Obama’s Middle East Policy Has Been a Complete Failure – Or Has It?


The media needs new content daily. And in part because of this, the American public has a short attention span. Add to this that Americans are less well-informed on foreign affairs than any developed country, the Middle East becomes the odd TV clip or social media tweet.

The reality is that the United States is engaged in deadly wars in many parts of the Middle East. People are being killed and made homeless. And huge amounts of money are being spent. It all started with George Bush Jr. Prodded by his Vice President Dick Cheney, he made two huge foreign policy mistakes:

  • Iraq and getting rid of Saddam Hussein. That action destabilized a significant part of the Middle East.
  • The second action, disbanding the Iraqi military, provided a ready supply of men with guns for the terrorist groups that emerged.

Below, I give some details on two of the major wars – Afghanistan and Iraq. We should not forget what havoc these wars caused and huge amounts of money wasted. I then suggest that Obama’s policies, while not being as bad as the Bush/Cheney policies, have not been effective in furthering US interests in the Middle East. For the latter part of the piece, I will be joined by Richard Rust, who worked as a top aide to US Senator Daniel K. Inouye, in senior positions in the administrations of President Carter and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, as well as contributing op-ed commentary on US politics and government to the Buenos Aires Herald. Richard will argue that given the circumstances, Obama has done as well as anyone could.

The Numbers

Summary numbers on war fatalities are presented in Table 1. There should be clear and realizable objectives to justify a continuation of these wars.

Table 1. – Deaths, 2001-2016

Sources: http://icasualties.org/, https://www.iraqbodycount.org/

Table 2 provides data on the past and projected costs of these wars. They are significant.

Table 2. – Past and Projected Middle East War Expenses

Source: Costs of War, Watson Institute

Table 3 provides a breakdown by country on at least some of these expenses. For reasons to be discussed below, the near $44 billion request for Afghanistan is special.

Table 3. – Overseas Contingency Expenses by Country (mil. US$)

Source: Costs of War, Watson Institute

RR: “It’s too early to say.” was the response of Zhou Enlai, China’s legendary premier, when he was asked in the early 1960’s what he thought was the historical impact of the French Revolution. That’s a useful caution for anyone trying to measure the record of a President about to leave office. In addition, although presidencies may run in 4 and 8 year cycles, the world and history do not.

The lack of media coverage of America’s unending wars is a symptom, not the cause of public indifference. The all-volunteer military assures that a minuscule percent of the US population is directly impacted by the deadly conflicts. The American people are hardly aware of the Afghanistan and Iraq fatalities enumerated by Elliott or of the thousands more innocent men, women and children who have been killed or maimed or made homeless over several decades by US forces across the Middle East, Africa and Central America. As US bombs and bullets fly around the globe, back in the homeland – Obladi-Oblada – life goes on and Americans turn a blind eye or silently cheer, having embraced the fiction that killing them over there means we won’t have to kill them here.

Today’s corporate media, no longer in the business of educating and informing the public, exists to entertain. Wars, where US troops kill or get killed, or where US drones rain destruction, disturb the public’s tender sensibilities. So they are best ignored on the nightly news. It’s Hollywood’s job to feed the public appetite for shoot ‘em up, blow ‘em up entertainment.

The American political structure, the Pentagon and the foreign policy establishment have been in bed with the arms industry for decades. Not surprisingly, self-perpetuating war has been the nation’s foreign policy default mode since the Reagan administration.

EM: I am reminded of Eisenhower’s 1961 warning. I quote from his speech:

“A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction….Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience…. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military/industrial complex…. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

 RR: Tragically, since Eisenhower spoke, the military industrial complex has gained the “unwarranted influence” he feared. Since Ike left office, the “complex” was not so much “compelled” to expand in order to meet a growing threat to the nation’s security. Rather in it’s to eagerness to hold sway over an ever-growing share of the nation’s material and financial resources, it spent decades exaggerating security threats and creating enemies where none had previously existed.

To fulfill its ambitions, the “complex” engaged in a sophisticated and unrelenting domestic political, propaganda and public relations campaign, mostly under the radar. While the citizenry ignored Ike’s admonition, American politicians, intellectuals and business interests, often for less than honorable purposes, embraced and legitimized the ”complex”. It has become the most powerful and pernicious singular presence in US life.

The litany of missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq presented by Elliott could be replicated looking back at every Administration and each military conflict since Vietnam. So if Obama has failed, he is just following precedent.

The US military’s post World War II less-than-impressive history, including the Korean stalemate, the Vietnam defeat, the Afghanistan quagmire and the draw in Iraq and half a dozen miniwars “have not been effective in furthering US interests” almost anywhere, to adopt Elliott’s phrase. Instead, it has proved that having the most powerful military in the world doesn’t necessarily mean a hell of a lot. Unfortunately, Congress hasn’t got that message.

