Barack Obama’s relative inaction in the Middle East will shape — and, perhaps, taint — his legacy, an ironic twist to a presidency conceived in part by his own criticism of his predecessor's military overreach in the region.
The outgoing commander in chief opted against enforcing his own “red line” against Syrian President Bashar Assad. His decisions against a more robust effort to equip, train and help rebel forces, against using American ground troops, and against removing Assad from power are all part of a complicated mosaic that includes the birth of the Islamic State group, an again-unstable Iraq, and an ongoing refugee crisis that stretches to northern Europe.
His legacy will be marked by each episode, but to what extent remains unclear, foreign policy experts tell Roll Call.
Still, as America’s allies in Europe deal with attacks from Islamic extremists and as right-wing politicians there fan the flames of anti-migrant sentiment, Obama is finding out that when it comes to the Middle East, American presidents are damned if they take action and damned if they don’t — even for what, to them, sound like logical reasons.
According to White House officials, Obama is ever-mindful of George W. Bush’s actions to oust then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. That war started out in a promising trajectory before veering wildly off course, causing his successor to become — and remain — skeptical of the effectiveness of U.S. military action in the Middle East.
The president is expected to stick by his Syria strategy of American and coalition airstrikes backing up local forces on the ground — and occasional U.S. special operations missions — until he leaves office.
He has said this approach is better than “getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East.” But he acknowledges it will “take time” to bear results.
Obama’s conclusion from Bush’s Iraq military adventure continues to drive his Syria policy: Regime change is not the answer.
“Attacking the regime doesn’t necessarily address [the] concern,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Thursday. “We’ve got a test case just over the border in Iraq about what the consequences are for the United States implementing a regime-change policy and trying to impose a military solution on the situation.”
Perry Cammack, a former Middle East policy adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry, said: “If you take a step back, President Obama was elected with two core mandates — get [the] economy back on track [and] second, get the U.S. out of Middle East wars.”
A mixed record?
On the latter, the president has a “mixed record,” added Cammack, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“But he can say that he was able to avoid getting stuck in a quagmire in Syria,” Cammack said. “I suspect how people look back at his Syria policy will come down to how effective they view the U.S. military in dealing with internal conflicts.”
To that end, in trying so hard to avoid a legacy mirroring the 43rd president, Obama’s could resemble that of another Bush.
Obama, as a candidate and in the early years of his presidency, often spoke admiringly of George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy approach of only pursuing U.S. interests and building coalitions. That’s notable now because the 41st commander in chief is largely remembered in security and foreign policy circles for what he did not do when he halted the Persian Gulf War before driving Saddam Hussein from power.
But the senior Bush’s decision was not linked to millions of refugees. Experts say the humanitarian crisis will be a part of Obama’s legacy no matter how the Syrian conflict ends.
“I think the administration’s Syria policy has been a geopolitical, national security and humanitarian disaster,” said James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation. “The White House paid lip service to the just cause of Syrians rebelling against the brutal Assad regime, but never followed through on backing up its rhetoric with effective action.
“U.S. leadership from behind led to a slow-motion, incremental and ad hoc response that demoralized many Syrian rebels, encouraged them to join ISIS and other Islamist extremist groups due to the lack of Western support, emboldened Russia to intervene and allowed the Assad regime to continue using chemical weapons against its own people,” Phillips said.
But White House officials reject such assertions.
“I would vigorously disagree with the suggestion that there is somehow a case that should be made … that the president didn’t do anything in Syria,” Earnest said. “The fact is, the president has built an international coalition with more than 65 members … and we’ve been very focused on that threat.”
Phillips, however, pointed to “raising expectations without taking any effective action to meet those expectations” as the problem with Obama's Syria approach. It’s a point made by Republican lawmakers for years — and largely ignored by the president.
Even some Democrats have expressed a desire for tougher words and actions from Obama, especially after he rebuffed calls to send troops to Syria and Iraq to counter ISIS, following the terrorist attacks in Paris last year.
“I think the president should have been more forceful in his original statements,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin told Roll Call at the time.
Senate Intelligence ranking member Dianne Feinstein said she saw Syria and the Islamic State “a little differently [than Obama]. I do not see them being contained.”
Obama also has resisted calls from some of his allies to take in more Syrian refugees.
Jon Alterman, a former State Department official, said Obama’s Syria approach seems to stem from an aversion to using negotiations to “nudge” global crises toward a resolution.
“Other presidents have seen negotiations as opportunities to move things forward. You keep moving ahead even though you don’t get everything you want,” said Alterman, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But the process puts things in play so that you advance your interests.
“This president and this administration seems to operate under the premise of, ‘We’ll tell you what the outcome is, then you sign up for that outcome,” he said. “This president seems to express frustration when he’s not in control and people don’t get on board with his conclusion."
Other presidents, he said, "have realized they’re not in control, but they nudged things forward toward clearer outcomes.”