress in critical infrastructure, commerce, transportation, health, education, financial markets, food production, and environmental sustainability. Successful adoption of AI will drive economies, reshape societies, and determine which countries set the rules for the coming century." ----- "AI will reorganize the world and change the course of human history. The democratic world must lead that process."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Although the Fed is considering tapering its quantitative easing (QE), it will likely remain dovish and behind the curve overall. Like most central banks, it has been lured into a “debt trap” by the surge in private and public liabilities (as a share of GDP) in recent years. Even if inflation stays higher than targeted, exiting QE too soon could cause bond, credit, and stock markets to crash. That would subject the economy to a hard landing, potentially forcing the Fed to reverse itself and resume QE." ---- "After all, that is what happened between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the first quarter of 2019, following the Fed’s previous attempt to raise rates and roll back QE."
Sep 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Today’s economic challenges are certainly solvable, and there is no reason why inflation should have to spike."
Aug 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, they have focused on their agenda, which is totally misguided—not by our own account but by the account of the majority of the American population, who view the Republican party as one that has lost its moral footing to the detriment of America’s future generations, who must now inherit the ugly consequences of a party that ran asunder."
Aug 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Now that so many sad truths about Afghanistan are being spoken aloud, even in the major media – let me add one more: The war, from start to finish, was about politics, not in Afghanistan but in the United States. Afghanistan was always a sideshow."--- "....the 2001 invasion was fast and apparently decisive. And so it rescued George W. Bush’s tainted presidency,..." --- "Bush’s approval shot up to 90% and then steadily declined,..."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Taliban’s virtually uncontested takeover over Afghanistan raises obvious questions about the wisdom of US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US and coalition forces from the country. Paradoxically, however, the rapidity and ease of the Taliban’s advance only reaffirms that Biden made the right decision – and that he should not reverse course. ...... The ineffectiveness and collapse of Afghanistan’s military and governing institutions largely substantiates Biden’s skepticism that US-led efforts to prop up the government in Kabul would ever enable it to stand on its own feet. The international community has spent nearly 20 years, many thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars to do good by Afghanistan – taking down al-Qaeda; beating back the Taliban; supporting, advising, training, and equipping the Afghan military; bolstering governing institutions; and investing in the country’s civil society. .... Significant progress was made, but not enough." ....... "That is because the mission was fatally flawed from the outset. It was a fool’s errand to try to turn Afghanistan into a centralized, unitary state. "
Aug 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "But even in the US, which is more lenient than most countries, the principle cannot be absolute. Inciting imminent violence is not permitted. Donald Trump’s speech on January 6, urging the mob to storm the US Capitol, certainly came close to overstepping this boundary. It was a clear demonstration that language can be dangerous. What the internet media has done is raise the stakes; “fighting words” are spread around much faster and more widely than ever before. This will require a great deal of vigilance, to protect our freedom to express ourselves, while observing the social and legal bounds that stop words from turning into actual fighting. "
Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "