‘Underreach’: The Syrian Periphery in Obama’s Grand Strategy

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By Nate Subramanian, Columnist

In the twilight of Barack Obama’s presidency, pundits seem inclined to treat his foreign policy in a more positive light, and foreign affairs columnists have sought to divine the arc of his administration’s grand strategy based on its actions abroad. Recent essays by Alfred W. McCoy and Gideon Rose, for instance, have endeavored to characterize Obama’s grand strategy as a successful attempt to preserve the liberal international order by rebuilding relationships with historical allies, containing the rise of China as a hegemonic aspirant[i], and containing US over-commitment in the Middle East. Hal Brands notes in his analysis that in a climate of resource limitations, avoiding mistakes such as “overstretch” is an objective in and of itself.[ii] McCoy and Rose generally characterize the Middle East as the “periphery” of the international order and accept that this periphery may be ignored in the pursuit of greater strategic goals.[iii] The Syrian crisis, however, demonstrates that Middle Eastern issues have not become peripheral to the international order. Rather, phenomena such as Russian unilateral action in Syria and the failure of US efforts to develop rebel forces prove that far from being peripheral, issues in the Middle East are directly connected to the maintenance of the international order.

In his essay, McCoy characterizes Obama’s presidency as one of course correction. He asserts that Obama’s grand strategy of “repair[ing] the damage” caused by “imperial overreach” is a direct contrast to George W. Bush’s grand strategy, which McCoy believes was crafted around the “illusion” that planting democracy in the Middle East would create ripple effects that would boost American power worldwide. He sees the protracted occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan as Bush’s main blunder; by extracting the United States from those countries, he argues, Obama is attempting not only to preserve US resources, but to refocus on countering Chinese influence over the Eurasian landmass.[iv] Rose takes a similar view: using a baseball metaphor, he sees Obama as a “middle relief pitcher,” managing past crises and doing his best to extricate the United States from a sticky situation in the Middle East. Crucial to this strategy is Obama’s decision to avoid committing resources to the Middle East. Rose sees Obama’s policy of disengagement as a reaction to Bush-era overcommitment in the region. According to Rose, European and Pacific institutions constitute the center of the international order, and Obama is thus willing to “sacrifice the periphery” of the Middle East.[v]

These analyses are not without merit. As Rose correctly points out, Middle Eastern problems of state failure and poor governance—exemplified by the multi-sided civil war in Syria—are not easily solvable, nor is it necessarily the United States’ role to solve them.[vi] From this perspective, the Obama administration’s strategy of placating the humanitarian clamor for intervention by using lightweight, relatively low-cost tools such as drone strikes makes sense.[vii] It is also true that the Obama administration’s attempts to resolve long-standing rifts with Burma, Iran, and Cuba and pivot towards China are fundamentally sound: as Brand notes, the rise of China is the United States’ most significant strategic problem over the long term. Shoring up diplomatic relations with these states strengthens the power of US diplomacy vis-à-vis Chinese influence.[viii] Thus there is a case to be made that history will smile upon the efforts of the “extricator-in-chief.”[ix]

However, Brands notes that:

“underreach” can ultimately be as dangerous as overreach. […] There is the danger of liquidating existing commitments too quickly, or of becoming so hesitant to use force that allies and adversaries perceive weakness rather than prudence. There is the danger that the consequences of nonintervention or insufficient intervention in a place like Syria might eventually become worse than the consequences of a more assertive policy. [26] Above all, there is the broader danger that too much retrenchment or caution could undermine the stability of the post–Cold War system in which the United States has thrived and prospered.[x]

