President Obama's Approach to the Middle East and North Africa: Strategic Absence

By Williams, Paul R. | Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

President Obama's Approach to the Middle East and North Africa: Strategic Absence


Williams, Paul R., Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law


Many commentators argue that the White House does not have a policy regarding the Middle East and North Africa. Based on observations of the White House's foreign policy decisions over a breadth of seven years, this article argues that The White House does have a clear policy and it is one of Strategic Absence. The term Strategic Absence is used to describe political behavior that arises from a belief that sometimes, in foreign affairs, it is better to be absent rather than present. Strategic Absence has led to a degradation of American influence in the Middle East and has contributed to deteriorating conflict situations in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. The author describes the six core tenets of Strategic Absence and demonstrates, through case studies, that the Obama Administration has responded to challenges and threats to the United States' strategic interests in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria according to the parameters of the doctrine of Strategic Absence.

CONTENTS

I. INTRODUCTION

II. EMPLOYING THE DOCTRINE OF STRATEGIC ABSENCE IN THE
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

III. THE CONSEQUENCES OF AMERICA'S STRATEGIC ABSENCE IN THE
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

IV. CONCLUSION

I. INTRODUCTION

Unfortunately, [a policy of] disengagement turns out not to work. A drones-first policy has stoked anti-American fervor from Pakistan to Yemen. Libya is on the brink of civil war. Syria has become "the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis any of us have seen in a generation," as Mr. Obama's U.N ambassador said.

Fred Hiatt, Editor, Washington Post (1)

Think tank reports, op-eds by former senior government officials, and news reporting on leaks from current officials highlight the same theme: the degradation of American foreign policy interests in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). (2) Conflict and uncertainty reign across Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Turkey, fueled by violence, dissention, and the ever-increasing threats of ISIS, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and the PKK. In contrast, Egypt currently enjoys a measure of tranquility, the price of which was the reversal of the Arab Spring momentum and a return to heavy-handed governance by an elected military regime.

Many commentators accuse the White House of not having a policy vis-a-vis the Middle East and North Africa. In reality, however, the White House has a very clear, if not well-articulated, doctrine.

The White House has variously described its MENA doctrine as "Don't Do Stupid Stuff", or alternatively "Leading from Behind." (3) From observing the White House's foreign policy decisions over a breadth of seven years, the doctrine can more fully be surmised to be one of Strategic Absence. The term Strategic Absence is used to describe political behavior that arises from a belief that sometimes, in foreign affairs, it is better to be absent rather than present. (4)

The White House's doctrine of Strategic Absence is built around the following core elements: narrowing the definition of American strategic interests; (5) avoiding the lure of human rights driven policy and actions; (6) shifting responsibility for international conflict management to regional actors and international partners while pursuing "partnership lite"; (7) limiting belief in the United States' ability to positively affect change; (8) minimizing U.S. military involvement overseas while at the same time maximizing the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS); (9) and generally relying upon accommodation (some would say appeasement) as a viable basis for accomplishing American strategic interests. (10)

II. EMPLOYING THE DOCTRINE OF STRATEGIC ABSENCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

During the past seven years, the United States has faced challenges to its strategic interests in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria. The United States also faced existential threats from the nonstate terrorist organizations of AQAP and ISIS. …

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