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In, out or in-between: Obama's foreign policy

By Harlan Ullman, UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
President Barack Obama discusses the Iran nuclear agreement, with from left, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Jeffrey Prescott, Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf States, National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice, Avril Haines, Deputy National Security Advisor Counterterrorism and Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, in the Oval Office, July 13, 2015. Official White House Photo by Pete Sousa/UPI. | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/c955514af5ceabd52850cce4f2d1b2af/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
President Barack Obama discusses the Iran nuclear agreement, with from left, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Jeffrey Prescott, Senior Director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf States, National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice, Avril Haines, Deputy National Security Advisor Counterterrorism and Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, in the Oval Office, July 13, 2015. Official White House Photo by Pete Sousa/UPI. | License Photo

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- The White House has announced that it is reviewing its military options for what was once the intention of "disrupting and destroying the Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq. Critics (or realists) have argued that the Obama administration has already chosen to withdraw from the Middle East in favor of a strategic pivot to Asia and the president's aversion to being trapped in the quagmire that is consuming Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. No one can fault Mr. Obama for attempting to avoid committing billions or trillions of dollars and U.S. lives to another failed enterprise.

Yet, without strong U.S. leadership, as nature abhors a vacuum, others will assert themselves.

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Vladimir Putin is doing nicely in that regard. While leading from behind is not necessarily a bad policy choice, unless allies and friends move in, that strategy will fail. There is also another problem regarding this review over what to do about IS.

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The president has asked the Pentagon to provide a range of military options for review. But what is the overall strategy that frames these options and sets the objectives and aims to be achieved? It is reported that the White House strategy for Russia has been classified. That said, what is the broader strategy for the region beyond platitudes and broad intentions? Many argue there is none. And others complain that whatever the strategy is, clearly it is not working.

Three broad foreign policy choices lie ahead. The United States can be more forceful, aggressive and engaged in the Middle East. This will require explicit actions that combine using the whole political-military-economic toolbox to demonstrate greater commitment to the Middle East. Matching this shift with the declaratory pivot to Asia probably can be accommodated by using the Pentagon term of "rebalancing."

If this were the choice, then establishing some form of quasi-military alliance or relationship, possibly through more expansive use of NATO with the Gulf Cooperative Council, would be a strong political signal. As recommended in this column previously, using the Combined Air Operations Center in Doha, Qatar as the basis for developing closer ground force integration as a prelude to potentially establishing a joint Arab-Western land force of some sort could follow. And, while this may be a bridge too far, as NATO created a NATO-Russia Council (with mixed results), perhaps Iran might be invited in as an observer sometime in the future as and if the nuclear agreement is successfully implemented.

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The second choice is indeed to reduce engagement or, more politically, to continue to rebalance east. The argument here is that the United States has invested enough in terms of resources. While IS is existential to the region, it is the region that must respond. The United States can act in support. However, it need not lead. This was the same assumption the Obama team used in withdrawing with a date certain from Afghanistan to force the Afghans to look after their own security. Objective observers can assess how well or how badly that assumption has worked out so far.

The last choice is in-between, or what cynics call the Goldilocks solution of porridge not too hot nor too cold. In essence this is playing at the margin. Doing enough to be seen as engaged and not enough to be caught in the maelstrom that is consuming much of the region. Obviously, in these last two choices, a further implicit assumption is that Russia would be assuming a larger role in Syria along with Iran and Hezbollah.

If the administration could be assured that moving the security burden to Russia and Iran had some chance of producing a political solution in Syria, that would be a smart play. The major downsides are what happens if that does not work: That Russia and Iran exacerbate the situation, or succeed and enhance their influence at the expense of the United States, our Arab allies react accordingly and Republicans flay the administration irrespective of outcome for deserting the region?

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The simple solution is the most unlikely. The administration needs a real strategy for the region and for dealing with Russia and Iran. Simply reviewing military options will not work. As the famous Chinese general and military philosopher Sun Tzu wrote a millennium ago, tactics without strategy would assure defeat.

Since its first days in office, the administration has eschewed the use of strategic thinking in developing its policies. Campaign sound bites and promises and politically expedient pressures have superseded what should have been true strategic thinking. The outcome, while not irreversible, is surely too likely.

__________________________________________________________ Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist; Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business; and Senior Advisor at both Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security. His latest book is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the Peace.

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