Events in the past month have indicated that the United States may have ‘underreached’ in Syria. First, the Obama administration’s small-footprint model for intervention in Syria has comprehensively failed. The Syrian rebel forces produced by the $500 million train-and-equip program were few and easily routed, and their weapons were captured by Islamist forces.[xi] This failure was eminently foreseeable. Despite the Obama administration’s attempts to create and arm a moderate democratic opposition force that would fight the Islamic State, it was never clear that such a force could be created out of the existing belligerents or that it could gain popular legitimacy. The lessons of the Iraq War hung heavy over the prospect of unilateral regime change in Syria, but by supporting Assad’s ouster with anything less than full commitment, the Obama administration achieved the worst of all possible worlds. Not only did it pick the losing side of the war, it also further accelerated Syrian state failure and polarized relations with the other great powers: Russia and China.[xii]

This failure is only accentuated by reports in the last week that Russia has begun bombing anti-Assad targets in West Syria. Statements from Russian sources have indicated a fulfillment of Brands’ fear that US strategy could be seen as weakness and inaction in the face of a major crisis. As a Russian member of parliament told CNN on October 6, 2015, “If you have a name of a person who can substitute [for Assad] immediately without causing real trouble in Syria, I would like to hear that name.” He called the American-led coalition to fight the Islamic State in Syria “absolutely inefficient.”[xiii] In the Russian strategic calculus, US insistence on Assad’s removal must seem like a dangerous ideological imperative that threatens regional stability. While preserving Russian influence in the region is a likely goal of the airstrikes, it is also clear that Russia does not see a superior way to ensure regional stability and has chosen to act in lieu of the United States.

While there may be no good solution to the Syrian crisis, it is yet possible that the United States may achieve a ‘least bad’ solution. In the absence of full-scale commitment to intervention, the United States must stop insisting on Assad’s ouster, which would only create a power vacuum to be inhabited by the Islamic State or other Islamist forces. Proposals to train-and-equip other Arab groups in Northern Syria are similarly misguided.[xiv] Moreover, by conducting airstrikes against opponents of the Assad regime, Russia may be able to solidify Assad’s grip on the country. The Obama administration must seek a trajectory towards a power-sharing agreement bringing together the Assad regime and the rebel forces before Russia is able to achieve its own aims in Syria. A continuation of the present policy of US disengagement will amount to a further abdication of America’s ability to have a say in the outcome of the Syrian crisis.

Nate Subramanian is a Master’s Candidate in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.


[i] Alfred W. McCoy, “The Quiet Grand Strategy of Barack Obama,” The American Conservative, September 15, 2015, accessed October 6, 2015, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-quiet-grand-strategy-of-barack-obama/.

[ii] Hal Brands, “Breaking Down Obama’s Grand Strategy,” The National Interest, June 23, 2014, accessed October 6, 2015, http://nationalinterest.org/print/feature/breaking-down-obamas-grand-strategy-10719.

[iii] Gideon Rose, “What Obama Gets Right,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2015 Issue, accessed October 6, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/what-obama-gets-right.

[iv] McCoy, “Quiet Grand Strategy.”

[v] Rose, “What Obama Gets Right.”

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Brands, “Breaking Down Obama’s Grand Strategy.”

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Aaron David Miller, “Does Obama Have Any Regrets About His Middle East Policy?”, Foreign Policy, September 29, 2015, accessed October 6, 2015, http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/29/does-obama-regrets-middle-east-policy-syria-iraq-islamic-state/.

[x] Brands, “Breaking Down Obama’s Grand Strategy.”

[xi] Carole E. Lee and Dion Nissenbaum, “U.S. Administration Rethinks Syria Strategy,” The Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2015, accessed October 6, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-administration-rethinks-syria-strategy-1442533644.

[xii] Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, “A Middle East Tragedy: Obama’s Syria-Policy Disaster,” The National Interest, May 30, 2014, accessed October 6, 2015.

[xiii] Mick Krever, “Russian insider: Have a better plan for Syria? ‘Give us some names,’” CNN.com, October 6, 2015, accessed October 6, 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2015/10/05/world/russia-syria-nikonov-amanpour/index.html.

[xiv] Lee and Nissenbaum, “U.S. Administration Rethinks Syria Strategy.”

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