Critics of modern presidential wars typically give Congress a pass, but Congress has the constitutional responsibility to fund the military, set the terms and conditions of the use of American military power and to declare war. Since the Truman years, Congress has consistently failed to fulfill its responsibilities.

With consent from the establishment intelligentsia and media punditry, Congress leaves wars to the presidents. They are only pro-active making sure there are no official attempts to look too closely at any past military failures. The exception comes when some partisan advantage might be gained. The shameful Hillary Clinton witch hunt on Benghazi is a case study.

All of these realities, as well as an economy in free-fall, faced Obama when he took office. His basic foreign policy strategy has been, within the realities of a terror-challenged world, and with as little drama as possible, to wean America from its war addiction.

EM: The only thing that will wake US citizens up to what is happening is a return of the draft. Well-educated and politically powerful parents will start asking whether US military action is warranted.

RR: I agree.


The US had only one reason to go into Afghanistan: to “get” Bin Laden for being the mastermind behind the 9/11 bombings. I remember at the time of 9/11 hoping/praying that the US would not follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union by getting into a hopeless and unwinnable ground war. But it did. And since 2002, the US Congress has appropriated nearly $103.2 billion to “rebuild” Afghanistan through such programs as “Operation Enduring Freedom”. This is a huge amount: it is more than the United States has ever spent on reconstruction of any other nation. And this number does not include most of the US military costs.

These monies have not been spent effectively. No. Corruption is rampant and there are numerous examples of mismanagement on a grand scale. Of the 177 countries rated for corruption by Transparency International, Afghanistan tied for last place with Somalia and North Korea. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that in 2012, “half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe” and that bribes paid to public officials amounted 20% of the country’s GDP.

With such a rich corruption history, it is not surprising that a significant portion of US monies disappeared. And with opportunities so obvious, it should also not be surprising that members of the US military (Army, Air Force, Army National Guard, and their contractors) got involved. The most common activities involving Americans were bribes for contract awards and stealing fuel.

Perhaps the quintessential example of Afghan corruption involves the Kabul Bank. Before its near collapse in 2010, the Kabul Bank was Afghanistan’s largest private bank. Individuals and companies associated with the bank stole about $935 million from the bank, largely through fraudulent loan activity. Afghanistan’s central bank covered the losses, which represented about 5% of the country’s GDP. Concerns over the soundness of the bank caused a run during which the bank lost about half of its $1.3 billion deposits.

When such large amounts must be spent quickly, there are bound to be some waste. The Afghan experience bears this out. Some examples:

  • SIGAR recently requested all records relating to the planning and construction of an unoccupied 64,000-square-foot building at Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province that was just completed. It requested these records because the building was originally intended to serve as a command headquarters in support of a troop surge that ended in September 2012.
  • The Helmand Power Program (KHPP) is one of the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) largest active programs in Afghanistan, with a total estimated cost of about $266 million. An additional $75 million has been added to fund the installation of an additional turbine unit. SIGAR is concerned that with this cost increase to $345 million, KHPP may no longer be economically viable. According to a 2012 USAID economic analysis of KHPP, the costs of the program would outweigh its benefits if actual costs exceeded the original cost estimate of $266 million costs by more than $43 million.
  • SIGAR has reported that USAID cancelled 17 projects after some $212 million had been disbursed.

RR: Whenever commentators decry the inevitable corruption that arises when the US spreads its money around the globe in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, I can’t help but think of Captain Renault in Casablanca, as he enters Rick’s Café Américain, saying in mock horror “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

EM: Consider finally some of the stated objectives of the Afghan initiative and whether they have been achieved:

  • A sustainable and secure Afghan government that will be able to thwart initiatives of the Taliban and other terrorist groups – NO.
  • A real democracy – NO.
  • Poppy reduction – NO.
  • Improved status of women – NO.

So what will happen in Afghanistan when the US leaves? It will go back to what it was before the US arrived: a tough, tribal country where force rules.

In Afghanistan, there is nothing the US can do but kill more civilians and pour money down a corrupt rat hole.

Question: For the amount of money and threat to solders, there has to be a reason for keeping troops in Afghanistan – what is it?

RR: Bin Laden chose well when he established his Afghanistan sanctuary. The difficulty the US and its Afghan counterparts have had ridding the country of thugs and terrorists was presaged by every prior attempt to make a nation out of a scruffy collection of unconnected tribes whose members never see the need for one. Failure goes back to Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, various Empires, including the Persians, British and Sikhs, as well as the Soviet Union.

Since the Afghan invasion began, it has been a strategic and tactical hash that the Pentagon has pursued with little enthusiasm. W prematurely shifting to Iraq committed the “original sin” of the war on terror. It led to multiple strategic military do-overs and opened Pandora’s Box across the region. Fifteen years on, it remains an intractable mess.

