Ever since ISIL (a.k.a. ISIS) drove the Iraqi government out of the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, media and commentariat have been taking whatever small amount of bandwidth they devote to world politics and focusing it on the Middle East. I, for one, have been very impressed at how quickly Sykes-Picot has entered the pundit lexicon. Even Fox News contributors have noted that the media has pretty much forced the Obama administration to pay more attention to the Middle East than East Asia.
But this is as it should be, yes? Iraq’s territorial integrity is dissolving. ISIL is establishing a base of operations across Syria and Iraq, and intelligence reports suggest that they would like to use this base to attack the United States. At West Point, President Obama stressed the importance of countering terrorist threats as his number one national security priority, and unfortunately American foreign policy tends to chase wherever the trouble is worst. Or, as Jeremy Pressman tweeted:
If Asia really wants the US pivot, it’s going to need to generate some crises to compete with the Middle East. Thus far: ME 4, Asia 0
— Jeremy Pressman (@djpressman) June 26, 2014
But is ISIL, or greater Middle East instability more generally, really the greatest threat to the United States more generally? A few days ago Francis Fukuyama took to the pages of the Financial Times to say that the answer was “no”:
US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy speech at the West Point military academy in May was wrong-headed. It laid out various abstract criteria for the use of force (actions must be “proportional and effective and just”; where no direct threat to US interests exists, “the threshold for military action must be higher”). It is hard to disagree. But he went on to state that the only direct threat we face is terrorism. He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China. There was great fanfare surrounding the US “pivot” towards Asia – one of the most important initiatives of Mr Obama’s first term – but he did not mention the word once.
Despite the recent successes of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (known as Isis), I would argue that terrorism is actually the least consequential of these challenges in terms of core US interests. What we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria is the slow spread of a Sunni-Shia war, with local forces acting as proxies for Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is a humanitarian crisis in the making. However, we could barely contain sectarian hatreds when we occupied Iraq with 150,000 troops; it is hard to see how we can act decisively now….
Strategy is about setting priorities, saying that some things are more important than others and explaining why this is so. The notion that there is no place unworthy of US attention is not a strategy. Mr Obama has set the wrong rhetorical priority, continuing the original mistake of overestimating the terrorist challenge made by his much-criticised predecessor.
I’m more sympathetic to Fukyuama’s argument than the Middle East expert lobby. ISIL is going to have its hands full just trying to maintain what it controls right now. The last time it actually tried to govern a space in Iraq, it triggered a Sunni revolt. There are other actors in the Middle East with a vested interest in combating this group. China and Russia, on the other hand, are actual great powers with revisionist territorial ambitions and domestic incentives to focus on external enemies. That’s a toxic mix in the medium term.
I also fear, however, that Fukuyama is waging a losing battle. We know two things about Obama’s second-term foreign policy: It will follow American public opinion, and the one thing American public opinion cares about is counterterrorism. Indeed, for all the hollow critiques about how “Obama won’t lead, dammit,” foreign policy and grand strategy are areas where the president really does possess a great deal of latitude. He’s just choosing not to exercise it.
Fukuyama is asking the right questions — what is the biggest threat to the United States? What’s the best way to combat these threats? — but as the administration crafts its newest national security strategy, it’s far from clear that the White House is interested in providing any answers.