The Washington DC Debate About Pressing Middle East Issues

President Obama’s reelection on November 6th, 2012 offered the Washington DC foreign policy community a chance to continue its debate regarding the administration’s Middle East policies.  Reflecting Washington’s diverse perspectives, advice for the president’s policies during his second term ranged from stay the course to actively intervene in regional crises by not looking so “weak and inattentive.” Despite the administration’s aim to “pivot” its strategic focus to East Asia, it is clear that the Middle East will continue to require close attention, with a conflict raging in Syria and ongoing transitions in numerous other countries. This post focuses on two specific issues facing the administration, the Syrian crisis and Iran’s nuclear program, and highlights the ongoing debate in Washington about the president’s handling of these issues.


The conflict in Syria between the Syrian regime and rebel forces continues to dominate world attention, resulting in over forty thousand deaths and nearly 400,000 documented refugees and many more undocumented. In August 2011, President Obama called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, and the administration has provided non-lethal aid to approved Syrian opposition forces and humanitarian aid to those affected by the crisis. However, the administration has avoided providing arms to the Syrian rebels and has so far rejected a Libya-styled military intervention in the country, though it warns that there will be “consequences” if Syria uses its chemical weapons. Since the conflict began, it has pitted two foreign policy camps against one another – one desiring further U.S. action to support the Syrian rebels and the other warning of unintended consequences in case of an intervention – and the president’s reelection raises the question of whether his administration will take further action or continue with its cautious approach:

Greater action: Those in favor of greater U.S. action against the Assad regime include a number of conservative politicians and think tank scholars who believe that the U.S. has shown a lack of leadership on this issue. For example, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) wrote a Washington Post op-ed in August calling on the administration to provide weapons, training, and intelligence to the rebels. Similarly, conservative think tanks such as the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies have long argued for greater contact with the rebels and the use of airstrikes to establish safe zones for civilians, points recently echoed by Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Max Boot.

Cautious support: Despite these claims about a lack of U.S. leadership, there are a number of scholars who agree with the administrations’ cautious approach towards intervention in Syria. For instance, Brian Haggerty, a doctoral candidate at MIT, concluded in Bloomberg that there are no good options for a limited intervention in Syria, unlike NATO’s actions in Libya. Meanwhile, the Center for American Progress’ Brian Katulis praised the administration’s pragmatic and holistic approach in assuring that regional security interests and U.S. policy aims are not compromised by the conflict. The administration itself has identified numerous challenges to deeper engagement with the opposition, including a fractured opposition-in-exile that was out-of-touch with the realities on the ground; a fear that extremists would take advantage of the turmoil in Syria and take possession of weapons meant to aid to opposition; the complexity and cost of a military intervention in Syria; and Russia and China’s consistent opposition to multilateral condemnations of the Assad regime. In November 2012, the Syrian opposition restructured itself following encouragement by the United States and other international actors and gained immediate recognition by some of America’s allies in Europe, leading the New York Times to report that the U.S. is also close to recognizing the new Syrian opposition.


Amid recent criticisms of Iran by International Atomic Energy Agency, the country’s nuclear program continues to grab headlines. In his first term, President Obama repeatedly assured the public that Iran would not obtain a nuclear weapon under his watch, and during the last four years the U.S. and its European allies have used numerous tools to try and curtail the program, including placing massive sanctions on Iran, launching cyber attacks with Israel aimed at delaying the program’s progress, and holding held numerous rounds of multilateral negotiations with Iran. As the administration continues to craft its Iran policy, it faces a range of recommendations – from stopping Iran’s nuclear program by using all available options to avoiding a military conflict at all costs – from the key actors in Washington:

Increasing pressure: While not pressing for an immediate attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, those in the first foreign policy camp generally believe that President Obama has not presented a credible military threat against Iran, explaining Iran’s refusal to abandon its nuclear program. Over the summer, neoconservative writer Bill Kristol urged Congress to indefinitely authorize the president to use military force against Iran as a symbolic gesture, a position the GOP Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) adopted. Former UN Ambassador under President George W Bush, John Bolton, went as far as to wish negotiations with Iran would fail, since he sees diplomacy as another example of failed American leadership. Support for aggressive action against Iran is not limited to neoconservatives, though, with Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Matthew Kroenig claiming that strategically speaking, the risk-reward calculations of attacking Iran favor such an attack.

Avoiding conflict: Conversely, administration officials and some foreign policy scholars are much more cautious about flaunting military threats against Iran. For example, Kennedy School Professor Stephen Walt accuses Kroenig of purposefully exaggerating the threat emanating from Iran’s nuclear program and underplaying the potentially disastrous consequences of military entanglement with Iran. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directly spoke about one of these consequences, warning that an attack could further entrench the Iranian regime. Likewise, a recent report by the Federation of American Scientists, though not making any policy recommendations, found that the global economic costs of a U.S. bombing campaign could exceed a trillion dollars. Meanwhile UN Ambassador Susan Rice emphasized in the past that only diplomacy could permanently halt Iran’s program, raising questions about the utility of an attack. The administration appears committed to the diplomatic and sanctions route at the present, hoping that Iran’s diminished geopolitical standing in the region and its struggling economy would convince it to end its non-peaceful nuclear ambitions.

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