On June 21, President Obama will attend his last summit with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the six oil-producing monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula. Afterward, press handlers will doubtless spin euphemistically that their “mutual exchange of views” was “full and frank.” In plain English, “brutal” (albeit diplomatically polite) would likely be more accurate.
Fundamental strategic misconceptions underlie Mr. Obama’s Middle East actions, including that America should be essentially neutral in the region’s great conflicts; our efforts, over decades, to protect our interests and allies have reduced, not enhanced, peace and security; and a detached, minimalist US role henceforth will permit local actors, without our meddling, to reach their own accommodations more readily. These precepts have caused innumerable foreign policy blunders, including Mr. Obama’s sustained maltreatment of Israel, the Iran nuclear deal, and the failure to suppress the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terrorist threats.
So stated, the basic isolationism of Mr. Obama’s strategy becomes clear, ironically similar to that advocated this year by several presidential candidates. Describing Saudi Arabia and other Arab friends as “free riders” was both revealing and far from casual, as was the president’s previous sneering dismissal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Obama has implemented his approach as rigorously as possible, albeit sometimes deflected by domestic political calculations or bureaucratic forces, particularly the Pentagon, whose institutional culture never accepted his worldview.
But these are simply exceptions from Mr. Obama’s grand strategy, not examples of his core beliefs. And his persistence means that it will not suffice for a new president just to reverse this or that individual policy. Russia’s air base at Latakia is but one concrete example on an unfortunately long list of such durable adverse consequences that merely changing policies cannot erase.
Similarly, the Iran nuclear deal was a US setback of enormous proportions, a diplomatic Waterloo. It cannot be fixed or renegotiated, but must be immediately, unambiguously terminated by the new president. Make no mistake, however, abrogation alone will not restore the status quo ante. Mr. Obama has fundamentally weakened our position by scuttling international sanctions, unfreezing assets and tolerating belligerent Iranian behavior that shows its utter contempt for the deal itself. Tehran has disproved any idea that acceding to its nuclear demands would cause basic shifts in its international conduct. The new president must, therefore, institute planning to oust the ayatollahs, a necessary but arduous task needlessly complicated by Mr. Obama’s mistakes.
The most urgent task, starting Jan. 20, 2017, and not by rhetoric alone, is emphasizing that America has a new strategic vision, as Ronald Reagan did so well in 1981. Reagan could not overnight reverse the decline in US defense capabilities wrought by Jimmy Carter, nor act decisively everywhere he wanted because the list of inherited problems was so long. Nonetheless, Reagan moved quickly to change both the global perception and the reality of America’s resolve and competence.
The new president should, therefore, stress to Middle Eastern friend and foe alike that America is not neutral in the region’s major, long-standing conflicts, and that a strong US political, economic and military presence in defense of its interests is a force for peace and stability. From this strategic vantage point, some mistakes can be corrected rapidly and dramatically, starting with revamping our Iran policy as noted above. Next, we must be serious about ISIS. Mr. Obama says he aims to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS. His successor can be more economical in his language: His goal should be to “destroy” ISIS, without qualifiers. Remember “the fierce urgency of now”? Seeking to eliminate ISIS more swiftly will save lives, especially innocent civilians around the world who remain at risk of ISIS terrorism as long as its privileged sanctuaries survive intact.
Moreover, America’s Middle East friends also face less well-known perils. Washington, therefore, needs a “rear areas” strategy both to reduce the pressures they face, and to show we understand regional realities. We must assist and encourage the GCC nations to forge a solution in Yemen that effectively eliminates ISIS and al Qaeda there, and thoroughly destroys linkages between the Houthi rebels and Tehran. We must also help Egypt (and Israel) reimpose order on the Sinai Peninsula, perhaps readjusting the role of the Multilateral Force and Observers (created by the Camp David accords) to participate in anti-terrorism efforts. And we need to decide a strategy with Egypt and Israel that chokes off external support for Hamas (especially from Iran) in Gaza.
By proving his resolve on these festering “rear area” problems as well as the headline-grabbing, big-picture issues, Mr. Obama’s successor can show he is indeed serious about ensuring Middle Eastern peace and security. This is a challenge, but hardly an impossibility. Implementing it will require time, attention and resources, and the new president must make his determination clear on Inauguration Day. And it is yet another reason why 2016 should be a national security election.
John R. Bolton, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was originally published by The Washington Times.