Depressing headlines from the Middle East have thrown cold water on any lingering optimism that U.S. policy objectives in the region were on track. In Iraq, Fallujah and Ramadi have been lost, at least for now, to al-Qaida-linked insurgents. The Syrian conflict has apparently transformed into a multi-sided war, increasing the likelihood that Bashar al-Assad’s regime will survive. And progress remains elusive in Afghanistan as the countdown to withdrawal continues. Not long ago there was reason for hope in all these countries. The surges in Iraq and Afghanistan were supposed to have worked, and the Arab Spring, it was hoped, would not simply topple authoritarian regimes but lay the groundwork for the emergence of secular democracies throughout the region.
I concur with my colleague Steven Metz’s observation earlier this week that the Middle East is not President Barack Obama’s to “lose.” Certainly, we should not accept any narrative that denies agency to Iraqi, Syrian or Afghan leaders and absolves them of responsibility for the errors, mistakes and blunders of the past several years. At the same time, however, American policymakers’ own preferences and beliefs shaped the policies Washington pursued.
A case in point is Vice President Joe Biden’s unheeded endorsement, as a senator in 2006, of a “soft partition” for Iraq. Such a move might have laid the basis for a more stable country over the long term, and might have then provided a more workable path forward for dealing with the current unravelings in both Syria and Afghanistan. At the time, Biden’s approach clashed with the majority view, in both Democratic and Republican circles, that the way forward was to continue to push for a strong central government empowered by an electoral system defined by “one person, one vote.”