Gates, Obama and denying reality in the Middle East
The talk about former Defense Secretary Bob Gates‚Äô blistering new memoir ‚ÄúDuty‚ÄĚ has focused on the description of President Barack Obama‚Äôs tense 2011 Situation Room meeting with his top military advisers. A frustrated Obama expresses doubts about General David Petraeus, then U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and questions whether the administration can do business with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
‚ÄúAs I sat there,‚ÄĚ Gates wrote, ‚ÄúI thought: The president doesn‚Äôt trust his commander, can‚Äôt stand Karzai, doesn‚Äôt believe in his own strategy and doesn‚Äôt consider the war to be his. For him, it‚Äôs all about getting out.‚ÄĚ
Republicans quickly seized on these criticisms as proof Obama was a dithering commander in chief. Democrats, in turn, hailed Obama for standing up to the Pentagon brass.
Yet the book — and the reactions to it — represents something far larger: a fundamental, post-Iraq and Afghanistan change in how Americans view the use of military force. Gates, joining Obama, liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, is arguing that Washington relies on military intervention far too often.
‚ÄúToday, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort,‚ÄĚ Gates wrote in a short excerpt that ran in the Wall Street Journal. ‚ÄúOn the left, we hear about the ‚Äėresponsibility to protect‚Äô civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThere are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do,‚ÄĚ he added, ‚Äúand not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.‚ÄĚ
For all the talk about stepping back from the region, however, the administration‚Äôs Middle East priorities still match those of Republican and Democratic administrations for the last 50 years.
Consider Obama‚Äôs landmark U.N. speech in September, when he laid out his second-term aspirations. He stated that the United States would ‚Äúuse all elements of our power, including military force,‚ÄĚ to secure four ‚Äúcore interests‚ÄĚ in the region.
He vowed to ‚Äúconfront external aggression‚ÄĚ against our allies, ‚Äúensure the free flow of energy,‚ÄĚ dismantle terrorist networks that ‚Äúthreaten our people‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúnot tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.‚ÄĚ
Yet Sunday, when militants affiliated with al Qaeda seized control of parts of the Iraqi cities Ramadi and Fallujah, the White House offered a different scenario.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not in America‚Äôs interests to have troops in the middle of every conflict in the Middle East,‚ÄĚ Benjamin Rhodes, Obama‚Äôs deputy national security adviser, said in an email to the New York Times. ‚ÄúOr to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East.‚ÄĚ
James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told me Tuesday that the real problem is that the White House tries to have it both ways politically — seeking to protect American economic interests even as it talks of withdrawal.
‚ÄúThey want everything,‚ÄĚ Jeffrey said.
During a telephone interview, Jeffrey stated that if Obama wants to achieve the four Mideast goals that he laid out in his U.N. speech, he must maintain the credible threat of military force. This means air strikes and other limited efforts, not Iraq-style invasions. Jeffrey specifically criticized the administration for repeatedly suggesting that any U.S. force would lead to another Iraq.
‚ÄúThe sin of this administration is conflating any use of military force with that,‚ÄĚ Jeffrey said, referring to Iraq.
In an email exchange with me Tuesday, Rhodes flatly rejected that criticism and insisted the administration has used ‚Äúmany different ways to advance U.S. interests.‚ÄĚ
Rhodes noted that the United States uses force in the region, citing drone strikes against militants in Yemen. Washington provides military aid to Iraq, he said, as well as to other governments battling militants. And he said the administration uses diplomacy — referring to current efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran.
‚ÄúIt is dangerous and costly to simply revert, time and again, to the use of military force as the only way to advance our interests,‚ÄĚ Rhodes added, ‚Äúit has to be seen as one tool among many.‚ÄĚ
Rhodes‚Äô points about the administration‚Äôs actual policies are correct. But the White House rhetoric is inconsistent and contradictory.
The administration sounds a pacifist tone in the United States but has carried out covert drone strikes that have killed more than 2,000 people around the world. It talks of upholding international norms but raises the specter of ‚Äúanother Iraq‚ÄĚ when it comes to using conventional military force.
The administration‚Äôs messaging on Syria has been particularly erratic. Obama first demanded President Bashar al-Assad‚Äôs ouster and threatened air strikes if the ‚Äúred line‚ÄĚ of WMD was crossed. He then backed down on both.
For better or worse, the world — and America‚Äôs — economy remain deeply entangled with the Middle East. Even if the United States becomes energy independent, oil from the region fuels China‚Äôs production of cheap consumer goods to Americans. It also supports European growth, which boosts U.S. companies‚Äô profits.
If the Middle East descends into chaos and oil prices soar, the world, and America’s, economy would stall.
Obama‚Äôs U.N. speech was one of his best. He should stand by those four core American interests and, if needed, use limited force as a last resort to defend them.
Yes, the United States should mount fewer military interventions in the region. But that does not absolve Obama — and all of us — from facing difficult choices in the Middle East.
Americans do benefit from a world economic order based on cheap, reliable Middle Eastern oil. Pretending we don’t is a fantasy.
PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama speaks next to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (R) in a Cabinet meeting, at the White House in Washington, June 22, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing
PHOTO (INSERT 1): President Barack Obama (L) delivers remarks as Defense Secretary Robert Gates listens, at the White House in Washington, April 9,2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates walk back to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, June 23, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing