No, Obama is not “giving away the store”
Christopher Newton | Friday, February 6, 2015
I must confess, I do enjoy using a question for a title. It is inviting to the reader and often piques my own curiosity. Imagine my disappointment, however, when I receive no answer after an investment of precious minutes. I feel betrayed by the author, having been duped into delving headlong into his or her article after being promised the bestowal of an illuminative argument upon me.
This article is a response to Dan Sehlhorst’s Jan. 27 piece, “Is Obama giving away the store?” Not only do I remain uncertain as to where the author stands regarding his own title question, but I also feel that several factually incorrect statements and a number of contentious claims require addressing. Mr. Sehlhorst stated that “a more nuanced approach is warranted” in analyzing the foreign policy of President Obama. I readily concur.
“Evidently, Al Qaeda is still relevant in that they are capable of toppling a U.S. ally in the Middle East,” the article states regarding the recent Houthi-rebel seizure of Sana’a, the Yemeni capital. This is akin to claiming it is Hezbollah that seized Raqqa, Syria, instead of the Islamic State (IS). The group in Yemen that seized the presidential palace in Sana’a, along with sizable portions of territory, is not al-Qaeda. Indeed, the proper moniker for the Yemen-based affiliate of al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
This longer variant denotes the world’s most dangerous offshoot of the highly decentralized group, whereas the shorter title commonly refers to al-Qaeda Central (AQC), the remains of the central command structure of the group based in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Nomenclature aside, the Houthi rebels currently rampaging through Yemen are Zaydi Shia from the north of the country that have an undetermined level of support from Iran, not radical Salafist Sunni based out of northwestern Pakistan.
“In China, the human rights record has improved drastically with greater trade with the West,” the article stated in a wildly optimistic assertion more expected from an apologist for state capitalism than anyone concerned with human rights. If our point of comparison is the genocide wrought by Mao during the Great Leap Forward, then yes, I concede that China has drastically improved its human rights record. If we instead use basic morality for reference, I am forced to find significant fault with the article’s claim.
I am also highly skeptical of the causation implied by this statement — that China’s human rights improvement, whatever we take that to mean, has occurred due to Western engagement. The article applies the same logic to its approval of rapprochement with Cuba, yet the track record of this theory is dubious. Where are the reforms in Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally, or in Israel, an even closer friend? While the former still engages in public beheadings, the latter flips the U.S. obscene hand gestures while evicting tens of thousands of Bedouin Arabs from their Negev Desert homes.
“I was troubled to hear the President declare that American air strikes have stopped the advance of ISIS. This, undoubtedly, is no success,” the article said. Allow me, then, to introduce a bit of doubt. The halting of ISIS advances are not only quite the success, but also all American policy can hope to accomplish in the short-term. As I began arguing in September, ISIS has occupied a large area of land only tenuously held by the Iraqi and Syrian governments. After picking the low-hanging fruit, the ISIS tide crashed against the American-backed redoubts of Baghdad and Irbil, Damascus and the borders of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Moving any further will draw additional countries into direct confrontation with ISIS and force those already engaged with it to intensify their efforts, overextending the IS. Even with the American-supported city of Kobani, Syria, having been held, ISIS is experiencing defeats it has not encountered since the Sunni Awakening in 2007-2008.
In its analysis of Iran, the article argues that, in regards to the Iranian nuclear program, “The suspected connections between Iran and terrorist groups across the Middle East are raising more immediate concerns” and that “There is little that the United States can do to force Iran’s hand short of an invasion or direct action,” as it is unlikely to respond to sanctions. Mr. Sehlhorst underestimates the consequences of Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons program, overestimates the dangers of its patron-client relationships and outright dismisses the value of the U.S. and Iran to each other.
If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, the geopolitics of the Middle East would experience a highly destabilizing shock and the global non-proliferation regime would experience an unprecedented defeat. In combination, this outcome alone would amount to President Obama “giving away the store.” As I have previously written, Iran does indeed back the likes of Hezbollah, Bashir al-Assad and the Houthis. Yet as the U.S. wades into conflict with IS, it is these connections that make Iran invaluable to American policy in the region. We need Iran to rein in Hezbollah, engage with Assad and assist in holding an increasingly fragile Yemeni state together. Iran needs the United States to assist with IS and to orchestrate the lifting of sanctions, which have devastated the Iranian economy and brought the ayatollahs to the negotiating table.
Unequivocally, Obama has not “given away the store” in his foreign policy. When nuance is indeed utilized, it demonstrates numerous successes, a few failures and a number of situations in which it is simply too early to pass judgment.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.