President Barack Obama speaks at Cairo University in Cairo, Thursday, June 4, 2009. In his speech, President Obama called for a ‘new beginning between the United States and Muslims’, declaring that ‘this cycle of suspicion and discord must end’. Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Obama, Biden and realism in the Middle East

Observers have long argued that President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in general, and specifically in the Middle East, was consistent with realism; some said this approvingly, others critically. There are, of course, multiple variants of realism; there is no consensus on what a “realist” foreign policy implies. In Obama’s case, supporters and critics generally referred to defensive realism, a cautious and prudent variant that advocates a more restrained foreign policy. Defensive realists, in particular, call for a reduced American footprint in the region and a higher threshold for military intervention.

In a recent academic article, I evaluated this claim and analyzed its consequences. I concluded that aspects of Obama’s policy in the Middle East were consistent with defensive realism. Obama, in particular, exercised restraint in the use of force by refraining from intervening on a large-scale in Syria.

His achievement of the nuclear deal with Iran was one of his policies most consistent with defensive realism: he believed that America’s obsession with Iran had led to a heightened risk of becoming bogged down in an unnecessary conflict. Instead, his transactional approach based on boxing in Iran’s nuclear program led to the containment of a limited and manageable threat.

His policy towards the Islamic State was also sound: he did just enough after 2014 to contain and then steadily roll it back with a limited number of troops, while avoiding a costly entanglement. At the same time, defensive realists lament that other aspects of his policy were inconsistent with their prescriptions, especially his inability to distance the U.S. from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, and his decision to participate in the NATO-led intervention in Libya.

This debate becomes especially relevant now as prospects for a Joe Biden presidency grow and as many in the Democratic Party call for a more realist policy in the Middle East. Overall, such an approach would benefit American security.

Largely absent from the discussion, however, is a more open acknowledgement of the limitations of realist prescriptions: it is important for proponents to be transparent about these risks and to understand how to better manage them. There is precedent to guide such analysis: what were the costs for the Obama Administration of implementing some elements of a realist policy?

Consequences of defensive realist prescriptions

Central to defensive realism is the principle that when the status quo is advantageous, a state’s interest lies in avoiding change. American policy in the Middle East illustrates how imperfect this is. The status quo was advantageous to the U.S. between 2009 and 2017: regional insecurity did not threaten its vital interests, it remained the predominant external power, and its partners were the most powerful regional players.

This status quo, however, is deeply flawed: protecting it implies perpetuating conditions that are far from ideal, not so much for the U.S., but for others. It is thus legitimate criticism thata realist policy manages problems while perpetuating them and leaving them to others.

Defensive realism calls for a selective approach to intervention but provides only limited guidance. This is legitimate criticism, but it applies to all grand strategy frameworks except the most stringent isolationism: there is no such thing as precise guidance explaining precisely when and how to intervene. Even the most aggressive proponents of deep engagement face thischallenge ofcalibration.

When vital interests are threatened, defensive realism calls for the U.S. to intervene by using offshore assets and activating onshore networks of pre-existing bases and facilities instead of permanently deploying large numbers of troops. Yet such ramping up takes time: it implies identifying the right moment, mobilizing troops, building domestic consensus, and recruiting allies.

Indeed, critics contend that in wanting to correct what he perceived as the overextension of the Bush Administration, Obama erred on the side of caution, leading him to under-reach. Yet again, such costs must be weighed against alternatives: the temptation of imperial overstretch is a greater threat to a superpower than the possibility of slow entry into a crisis. This is especially true for a geographically remote, secure great power benefitting from a large power advantage. 

A pillar of defensive realism is for the U.S. to expect regional partners to do more, allowing it to better focus scarce resources on areas of greater interest and avoid unnecessary entanglements. Deputization, however, raises risks. Regional partners may suddenly change as a result of a coup or a revolution, as happened with Iran after 1979. In other cases, regional partners may do more but their additional actions can be inconsistent with American interests.

The Saudi intervention in Yemen is a case in point: as the Obama Administration encouraged Riyadh to play a more active regional role, Saudi foreign policy shifted from timid to bellicose. This is valid criticism but again, it must be weighed against plausible alternatives: a greater presence does not allow Washington to control the actions of regional partners.

Even if local partners accept a greater share of the burden of regional security, deputization often implies alignment with morally repugnant actors. This is problematic on ethical grounds, and it perpetuates the corrosive situation in brutally repressive countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Yet again, the counterargument is that deep engagement has not provided the U.S. with much influence over their domestic politics either. Moreover, if the U.S. is to ask regional partners to do more, it must ensure they have the necessary skills and capabilities. Yet capacity-building programs have a mixed track record. Capacity-building provides technical solutions to political problems: more effective partner forces can help manage security challenges but do not solve them. Often this provides short-term solutions creating long-term costs as these security forces contribute to the conditions that allow terrorism to thrive.

Another common criticism is that realism emboldens adversaries by creating voids they can exploit. According to this view, the withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 contributed to the emergence of the Islamic State, while the failure to intervene allowed Russia and Iran to dominate Syria. But realists argue that as a secure extra-regional great power, the U.S. can afford this, and can benefit from rivals investing heavily in costly security competitions. In Syria, Washington ceded space to Moscow and Tehran. Yet the latter are now responsible for supporting a hollowed out Assad regime ruling over portions of a devastated country. Even though they have achieved their objective of securing Assad’s survival, they are stuck in a quagmire with no viable exit strategy.

A coherent realist policy in the Middle East – and beyond – would bring greater benefits than costs. That said, there is a natural tendency among proponents to oversell those benefits and downplay the costs. For a realist policy to be successful, proponents must be transparent about its downsides, and be better positioned to manage them or mitigate their effects.