Given history and Elliott’s framing of the evolution of the US presence, getting out of Afghanistan completely sounds like a good idea. It sounded the same to Obama from 2008 through 2015. The relatively minimal US military presence and activity that the low fatality numbers since 2014, document that Obama long ago turned away from grandiose objectives, which are now mostly rhetoric.

Elliott is right to ask now, “why are we still there and what is the case for remaining there in any capacity?” Obama would answer with several observations. First, as regards the substantive case, the nation’s top military, intelligence and foreign policy advisers argue that whether the US remains in Afghanistan or not, terrorism emanating from the region will continue. Given its strategic geographic location and the investments that have already been made, it offers the best location for a sizable and critical operational base, that can monitor the region – and, if need be – strike, Islamic extremist targets including ISIS and al Qaeda. Having such a base would not constitute the US remaining “at war” in Afghanistan except to the overly-literal.

Going beyond the national security policy grounds, Obama has understandably felt a reluctance to walk away from the mess the US made. Pressure from US allies in the region, who worry about the future if the US decamps, has been unrelenting.

NATO, not the US, now leads the Afghan mission providing training, advice and assistance to the government and armed forces. It seems ironic when those who insist the US avoid unilateral military actions, then argue it should unilaterally tear up long-standing treaties and withdraw from multilateral anti-terror missions that cooperating allies see as critical to their security. Just sayin’.

 Finally, Obama has always known that if he just pulled up stakes, poisonous US politics would have exacted a high price from him and any in Congress who would support him. Suicidal and long term electoral implications for Democrats were guaranteed. The never ending absurdities about the attack on Benghazi and about closing Guantanamo would look sane. “Who lost Afghanistan and Pakistan” would be the question that either put Trump in White House or let Republicans put him in their rear view mirror when he lost.

 EM: Oh, so losing 50 Americans is OK, even though there is no good reason for us being in Afghanistan? I wonder what the families of those who have died think.

RR: I never said and would never say losing one American in a useless war is OK. Still, the rhetorical heartstring tugging doesn’t negate my simple statement about the size and nature of current US military activities in Afghanistan. Since the Korean “police action” over 100,000 US troops have “died in vain”, if that is the phrase one applies to casualties in wars the nation abandoned or lost.


In Afghanistan there was, at least at the outset, a legitimate case for “going in”–to get Bin Laden. Not so in Iraq. The alleged reason – weapons of mass destruction – was clearly fabricated by a group now closely associated with the American Enterprise Institute (Bolton, Cheney, Kagan, Perle, Wolfowitz). The most plausible reason for them wanting to invade Iraq was its oilfields – they believed that US control of Iraqi oil justified the invasion. They also knew they could not sell that justification to the American public – hence the cooked up “weapons of mass destruction” claim.

Equally amazing: there was no plan on what to do after the invasion. The result was complete anarchy with looting and destruction on a grand scale that most Iraqis blamed on the Americans.  The complete US incompetence is set forth in Charles Ferguson’s excellent documentary on the Iraqi war – No End In Sight. It showed how many of the decisions that had to be made were disastrous. Such things as telling the military they no longer had jobs and thereby creating a large, well-armed, angry cadré on the streets.

Whenever the government tries to spend large sums of money quickly, most will not be well spent. And the chaos of war makes the problems more severe. For Iraq, a Special Inspector General (SIGIR) was appointed to look into how money was spent/wasted in Iraq.

