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

May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "
Feb 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human rights abuses under Erdogan are beyond the pale of inhumanity and moral decadence. The list of Erdogan’s violations and cruelty is too long to numerate. The detention and horrifying torture of thousands of innocent people for months and at times for years, without being charged, is hard to fathom. Many prisoners are left languishing in dark cells, often in solitary confinement. The detention of tens of thousands of men and hundreds of women, many with their children, especially following the 2016 failed coup, has become common. It is calculated to inflict horrendous pain and suffering to bring the prisoners to the breaking point, so that they confess to crimes they have never committed."