The timing of Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece in The Atlantic (‘The Obama Doctrine’) could not be more consequential. It comes at a time when a ‘war party’ within the House of Saud must decide whether to pull the trigger on a military adventure in Syria. President Obama’s suggestion that the Saudis should “share” the Middle East with Iran as part of a regional “cold peace”—another way of saying ‘stalemate’—seemingly confirms their worst suspicion: they, as well as all the other actors, must now face a post-American Middle East. Rather than bet on the irrationality of war, as Obama does, those actors are likely to leverage the very rational opportunities of expanded violence. As such, analysts and historians may retroactively judge Obama’s words as the starting whistle for a number of hot wars that those actors felt compelled in pursuing ahead of achieving the stalemate envisioned by Washington.
Obama’s line of thinking, as well as the various arguments against it, were thoughtfully laid out in Goldberg’s piece. I shall not delve into that. However, I would like to address some of the aftershocks that may arise in the region because of it. Though I disagree with much of what Obama said, I understand how he arrived at it. I just wished he hadn’t said it on the record.
The ‘Syndicate’ paradigm. The article makes two pop culture references to organized crime: a scene from The Godfather III and the Joker character from Batman: The Dark Knight. I found those references useful in framing America’s conundrum in the Middle East. If the region had indeed turned into a Hobbesian ‘free for all’, and America is unwilling to play the role of the world’s police officer (or police commissioner, for that matter), then America could have starred in the alternative role of capo di tutti capi, boss of bosses. It would be an acknowledgement by her that if order cannot be maintained by international law, then a legally-grey ‘code of conduct’ would have ensured a semblance of order.
The Middle East used to be a strategic street corner in the old neighborhood where America first got her chops on the international scene—or so Obama suggests. But America has moved on to bigger and better things (technological innovation, energy independence, pivot to Asia, etc.). However, America could have held on to that prestigious street corner to drive home a point to any would-be street ‘toughs’ or upstarts: should those upstarts allow things to get out of hand, or should the revenue streams get imperiled, or should they try to make a point about their own ‘toughness’ by making a play for that corner, then the old boss will demonstrate a willingness to fight for that corner. That willingness to stand one’s ground, or moxie, makes the old boss relevant; eventually the upstarts must come around and kiss the ring. Yet Obama, the Chicagoan, believes that holding on to that street corner is too premised on ego, and unnecessarily expensive. Besides, the old neighborhood has gone to hell. Who cares, right? Some new criminal syndicate would eventually arise to deal with the headache. The fallacy of this line of thinking is that arriving at equilibrium involves a mere ‘sit-down’ between rational actors who predominately care about the bottom-line, and somehow they will find their way to an equitable cold peace that all could profit from. It brushes aside the rational agency of a drive-by or a barbershop ‘whack’ in arriving at a better bargaining position. Suddenly, the old neighborhood is in the news, politicians are fuming, and the rest of the town presumes that the old boss is not as agile as she used to be. Movies and TV series about organized crime tell us that such presumptions do not end well for bosses.
The Saudis. The Saudis are mentioned a lot in the piece, and not in a positive light. Imagine what trepidation was going on in Riyadh as Saudi decision makers clicked on the link to an article titled ‘The Obama Doctrine’. They wanted, nay, they needed to know what that doctrine was as much as the rest of us did. And they need to know it right now. The Saudis have waited for five years for Obama to do something about an increasingly volatile security situation in the Middle East. Obama, for his part, took his own sweet ‘academic time’ in formulating a thesis that explains his hesitation over doing more. The value and importance of the Goldberg piece is that now we know where Obama stands, and why. Actually, the why, although thoughtfully expressed, is of no use to the House of Saud at this point. Their takeaway is that they should wait no longer: this U.S. president has made up his mind. They should not expect action from him. Cue egg-on-face for all those Saudi moderates who counselled against the adventurist inclinations of the ‘war party’ within the royal family. The moderates had argued that Saudi Arabia should not act alone, and that whatever it does on the battlefield must be coordinated with its American ally. How much credibility do those moderates stand on after the publication of this piece? The ‘war party’ is ready to go to the mattresses. They envision an anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria that leaves piles of bodies on the streets. This is how they will demonstrate moxie to those other upstarts, the Iranians and the Russians, who had gotten a head start in the race for the control of the street corner that the U.S. had seemingly ceded.