  1. Between 2004 and 2009, the US State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) made 12 grants for a combined value of $248 million. The grants were made to two US NGOs for “democracy-building” activities in Iraq: the International Republican Institute (IRI) – John McCain Chairman and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) – founded by Madeleine Albright. Of the $114 million in grants that SIGIR examined, almost 60% was spent on security and overhead costs—even though both organizations located themselves in Erbil, probably the safest city in Iraq. State Department officials could not provide documentation showing whether the IRI and NDI grants were meeting their goals.
  2. Philip Bloom was hired as a comptroller for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in South Central Iraq despite being a convicted felon. CPA received more than $20 billion for redevelopment of Iraq. In November 2005, Bloom and Robert Stein (a contractor) were arrested, convicted and imprisoned for fraud. Stein rigged bids affecting 20 construction contracts. Bloom received more than $8.6 million in fraudulent contract kickbacks. In return, he provided multiple co-conspirators—including an Army colonel and two lieutenant colonels—payments of more than $1 million in cash, expensive vehicles, airline tickets, computers, and jewelry.
  3. The Al-Sumelat Water Supply Project was awarded $743,650 in February 2005, to design and construct a pipeline that would carry potable water from an existing main to several communities. A June contractor report and a PCA study indicated that the project was 100% complete. In addition, an Iraqi employee reported that the pipeline had been pressure tested and had all the components required by the contract. However, an SIGIR inspection team visited the site and found that the “completed” project was merely a long ditch, containing mostly unconnected pipes.
  4. In March 2004, Parsons was awarded $243 million to construct and equip 150 primary healthcare centers across Iraq by December 2005. By 2006, 6 of the centers were complete even though $186 million had been spent. Eventually, 133 centers were completed at a cost of about $345 million or about $102 million more than originally estimated.
  5. The Pipeline River Crossing, Al Fatah, Iraq – After ignoring a geologist’s warning, almost $76 million was wasted by attempting to repair a set of damaged oil and gas pipelines by rerouting the pipelines under the Tigris River. Drilling through the loose, sandy soil beneath the river proved to be impossible, and the project was abandoned in August 2004.
  6. DynCorp got a $1.8 billion contract from the US Department of State. State issued a $152 million task order to support 500 police trainers for an initial 3-month period and to construct 6 camps for the training program. $43.8 million was spent for the manufacture and temporary storage of residential camp trailers that were never used. Another $36.4 million went for weapons, armored vehicles, body armor, and communications equipment that could not be accounted for. State had not validated the accuracy of invoices it had received from DynCorp and, as a result, did not know what it received for approximately $1.2 billion in expenditures. A full audit of all DynCorp invoices on the contract led to the recovery of $600 million in unsupported charges. Overall, $2.5 billion in U.S. funds was deemed vulnerable to waste and fraud.

EM: Given the huge corruption and wastage in Iraq, what can now be accomplished? Should the US remain in Iraq? Overall, US policy is to get rid of terrorist groups that threaten the US. The ISIS threat is real, and the US, by leaving Iraq when it did, created a vacuum that ISIS filled. The notion that the US had to leave because the Iraq government was unwilling to provide safeguards is nonsense. The US invaded and wiped out the Iraq military. The US should have insisted on remaining. But Obama, eager to get US soldiers out of the Middle East, overriding the military’s objection, pulled almost all troops out of Iraq. The result: large regions of Iraq were taken over by ISIS. And Obama has reluctantly sent troops back to Iraq.

RR: No one would take issue with the catalogue of disastrous events that marked the US involvement in Iraq during the Bush/Cheney years, culminating in the destabilization of the entire Middle East. In the past, Elliott and I agreed that fifty years of global disorder can be ascribed, to a great degree, to the US telling the world what to do – using force, threats and bribes to get its way. But we part company, when he argues that Obama could or should have told President Maliki, sovereignty be damned, to tear up the binding agreement just signed with W, which mandated a full troop 2011 withdrawal date.

I truly don’t understand how critics of Obama, other than the neocon dissemblers trying to make\ him a scapegoat for the entire Bush/Cheney fiasco, can blithely suggest that POTUS should not have been all that worried about reneging on the core promise of his candidacy and to do so in the earliest days of his presidency. Or how they maintain that his campaign promises notwithstanding, he should have risked the anticipation and hopefulness his historic election gave the country, when none of his top military or foreign policy experts presented any compelling reason.

There had been no outcry when W announced the departure date. But as soon as Obama was in charge, the drum beats started. Predictions of potential trouble if the US pulled out were vague at best, unsupported by any specific or credible intelligence. Iraq had almost 1 million men on active military duty or in the active reserve, along with a massive store of munitions and an officer corps which received extensive training. In the run up to W’s decision, few in Washington opposed turning Iraqi security over to its massive army or argued that it might not be up to the job.

The claim that Obama could have forced Maliki’s hand is equally unpersuasive, as is the intimation that leaving 5,000 or 10,000 US troops in Iraq would have guaranteed ISIS never emerged. My guess is POTUS believed, as I believe, that, in effect, Iraq threw the US out of its country.

Under no circumstances were the Iraqis going to change their mind. Clearly Maliki wanted a free hand to consolidate his power without Obama looking over his shoulder. Both were not unhappy to be free of each other. If there was a vacuum that ISIS filled, it was created by the al Maliki government, another disastrous creation of Bush/Cheney. When Maliki became President, he established a corrupt, despotic, divisive sectarian government that tore the country apart and undermined US interests.

Maliki misused the military to repress his political opponents and refused to give the Sunnis and Kurds a share of power. The Iraqi political elites’ greed and hunger for power led them to ignore the day-to-day fate of the people, failing public services, the lack of jobs for working age Iraqis and worse. As Maliki cemented his hold on power, ISIS came out of hiding. It had festered since 2004 when its early leaders, sharing the same Iraqi jail cells, began to plot its entry into the field of battle.

One has to wonder how a residual US security force of a few brigades could have altered the tragic course Maliki followed or how it’s existence would have convinced ISIS leaders to bottle up their anger and hate permanently and to abandon any ideas of revenge. Neither proposition makes a lot of sense.

