Overview of “Leading-from-Behind” in the Middle East

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With the end of the election campaign and subsequent victory of President-elect Donald Trump, now is the time to, not only assess President Barack Obama’s eight years of “leading from behind” foreign policy, but also attempt to prospectively analyze President Trump’s looming foreign policy. The impact of this doctrine change in American diplomacy can best be quantified by looking at the Middle East region which has shown in past decades to be very sensitive to changes in American foreign policy.

Obama’s leading-from-behind doctrine contrasts with that of his predecessor George W. Bush, which was characterized by interventionism. Looking back at Bush’s term, it was during this period that the Middle East was the most unstable; the war in Afghanistan lacked strategic goals and an operations calendar and the war in Iraq has been attributed to a marked rise in sectarian violence. These interventions destabilized the entire region and, it can be argued, led to the rise of today’s ISIS[i]

Moving closer to current day, U.S. diplomacy under the Obama Administration had to contend with a different political environment. President Obama was elected partly for his rhetoric on change and his opposition to the war in Iraq; he had to lead a population tired by a decade of military interventions that brought tremendous financial and human cost[ii]. It was this particular context that pushed the Obama Administration to disengage militarily and politically from the Middle East. I argue that this decision was a mistake for two reasons, one of which was predictable.

The military disengagement from Iraq was unorganized. The US lacked a precise schedule for the gradual withdrawal of troops and failed to properly train Iraqi security forces. At the same time, the political disengagement carried out by the Obama Administration was too brutal in terms of the deep and long implication of the American forces in the region, creating a sudden power vacuum in the region. The Arab Spring gave way to severe political instability in multiple countries, including the undermining of basic governing institutions in Syria, Libya, and Egypt. This is the direct and predictable consequence of the disappearance of the two main stabilizing powers in the region; namely the autocratic leaders at the national level, and the US military with their regional policing role.

Double anarchy and consequences

After the Arab Spring in 2011, the American Administration returned to non-interventionism in the lead from behind doctrine. An illustration of this policy can be seen during the Libyan war. The Libyan intervention divided the Obama Administration between the choices of pro- and anti-military intervention. It was only after appeals from the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as support within the United Nations Security Council for a no fly zone over Libya, that Obama agreed to pursue a military option, but took a back seat to French and British forces. The decision resulted in discreet though decisive help from the US Navy, despite the media mainly showcasing French and British airstrikes.

In Iraq, the US military’s withdrawal and growing instability in neighboring Syria permitted the growth of ISIS in the Middle East. As the threat of ISIS grew, the Obama Administration still chose to lead from behind, by limiting its involvement to logistical support to moderate opposition as well as airstrikes as part of a coalition with a few Arab countries acting as guarantors of the international dimension of the intervention. The US refused to coordinate military operations on the ground, and although American Special Forces are present, Iran is undoubtedly the main leader on the Mosul front[iii].

What can we expect from the new resident of the White House?

There are many indicators hinting at a shift towards an isolationist foreign policy under Trump especially in the Middle-East. These include the recent exploitation of shale gas in the US which consolidate the energy independence, a growing interest in the incredible emerging market in Asia, as well as the fact that discussion on foreign policy has been absent during the American presidential election campaign.

Moreover, the election of Donald Trump, who has repeatedly emphasized his desire to pursue a more isolationist foreign policy, reinforced the feeling in Western countries and in the Middle East, that the United States will continue its strategy of disengagement[iv]. After a military disengagement, now is the ideological one. The message is clear: for the incoming American administration, Washington has no military or economic reason to be involved in the Middle East, interventionism was used to defend American interest, and now it’ s in the US interest to be more isolationist.

The principal political risk in the region is the current implication posed by the international coalition against ISIS, for which the US provides the greatest number of fighter jets. The withdrawal of American forces under the new administration after the end of ISIS will exacerbate the political crisis in Iraq. With a failed state unable to secure Sunni rights or interests and unable to force Iraqi Kurdistan to be a functional part of the federal state, Iraq will maintain the failed state status under influences of regional powers[v].

Indeed, the mistrust of the future American president by multilateral organizations will create a big void in terms of Western input regarding the Syrian conflict resolution process. The other consequence of Trump’s disinterest will be a more direct and violent implication of regional powers in the Middle East Turkey for instance will try to reverse a growing Iranian influence and gain US support by playing on President-Elect Trump’s initial opposition to the American-Iranian deal.

However, regarding the potential repealing of the Iranian nuclear deal, which was a recurring element of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, the US administration will have a hard time aborting the deal, since numerous European companies have already invested billions of dollars in the Iranian consumer market. Indeed, it will be difficult convincing European partners to back out of the agreement despite their own economic interests; Airbus has already signed a contract for 114 planes with Tehran, a deal which represent around 10 billion USD. That is precisely the high cost of isolationism: a loss of international authority, which Washington has monopolized ever since the end of the Cold War.

Is isolationism the new realist vision in international relations?

While Trump’s likely isolationist plans have been decried by Congress and the Pentagon, a majority of Americans now share the sentiment that their government must first and foremost consider their interests and leave other countries to defend themselves[vi]. Isolationism, however, is not only supported by a population, but also by a new realist vision in international relations. Indeed, very influential realist academics such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have also favored isolationist policies, which, for them, will guarantee the supremacy of the United States. This new concept, called ‘’offshore balancing[vii]’’, is a new approach that restricts the deployment of troops to cases of strict necessity or imminent danger.

When it comes to the Middle East, the concept of ‘’offshore balancing’’ translates into a total withdrawal of American troops since, according to Walt and Mearsheimer, there is currently no power that can threaten the vital interest of the US and in case of imminent danger, the US military has the logistical ability to quickly and massively re-deploy within the region. If we conclude the leading from behind policy was one of the causes of instability in the Middle East, the ‘’offshore balancing’’ will probably be a similar source of chaos in the region.


[i] The Guardian : Battle for Mosul : Isis city under attack from Iraqi and Kurdish forces – as it happened, October 17, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2016/oct/17/mosul-battle-iraq-isis-islamic-state-peshmerga-latest

[ii]Reuters Iraq war costs U.S. more than $2 trillion : study, March 14, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-war-anniversary-idUSBRE92D0PG20130314

[iii]The Washington Institute : The battle for Mosul and Iran’s regional’s reach, Decembre 5, 2016, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-battle-for-mosul-and-irans-regional-reach

[iv]CNN : Donald Trump’s foreign policy : ‘America first’, April 27, 2016, http://edition.cnn.com/2016/04/27/politics/donald-trump-foreign-policy-speech/

[v]The Washington Institute : The battle for Mosul and Iran’s regional’s reach, Decembre 5, 2016, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-battle-for-mosul-and-irans-regional-reach

[vi]Foreign policy : Survey says, September 26, 2014, http://foreignpolicy.com/2014/09/26/survey-says/

[vii]Foreign Affairs : The Case for Offshore Balancing, June 13, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-06-13/case-offshore-balancing

Photo credit: Wikipedia

 

About Author

Anas Abdoun

Anas Abdoun is contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). He holds a MA degree in International Relation at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles. Anas is currently working for a consulting firm specialising in oil energy where he analyses geopolitical, security, financial, economic, policy and regulatory risks impacting energy markets in Middle-East, North Africa and, Sub-Saharan Africa.

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