- February 22, 2010
- 16 minutes read
OBAMA’S GRAND STRATEGY IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND CENTRAL ASIA
America’s grand strategy to sustain its preponderance of global power rests on two pillars; maintaining the unfettered flow of Middle Asia’s energy resources to the U.S.-Atlantic alliance and preventing any single power or constellation of hostile powers from dominating Eurasia. The ascendency of an adversary to political and military dominion over Asia or the Middle East would inevitably reduce America to a second rate power. While Europe remains firmly committed to the Atlantic alliance, American hegemony in Middle Asia is the geo-strategic lynchpin sustaining U.S. global pre-eminence. President Bush’s wars to subdue Iraq and Afghanistan were part of a larger regional strategy to establish a permanent forward military presence on China and Russia’s doorstep while encircling Iran to foment regime change. Seeking to leverage America’s “unipolar moment” after the Soviet Union’s collapse, President Bush sought to achieve overwhelming control of Middle Asian energy resources as a strategic component of preventing the “rise of a global peer.” But wars have uncertain outcomes. Bush’s “imperial overreach” resulted in American engagement in two unwinnable wars that drained its treasury, unleashed domestic dissent and tarnished Washington’s image around the world.
Assuming the Oval Office with America’s power on the wane, President Obama moved quickly to re-position his exhausted U.S. military forces and repair Washington’s damaged international image. By reducing America’s military footprint in Middle Asia President Obama attempted to balance Washington’s global overextension with the need to reinforce America’s core national security interests. However, the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan has resulted in a major contraction of American power in Central Asia and the Persian Gulf. President Obama’s actions may minimize America’s short term losses, but the long-term impact of America’s strategic retreat in Middle Asia will have far reaching implications.
Despite the surge of 30,000 U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan, scheduled troop withdrawals in 2011 were a tacit acknowledgement that the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily. Even if efforts to bring the Taliban into the Karzai government succeed the Taliban will likely remain a powerful non-state actor. The pullout of U.S. forces will also increase Pakistan’s need to preserve Taliban and Al Queda forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as a hedge against India’s encroachment in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The possible outbreak of civil war between the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance majority and the Taliban cannot be dismissed. Intervention in Afghanistan by Russia, Iran, India and Pakistan is also a contingency if the government collapes. At best, Kabul’s weak central government will exercise nominal control over a highly fragmented country—making Afghanistan a very dangerous country and flashpoint for a regional conflagration for years to come.
On the heels of America’s retreat in Afghanistan, Russia and China have strengthened their efforts to push American military bases out of the Central Asian states of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Moscow and Beijing are also seeking to block U.S. efforts to underwrite new energy pipelines from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Western Europe. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) led by China and Russia has evolved as the key vehicle for both countries to exert political and military control over Central Asia’s “Four Stans” that hold 21 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 45 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves. China has substantial energy interests in Central Asia. And maintaining stability in neighboring Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan is critical to China’s efforts to suppress its restive Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjaing Province. In furtherance of China’s efforts to limit U.S. influence in Central Asia, Beijing has been conducting annual joint military exercises with its SCO partners and expanded its naval presence and ports in the Indian Ocean. Assuming all the trappings of a rising world power China’s presence in the Middle East is growing. With 17 percent of its oil imports coming from Saudi Arabia and 15 percent from Iran, more than half of all Saudi oil imports now come from the Middle East. China is not only locking up long-term access deals but purchasing exploration and development rights. China’s economic muscle in the Middle East and Central Asia is undermining U.S. influence and its long-term energy agreements with Iran and the Sudan is further undercutting U.S. attempts to isolate hostile regimes.
Similarly, Russia’s backing of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its strategic energy alliance with Tehran threatens to reconfigure the balance of power in Middle Asia. The convergence of Iran and Russia’s interests in controlling gas and oil pipelines transiting Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Georgia, Armenia and Turkey enhances both countries potential to exert strategic leverage over Europe, India and China—all massive energy importers. In 2008, with Russia’s support, Iran was granted “Observer Status” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Although the 2008 announcement by Qatar, Iran and Russia to form an international gas cartel never matured, the trace lines of an “Eastern Energy Alliance” anchored by Moscow and Tehran is an idea in search of a viable organizational structure. In this light, Russia’s military action in the breakaway Caucus republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that torpedoed Georgia’s ascension to NATO and threatened Tbilisi’s energy pipelines to the Caspian Sea reinforced Moscow’s contention that the former Soviet Union’s republics are its “near abroad” security perimeter.
It remains to be seen whether Russia’s actions are those of a strategic competitor or adversary. However, President Obama’s hopes of securing Russia’s cooperation to derail Iran’s nuclear program by canceling missile defense deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic in return for Moscow’s support for sanctions against Tehran was rejected by President Medvedev. Moscow has helped build and protect Iran’s nuclear program from sanctions precisely because a nuclear armed Iran threatens America’s allies and its dominance in Middle Asia. Increasingly, the Obama’s administration is conceding that it cannot stop Tehran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Therefore the administration is accelerating the deployment of sea and land based missile defense systems in the Persian Gulf while trying to avert a nuclear arms race in the region. With Russia expanding its sale of weapons systems and arms to Iran, Turkey, Syria and most recently Saudi Arabia, Moscow’s re-entry into the Middle East is a unsettling enterprise undermining U.S. influence.