EM: On this, Richard and I disagree. The highly paid and well-informed US intelligence officials should have anticipated what would happen when we pulled out. And the thought that Maliki, a weak leader, could tell us to leave after we got rid of Saddam, a powerful dictator, does not ring true.

RR: When I said I believe, in effect, the Iraqis threw the US out of their country, I should have added that W accepted the terms, conditions and schedule of the departure, because he welcomed being handed the one-way ticket home and most of the Pentagon did as well.

I am willing to concede that it is quite possible, Cheney, the nation’s “highest paid and well-informed official”, watched Maliki and W sign the binding 2011 withdrawal date agreement, smiling like a Cheshire Cat over the potential trap it set for Obama, the hapless greenhorn, who, if things went bad, could be left holding the bag and blamed for everything that went before.

The suggestion that because the US removed “powerful” Saddam, “weak” Maliki should have feared he might be canned does not ring true to me. Did the US really have the option to overthrow Maliki for refusing to let American troops occupy Iraqi land permanently?

Maliki was put in power by W’s team and then elected by the Iraqi people. He was on solid political ground, when Obama – half-heartedly – authorized the Pentagon to explore whether a permanent US military presence, rather than the full withdrawal, could be worked out. As noted earlier, the last thing Maliki wanted was to govern with Obama breathing down his neck. Had he caved to US demands his hold on power might have very quickly begun to slip.

Russia and the Middle East

EM: After Obama let Syria cross the “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, Putin sensed weakness. He sucked the US into supporting the Syrian government and Russia in eliminating all rebels. The agreement allowed the US to identify “good rebels” but the US could not. And today, Russia and the Syrian government have effectively taken over Syria. Any hope to remove Assad is gone. My solution on Syria: there is nothing the US can do to further its aims in Syria: the US should withdraw from Syria and let Assad and Putin get rid of ISIS there. Am I happy about this conclusion? No. But the US has been behind the 8-ball from the start in Syria with conflicting objectives. And since the game is lost, the US should leave.

RR: To claim Putin adopted an aggressive posture in the Ukraine and elsewhere after he “sensed weakness” in Obama is arm chair mind-reading which ignores Putin’s history. Just review Putin’s actions in the Russo-Georgian conflict during the Bush/Cheney era, when US “weakness” was not a perception.

The problem with Putin is Putin. His ultimate goal is to somehow restore Russia to its historic place at the center of global geopolitics. That ambition has driven him since the fall of the Soviet Union. As Russia’s supreme leader, he has alternated playing good cop and bad cop; made bold moves, then fell back; continually changed his focus within his own country and abroad; played international peace maker and then rattled his sword; offered global cooperation and then gave the West a one-finger salute.

The more compelling explanation of Putin’s aggressive posture against the US, that many close observers now accept, is that Obama’s resolve, rather than any weakness, infuriated Putin prompting him to frequently lash out and make his aggressive moves.

Obama calling Russia a “regional power” that acted out of “weakness” when it seized Crimea, then implementing, maintaining and escalating crippling US and allied economic sanctions in response; unwaveringly supporting NATO efforts to counter Russian posturing in the Balkans and Eastern Europe; and keeping Putin at arm’s length have, in combination, denied Putin his longed-for credibility as serious player on the world stage. With Trump elevating Putin to the pantheon of strong world leaders, little surprise the KGB is trying to elect him.

Elliott is correct that from the beginning the US was in a next to impossible situation in Syria, as it undertook to help a ragtag insurrection against a ruthless and powerful dictator. Russia was in a better position, supporting the actual government, which had a massive military, controlled the country and enjoyed the support of the majority of it’s’ citizens.

Objective experts pretty much agree that from the outset, figuring out who were “good rebels”/“unreliable rebels”/ and “bad rebels” was a mug’s game. Accordingly, Obama treaded carefully. In too many earlier situations US arms that went to support “friendly” forces ended up in unfriendly hands and Americans were killed with US bombs and bullets.

Obama has acknowledged his “red-line” challenge to Assad was ham-handed. Any hope of removing Assad, which was always a hard case, was dashed the day Putin came to his rescue.

Putin’s actions were inevitable given Russia’s prior closeness to Assad and Vlad’s superpower ambitions. Once Russia was directly in the picture, all bets were off. The claim that now the US supports Syria and Russia eliminating all rebels is baloney. With the civil war unresolved and ISIS now in the fray, realistic US options are hard to decipher, never mind to select.

EM: Kerry wasted a tremendous amount of time trying to work with Russia in Syria – at last he has finally given gave up! Leave it to Russia and Assad to get rid of ISIS in Syria. The US should focus its efforts to get rid of ISIS elsewhere.

