Gates, Obama, and Ducking Difficult Choices in the Middle East

The former defense secretary's new memoir highlights the president's deeply contradictory approach to the region.
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President Barack Obama leaves the Rose Garden with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, General David Petraeus, Vice President Joe Biden, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen after tapping Petraeus to lead the war in Afghanistan, in 2010. (Reuters/Jason Reed)

The talk about former Defense Secretary Bob Gates’s blistering new memoir, Duty, has focused on the description of President Barack Obama’s tense 2011 Situation Room meeting with his top military advisers. A frustrated Obama expresses doubts about General David Petraeus, then U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and questions whether the administration can do business with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

“As I sat there,” Gates wrote, “I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Republicans quickly seized on these criticisms as proof Obama was a dithering commander in chief. Democrats, in turn, hailed Obama for standing up to the Pentagon brass.

Yet the book—and the reactions to it—represents something far larger: a fundamental, post-Iraq and Afghanistan change in how Americans view the use of military force. Gates, joining Obama, liberal Democrats, and libertarian Republicans, is arguing that Washington relies on military intervention far too often.

“Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort,” Gates wrote in a short excerpt that ran in The Wall Street Journal. “On the left, we hear about the ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership.”

“There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do,” he added, “and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.”

For all the talk about stepping back from the region, however, the administration’s Middle East priorities still match those of Republican and Democratic administrations for the last 50 years. Consider Obama’s landmark U.N. speech in September, when he laid out his second-term aspirations. He stated that the United States would “use all elements of our power, including military force,” to secure four “core interests” in the region. He vowed to “confront external aggression” against our allies, “ensure the free flow of energy,” dismantle terrorist networks that “threaten our people” and “not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Yet Sunday, when militants affiliated with al-Qaeda seized control of parts of the Iraqi cities Ramadi and Fallujah, the White House offered a different scenario.

“It’s not in America’s interests to have troops in the middle of every conflict in the Middle East,” Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said in an email to The New York Times. “Or to be permanently involved in open-ended wars in the Middle East.”

James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told me Tuesday that the real problem is that the White House tries to have it both ways politically—seeking to protect American economic interests even as it talks of withdrawal. “They want everything,” Jeffrey said.

During a telephone interview, Jeffrey stated that if Obama wants to achieve the four Mideast goals that he laid out in his U.N. speech, he must maintain the credible threat of military force. This means air strikes and other limited efforts, not Iraq-style invasions. Jeffrey specifically criticized the administration for repeatedly suggesting that any U.S. force would lead to another Iraq. “The sin of this administration is conflating any use of military force with that,” Jeffrey said, referring to Iraq.

In an email exchange with me Tuesday, Rhodes flatly rejected that criticism and insisted the administration has used “many different ways to advance U.S. interests.” Rhodes noted that the United States uses force in the region, citing drone strikes against militants in Yemen. Washington provides military aid to Iraq, he said, as well as to other governments battling militants. And he said the administration uses diplomacy—referring to current efforts to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran.

“It is dangerous and costly to simply revert, time and again, to the use of military force as the only way to advance our interests,” Rhodes added, “it has to be seen as one tool among many.”

Rhodes’ points about the administration’s actual policies are correct. But the White House rhetoric is inconsistent and contradictory. The administration sounds a pacifist tone in the United States but has carried out covert drone strikes that have killed more than 2,000 people around the world. It talks of upholding international norms but raises the specter of “another Iraq” when it comes to using conventional military force.

The administration’s messaging on Syria has been particularly erratic. Obama first demanded President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster and later threatened air strikes if the “red line” of weapons of mass destruction was crossed. He then backed down on both.

For better or worse, the world—and America’s—economy remain deeply entangled with the Middle East. Even if the United States becomes energy independent, oil from the region fuels China’s production of cheap consumer goods to Americans. It also supports European growth, which boosts U.S. companies’ profits. If the Middle East descends into chaos and oil prices soar, the world—and America’s—economy would stall.

Obama’s U.N. speech was one of his best. He should stand by those four core American interests and, if needed, use limited force as a last resort to defend them. Yes, the United States should mount fewer military interventions in the region. But that does not absolve Obama—and all of us—from facing difficult choices in the Middle East.

Americans do benefit from a world economic order based on cheap, reliable Middle Eastern oil. Pretending we don’t is a fantasy.


This post originally appeared on Reuters.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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