America’s decline in the region has also been complicated by its troop withdrawals in Iraq to avoid entanglement in another Vietnam-style quagmire. For the first time since World War 2, Iraq and Iran–the two nations that policed America’s imperial order in the Persian Gulf–have vacated Washington’s orbit, leaving Saudi Arabia more vulnerable than ever. Notwithstanding the possibility of Iraq fracturing into another round of sectarian violence, Iran has become the dominant foreign influence over Baghdad’s Shi’a-led government. Greater access to Iraqi oil and a friendly Shi’a led government on its rival Saudi Arabia’s border has enhanced Iranian strategic depth across the Middle East and Southern Caucuses. As the leader of the Shi’a Muslims empowerment movement in the Middle Asia Iran also spearheads the anti-U.S. rejectionist front that includes Syria, HAMAS and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Iranian enlargement has effectively split the Middle East into pro-America and anti-American camps. Iran’s ascendency to the nucluer club will only exacerbate the split in the Middle East and exert enormous pressure on the pro-U.S. Gulf states, many of which are already seeking accomodations with Tehran. President Obama hasn’t ruled out missile strikes against Iran to degrade its nuclear program. However, with America’s regional allies opposing air strikes and Iran’s opposition movement against President Ahmadinejad and the clerical establishment growing, surgical strikes against Iran are less likely to occur.
Beyond the dangers posed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Iran’s destabilizing expansion, the Obama administration has been buffeted by other setbacks in the region. The failure to counter Al Queda’s buildup in Yemen and force President Saleh to broker agreements with the Shia-based al Houthi insurgency and the secessionist Southern Movement finds Yemen tottering of the brink of collapse. The volatile situation has left Saudi Arabia with a war on its southern border and Al Queda with a launching pad to attack the Kingdom. President Obama’s attempt to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by demanding Israeli concessions on settlement activities was an embarrassing failure. In reviving the talks Obama hoped to remove the conflict as the source code of Arab—U.S. tension and accelerant of Islamic radicalism across the Middle East. The peace talks debacle demoralized the “Arab street” and squandered the political capital Obama amassed in the Cairo Address. President Obama’s back channel efforts to coax Syria out of Iran’s orbit never got off the ground. Worse still, Turkey’s President Erdogan’s refused to back U.S. sanctions against Iran, stating that Ankara’s energy relationship with Iran and Russia are not negotiable. And although, Hezbollah failed to win Lebanon’s hotly contested parliamentary elections, Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah’s militia forces maintain control of most of the country.
With the United States retreating in Afghanistan and Iraq and U.S. power being challenged across the region, America’s project to pacify and re-organize Middle Asia is faltering. The expansion of Russian and Chinese power in Central Asia and the Middle East is a new reality that must be managed with great diplomatic skill. No longer dominant enough to impose its will on the region, Obama’s foreign policy must strive to achieve two strategic goals. First, prevent a China-Russia-Iran alliance that severely curtails American power in the region. While Moscow and Beijing have substantial interest in Middle Asia, China’s foreign policy seeks to dominate East Asia while Russia’s ultimate fate is tied to continental Europe. Just as Richard Nixon’s “Opening to China” in the 1970’s help divide the two powers, Obama must wedge the Eastern Alliance while simultaneously engaging Moscow and Beijing in policies that promote regional stability, contain terrorism and foster the equitable sharing of energy resources.
Second, the Obama administration must increase its pressure to reform the authoritarian regimes whose repressive policies and stagnant economies are fueling radical movements and anti-American sentiment. America’s defense of dictatorial Arab kings, sheiks and presidents in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen and the other Gulf states has placed the United States on the wrong side of history and the majority of Middle Asian citizens. Middle Asia is engaged in a historical course correction where the artificial borders and nations created by the British and French after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and World War 1 are crumbling. A mass awakening of political, ethnic, Islamic and nationalist movements is in full bloom. So too, the breakup of the Soviet Union has put the energy rich, but predominantly poor Muslim Central Asia states in play as the revival of the “Great Game” drags the world powers into the vortex of struggle for hegemony over energy resources. Accommodations and political space for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Kurds, the Al Houthi, the Baloch, the Shi’a and other must be made. And the sooner the better. The overwhelming majority of these movements are not jihadist struggles and therefore must be embraced. Indeed, recent history suggests that radical and even anti-American forces participating in more democratic environments in Iraq and Lebanon tend to moderate over time. The burden of governing often proves to be sobering check on radicals-come-to-power. In short, America must stop defending the dead hand of the past in Middle Asia.
Finally, while America still enjoys a preponderance of global power, it can no longer dominate the new international system. In the new multi-polar world order of competing great powers and rising middle powers, President Obama must now lead by forging international consensus to legitimize America’s global leadership role–always seeking to balance American national interests with the interest of a shared global community. Over the next three years that leadership must be exercised with great energy, intellect and diplomacy in Middle Asia. *****