RR: To put in perspective Kerry’s use of his time, whether in trying to find headway with Syria or movement on the Israel/Palestinian stalemate, ask “had the Cuban missile crisis gone the other way, would the few surviving historians (assuming there were any) conclude that JFK’s attempts to get Khrushchev to back down was a waste of time”?

Is it really fair to disparage Kerry’s herculean effort to find a political solution to the Syrian tragedy as a waste of time? The negotiations came a cropper less than a month ago, as a fragile ceasefire collapsed after US planes mistakenly attacked Syrian troops. Within a matter of days, both the US and Russia indicated that the effort to bring about a negotiated cease fire had run its course, only later in the week, to announce Kerry and his Russian counterpart are talking again. Might the definitive negative judgment be a premature?

The Secretary of State is the nation’s diplomat-in-chief. The job description is to find diplomatic means to meet the nation’s foreign policy objectives and to keep trying until there is nothing left to try. The approach embraced by Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry has been, in effect,

“never give up and never give in” trying to make peace. Like it or not, Russia has had long involvement and influence in the Middle East. That includes a decades-old relationship with Syria. Refusing to engage with Putin was never and is not now a credible option.

The reason is simple. The situation in Syria poses grave dangers to everyone involved. In addition, like it or not, the US must engage with Putin in the Middle East and elsewhere and it must use sticks, carrots and anything else it can think up. Good cop Putin cooperated with the US numerous times to help lessen tensions in the Middle East. He played a positive role in defusing a potential disaster, as Obama was on the verge of launching a US incursion into Syria.

Getting Assad to destroy his chemical weapons cannot be dismissed as a “so what”!

It is only recently, à la Nixon who tried to scare the North Vietnamese into a peace settlement,

Putin has started to play the unpredictable madman, who must be feared, is ready to stare down the US hinting at nuclear Armageddon, even willing to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election. The odds as assessed by seasoned Kremlinologists is that Putin is posturing, playing to his home audience and setting the ground for a “reset” in US/Russia relations with the new President, rather than being really off his rocker.

I am no military expert, but the notion that the ISIS fight can be carved up into discreet segments seems problematic. I don’t get how the battle against ISIS in Syria should or can be the sole reserve of Assad and Putin. The same way the battle in Iraq cannot be the sole reserve of Iraq and the US. When I look at the map of ISIS-held land, national borders disappear. I wonder how potential disasters can be avoided if US and Russian planes are strafing and dropping ordinance

on ISIS in a combustible dance in the sky.

The battle against ISIS goes beyond the US, Russia, Syria and Iraq. Numerous Arab states are engaged. Logic argues some level of active coordination among all the players is critical.

To me, the fight against ISIS looks to be complex, daunting and immune to simple constructs. But hey, what do I know of war? I didn’t even join ROTC at college!!!


EM: What was point in helping overthrow Qaddafi? Creating a democracy in Libya – ridiculous, leave it alone!

RR: Obama has said not insisting that the allied coalition which intervened in Libya prepare and carry out a plan for the aftermath of Gaddafi’s downfall is his biggest regret from his time in office. Still, an implication that Obama was singularly responsible either for the genesis or the execution of the Libyan intervention is just wrong. 

The point of the Libyan intervention was unambiguous. It was about an impending genocide and had nothing to do with democracy or nation building in Libya. In retrospect it probably should have.

France, the UK, Italy and Spain feared a massive humanitarian crisis was about to engulf Libya and North Africa, as the civil war was spinning out of control. Tens of thousands of refugees trying to leave Libya seemed inevitable, with dire consequences for European security. They pleaded for US participation in what became a multinational military coalition. The military actions were under coalition and ultimately NATO control, not the US military. 

Obama still believes that intervening was “the right thing”. So do I. 

  • Would it have been better that Obama had stayed on the sidelines as tens of thousands of Libyan men, women and children were slaughtered? 
  • What would have a US refusal to heed the pleading of key allies meant for the reputation of the US as a great, moral power committed to multilateral cooperation to fight terrorism and protect global human rights? 
  • If Qaddafi had been left to successfully carry out genocide and remained in power today, do we assume Libya would be stable and North Africa would be free of ISIS or other terrorists? 

EM: Beyond focusing all US efforts on getting ISIS out of Iraq, we should increase pressure on our Middle East allies (?), Saudi Arabia in particular, to put more of its military into getting rid of ISIS.

RR: The Saudis have been attacking ISIS in Iraq and Syria since 2015. Riyahd has formed a coalition of Islamic countries to fight ISIS. I do not have the requisite information to judge how adequate or inadequate the Saudi effort is proving to be. Conflicting reports – some hopeful and some not – are filed daily about what is happening on the numerous battle fronts, as US, Russian and Arab forces confront ISIS.