[Of course, all this stuff is far more nuanced than what I am asserting here, but it helps to distill motivations and capacity in such a manner so that we can figure out what may happen next. For more on the ‘why’ and probably the ‘how’ of Saudi Arabia’s imminent (at least to me) campaign in Syria, kindly refer to my recent paper: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Islamic Alliance’. There’s another point to make here: several Iraqi Sunni leaders, when defending their stance of continuing to wait for America to do something big in the region, say something along the lines of “We are waiting for the next American administration.” The Saudis, on the other hand, have sophisticated feelers for Washington DC currents, and they must be looking at the primary election season in the U.S. and thinking to themselves: “We shouldn’t expect much.”]
The Saudis are not going to share the Middle East with the Iranians if their consolation prizes are reduced to Bahrain and Yemen. They can’t allow the Iranians to walk away with Iraq and Syria. And if they can’t get one or both back, then they will probably opt to get parts of them back. Of course, it is a fallacy to assume that Saudi Arabia has a legitimate claim to the leadership of Arab Sunnis, but it hasn’t stopped the House of Saud from talking itself into believing it. Such beliefs can have significant ramifications, especially when coupled with adventurism and action. Worse, still, is inaction. If the Saudis don’t act, Iran will be the least of their worries. (I would even say that an important faction in Tehran may want things to turn out in such a way so that Saudi Arabia saves face given the latter’s recent sabre rattling, because such an accommodation would prevent the region from spiraling into a turf war.) Which leads us to the second fallacy that lies at the heart of Obama’s grand recommendations: that there are only two actors at play here, Saudi Arabia and Iran. No. Another far more dangerous upstart is on the scene.
The Islamic State. One can only imagine what is going in the mind of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as his aides translate the outlines of The Atlantic article to him. I think his thoughts would go along these lines: “If America is out of the competition, and it’s only us versus the Saudis and the Iranians, then our enterprise has a fighting chance. After all, who has our variety of moxie?” The strategists of the Islamic State may believe that they have already taken on all that Iran can deploy against them in Iraq and Syria, and yet their nascent state still stands. They may also believe that Saudi Arabia does not have the stomach for a bruising turf war. Osama Bin Laden used to think that America was “a paper-tiger.” Maybe he was right, the jihadists would argue, but it took a couple of wars over fifteen years for America herself to realize it. Whether those jihadists are analyzing the evolving dynamic around them correctly or not shall have little bearing on the delusions that drive them to make a play for the street corner. History is replete with imperial enterprises that were dismissed at their onset as delusions by naysayers.
Turkey. And President Erdogan, what is he thinking? “That street corner used to be ours!” He may also be concerned that Kurds reading The Atlantic in Erbil or Qamishli or even Diyarbakir would assume that this is their opportunity to go big and bold.
Europe. Those “pragmatic, emotionally contained technocrats” of Scandinavia, for whom Obama expresses admiration in the piece, may be rubbing their temples and saying, repeatedly, “this is not good.” The Middle East is only a boat journey, a trek, and a train ride away from them. A turf war occurring “over there” is within their geostrategic earshot. Terrorism brings it even nearer.
China. Obama counsels that the U.S. should pay more attention to China. But the Middle East matters a lot to China, because energy sources and maritime trade routes to Europe and other markets matter. Flattering as Obama’s attention may be, the Chinese must be wondering, “Who’s watching the till?”
Israel. What would Netanyahu have to say about The Atlantic piece? We have a fair idea what it could be given Goldberg’s previous reporting on the Israeli prime minister’s thoughts vis-à-vis Obama’s resolve. So, not good.
And, then. The act of divining an Obama Doctrine, in as much as it is one, by parsing together statements made here, and actions taken there, as was previously undertaken by actors active in the Middle East, had introduced a measure of hesitation that mitigated against adventurism on their part. Some of those actors (Assad, Putin, Netanyahu, and the Iranians) had tried to poke at the doctrine from time to time to see what happens, but that occurred in fits and starts, again because no one could know for sure what the consequences of going too far would entail. But It is quite another thing altogether to read it expressed so clearly in the president’s own words. Obama’s previous mode of ambiguity had contributed to holding the parties at bay, which in turn gave the Middle East a measure of relative ‘peace’. His newly expressed clarity may shake it.
Consequently, for some observers and actors in the region, the ‘Obama Doctrine’ piece potentially marks the ‘wooden-staff-had-given-away-from-under-King-Solomon’ moment of America’s role there.