All we know from experience is that wars are easy to start and hard to end. We also should have learned that assuming we can get other nations to do our bidding on how, when, where and in what way we expect them to act is a pipe dream, regardless of who is President.

EM: Saudi uses US weapons almost entirely. We talk to them about issues that concern us, making it clear that further military support dependent on them doing more to support what we want accomplished in Middle East – getting rid of ISIS.

RR: Oh! So the Saudis couldn’t and wouldn’t get their weapons elsewhere, faced with an ultimatum? Who knew !!!!

EM: The Philippines president is threatening to buy weapons elsewhere. I quote from a New York Times article on the problems in doing this. Saudi Arabia would face the same problems. I quote an article from Reuters:

“Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte would face major obstacles to following through on his threat to reduce purchases of U.S. weapons in favor of Russian and Chinese arms, including re-training a military deeply accustomed to working with the United States, experts said on Tuesday. The Philippines is the largest recipient of U.S. funds in the Asia-Pacific region under the Foreign Military Financing program, which is provided by the United States to help countries purchase American-made weapons and equipment. It received $50 million under FMF in the 2015 fiscal year.

That dependence on U.S. weapons and systems means the Philippine military would have to re-tool its command-and-control structure if it wanted to switch to Chinese or Russian systems, said Richard Javad Heydarian, a professor at De La Salle University in Manila and a former advisor to the Philippines House of Representatives. Though Russia in particular could offer high-quality weapons systems, the Philippines would have to take into account their interoperability with existing American stock, said Lyle Goldstein, an expert on Chinese maritime issues at the U.S. Naval War College. ‘You can’t just buy radar from this country and a missile from that country,” Goldstein said. “The weaponry has to work together.’”

RR: I agree that like with the Philippines, the Saudis would face difficulties shifting from the US to Russia and/or China for major weapons purchases based on an ultimatum from Washington. The obvious question is if Elliott is correct that the Saudi action against ISIS is half-hearted is, why? A related question is, if there is a why that has constrained them, can the US force their hand? The answer may be not what some want to hear.


EM: Obama was trained at Harvard Law School where he was known for his negotiating skills and finding Iraq ways to resolve issues through negotiations. These skills do not prepare him to deal with Putin or the Middle East countries. The Middle East countries are controlled by warlords where physical strength wins out. Putin’s ambition is to rebuild the Soviet Union. He senses weakness in Obama so he is advancing in Eastern Europe. And he has now effectively taken over Syria and there is nothing the US can do about it.

Afghanistan: There is no reason to stay. The US should withdraw.

ISIS remains a threat so the US should focus its efforts in Iraq to get rid of ISIS.

RR: Every prior occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania has made the same observation – NOTHING prepares anyone for the presidency. So whether Obama’s law school training has anything to do with his understanding or responses to the challenges posed by Putin and the Middle East is beside the point. If the last 70 plus years have taught us anything, it is that America, whether led by brilliant, dumb or middling presidents, even as the world’s only superpower cannot change the reality that many global geopolitical problems are unsolvable. Any student of history would concede, no doubt, that no part of the world has a greater share of unsolvable problems than the Middle East.

The title of this dialogue includes the words “Obama”, “policy” and “failure”. My Google search for books with a US President’s name and the words “Middle East policy” and “success” in the title produced none. The dictionary defines “to fail” as “to not succeed in what you are trying to achieve or are expected to do.” So using that definition in the realm of foreign policy, Obama has frequently failed, the same as almost every one of his predecessors since FDR, who also made his share of blunders. But the dictionary definition of “to fail” itself “fails” to encompass the range of outcomes in the exercise of foreign policy. In foreign affairs, things are often tried that would be better left untried – outcomes are sought that in reality are unachievable – or do more damage than good in the trying – or produce results that prove disastrous.

Expectations are set by “experts” who display more hubris than vision; or are ill and/or uniformed; who are disingenuous and/or delusional; who grind their ideological or partisan axes; who have repeatedly been wrong; all of whom are free to opine without any risk to themselves. The expectation gurus exercise a form of fortune telling. Historically most so-called foreign policy experts, unlike the gypsies, have proven to have very cloudy crystal balls. This is not to say there are not astute and useful analysts out there. It’s just the complainers seem to get most of the attention in our conflict-addicted opinion arena.

None of this is rocket science, but Obama is one of the few modern Presidents who took it all to heart. Ike, JFK and – yes – George H. W. Bush have been role models. Like them, Obama acted with caution. He too had to accept thwarted ambitions and disappointments. He faced more unrelenting, demeaning, partisan flack than any of them. Like them, he didn’t heal the fractured world he inherited. Still, when he leaves office, like when they left, the state of the world will be marginally changed from when he became Commander-In-Chief. It will remain unpredictable and dangerous.

As I read critiques of Obama’s foreign policy, I am struck by the internal inconsistencies and lack of any comprehensive, compelling alternative blueprints:

  • POTUS did too little by withdrawing from Iraq, so ISIS is partly on him – but now he should only go after ISIS in Iraq – he should leave it to others to deal with ISIS elsewhere – and he should withdraw from Afghanistan, although ISIS and al Qaeda are still at large there.
  • POTUS did too little in Syria to take down Assad, but he did too much in Libya taking down Gaddafi.
  • POTUS should push back hard on Putin in the Ukraine and the Middle East, but the US has been in too many wars for too long.

 Confused? Me too! And in any case it’s now academic. In 90 days Obama is no longer POTUS.

One can argue that Obama was wrong to conclude that the US national interest would not be served by launching a new US war in Syria or playing chicken with Putin in the Ukraine. But invoking his mantra “Don’t do stupid shit” he refused to proceed willy-nilly with actions that could have ended up in catastrophic military confrontations. Obama was no chicken, as Osama bin Laden and dozens of the leaders of al Qaeda and ISIS found out. He is more of an owl.

The noise of the disgusting 2012 election has taken the focus off his strong record as President.

But looking ahead, it is certain that history will treat Obama well.

Obama’s current popularity with the American people proves how badly the Republican obstructionists and his detractors misread him and how his scandal-free, steady-hand-on-the-tiller style leadership would play out and play with the public. To the everlasting despair of the almost treasonous Republicans and to the chagrin of his critics in the commentariat from across the political spectrum, his two terms in office will be categorized as “consequential”

Notwithstanding the setbacks and disappointments in the Middle East, he has taken actions in foreign affairs which promise critical and long term rewards. They include:

  • By refusing to use American power in ways his critics demanded, that he believed would do harm, he leaves the world in a more secure place than he inherited.
  • His strong, steady and measured leadership has repaired much of the damage to the U.S. global image that the Bush/Cheney years had caused.
  • By showing the world a less imperious US with his unambiguous end to any use of torture; acknowledging the legitimacy of grievances about US actions in the past; and reaching out to old enemies to offer better relationships including Cuba, Vietnam and even Iran, he has made it easier for US allies to cooperate on a wide range of issues.
  • His quiet pursuit of positive and cooperative US/China relations has paid dividends on issues including clean energy, nuclear security, peacekeeping, refugee assistance and more.
  • His “pivot” to Asia wisely shifted the focus of US policy-making in a changed world.
  • The nuclear deal with Iran means for the next decade at least, the people of Iran, the US and the world can go to sleep every night without worrying that overnight Iran might join the ranks of difficult nuclear-armed states.
  • By ending the foolish Cuban embargo and bringing a modicum of common sense to hemispheric relations, he opened the prospect of a new era of cooperation across Central and South America.

On the domestic front, his efforts helped to stimulate strong economic performance, job creation and income growth, while lowering fiscal and trade deficits. By putting global warming at the center of national economic and national security policy, he will leave a critical legacy for Hillary to build on. Those major accomplishments put many of his less important international setbacks in perspective. (It should be noted, for what it’s worth, that the country’s military has never been as well-funded and up-to-date.)

Andrew Bacevich, to me the wisest of observers and commentators, who comes out of a long and distinguished military career and lost a son in Iraq, writes “As Obama and his team muddle toward their finish line, we might express a modicum of gratitude. They managed to steer clear of truly epic disasters. When muddling was the best Washington had on offer, they delivered. They may even deserve a hug.”

EM: Robert Borosage’s quote echoes Eisenhower’s concern:

“The country finds itself constantly at war. New presidents inherit the wars of their predecessors. They are faced not with deciding to go to war, but whether to accept defeat in one already in progress….And slowly, the great power declines from the inside out. The wars are costly, running up national debts. Vital investments are put off. Schools decline. Sewers leak. For a long time, circuses distract from the spreading ruin….Other societies become productive centers, capturing the new industries. Some begin providing better education for their citizens, better support for their citizens. Their taxes, not drained by the cost of wars past and present, can be devoted to what we used to call ‘domestic improvements.’

This is a very rich country…. But even wealthy countries must choose. We can afford to police the world – to sustain 800 bases across the globe, to station troops in Korea, in Japan, in Bosnia, in Europe, fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sustain fleets to police the seas….South Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia, Kosovo, the Taiwan straits, the North Korean border, the seven seas – we can do this. But the result is that we are continually at war. And the wars cost – in money, in lives, in attention. And inevitably, domestic priorities, as well as emerging security threats that have no military answers, get ignored. A rich country, Adam Smith wrote, has a lot of ruin in it. We seem intent on testing the limits of that proposition.”

The content above was saved on the old Morss Global Finance website, just in case anyone was looking for it (with the help of archive.org):
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