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Why has America not intervened more in the Arab World?

June 16th, 2015

By Simon Schofield – Senior Fellow

Amongst Barack Obama’s strongest critics there appears to be largely a consensus that he is incompetent; a man who simply does not know what to do with the powers afforded him by virtue of his office. Whilst criticisms of his perhaps excessive time spent on golf courses and failures to appear at important international events, most recently the unity demonstration in Paris, remembering the massacre of journalists at Charlie Hebdo at the hands of radicalised Islamists, might be outrageous, they don’t suggest political naivety, Obama is much more calculating in than that.

A world away from his caricature, no. 44 knows precisely what he is doing. Barack Obama, for all his faults and critics, is an adept practitioner of the dark arts of Realpolitik. There is a very particular, if narrow-minded, logic to his sitting on his hands whilst the world degenerates into chaos.

As George Friedman, CEO and founder of Stratfor, articulately establishes in his must-read book The Next 100 Years, the United States is the only state on the face of the Earth that has already achieved its loftiest strategic objectives. The USA dominates both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, with a strong grip on the trade routes through these and all the accompanying hard power such a position grants a nation. It drove the imperial powers from the continents of North and South America, making it the only nation that could even remotely be considered a Great power in the region. There is no country or coalition that could practically carry out a state-shattering invasion of the American homeland. 9/11 was a horror that is still imprinted on the psyche of every Westerner in the world, but it was never going to be an attack that could have broken the United States.

Despite recent academic trends for discussing America’s hegemonic decline it could be argued America has scarcely been in such a strong position as it now finds itself. With this in mind we should consider what America would consider a ‘victory’ in any given war it should fight in the present or near future. Does America need more riches? Lands? Pride? No. For Americans, the ideal outcome is a continuation of the status quo. Taking this thinking further, if this is the strategic aim an American Government would take itself to war with, what constitutes victory? Does America need to shatter armies, annex countries, or break governments? No. It needs simply to disrupt any would-be challenger just enough that it could not mount any challenge to American authority. If one’s foreign policy priorities are purely the cold, hard facts and figures that Realpolitik offers, through the lens of self-interest and a zero-sum world, then to do any more than the bare minimum necessary to disrupt opposition would be a waste of resources. It is precisely because the White House, like most Governments the world over since man first dragged itself from the tar pits, eschews moral considerations that its actions on the world stage are put into sparkling clarity.

The last time any Islamic country or state resembled anything close to a Great world power was a century ago when the Ottoman Empire ruled great swathes of the Middle East, stretching from East Africa, to Algiers, to Budapest. A united Islamic coalition or even a large contiguous state such as the Ottoman Empire, with the vast wealth provided by being a singular entity controlling the lion’s share of the world’s oil supplies could present an economic challenge to the United States, at least as long as oil remains a key resource. However, the Islamic world is currently in chaos. Islamic State militants run rampant across much of Iraq and Syria, appearing also in Libya, Afghanistan and, most recently, Israel. Much of the region is worried where their next big push will come from and which minority group will face the next massacre. Al Qaeda, far from defeated by America’s wrath following 9/11, has decentralised into a franchise model, with affiliates in Nigeria, Chechnya, Syria, India, Yemen, Libya and beyond, all supported by the central hub in Pakistan’s Waziristani mountains. Iran, alarmed at the sudden Sunni onslaughts across the region, is acting to bolster its Shiah presence in Iraq and Syria, whilst still scheming to obtain nuclear weapons so it can cement itself as the arbiter of the fate of the Middle East.

With Sunni and Shiah fighting hammer and tongs, there can be no hope of a new unified Islamic power in the Middle East, and no new Great power emerging. America’s relatively modest interventions against Islamic State fighters and the mysterious Khorasan group are rational, but do not indicate a ramping up to a full scale incursion back into the Middle Eastern theatre. Islamic State has gained power very rapidly and now threatens the relatively recently installed semi-democratic system in Iraq, which America and its allies began putting in place barely a decade ago. In order to maintain the ‘balance of power’ in the region, as realists put it, airstrikes against Islamic State are necessary to blunt their advantage. The Khorasan group appears to have been a secretive, elite taskforce put together by the al Qaeda core in Pakistan, tasked with supporting Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, conducting counterintelligence against Islamic State opponents and, most importantly, to plot new attacks against the American homeland. With intelligence that fresh mass-casualty operations could be imminent, America would have been foolish not to take action.

Obama’s America is a callous, calculating operator on the world stage. Weary with global leadership it has cast this mantle, which it considered a millstone, from its neck. Expensive wars are avoided by using pinpoint surgical airstrikes from jet fighters and drones to ever so slightly adjust the balance of power in the world, preventing challengers to the Hegemon from emerging.

Whilst this is a laudable strategy from the rational, realist point of view, it can only be described as depressing that the ‘Yes We Can’ politician who pledged to restore hope has taken the decision to doom innocent civilians who had the misfortune not to be born American citizens to brutal, short lives, where religion, sexuality, skin colour and opinions are legitimate grounds for the death penalty.

About Simon Schofield

Simon Schofield is a Senior Fellow at the HSC and the Assistant to the Directors' Office. His main research interests lie in the fields of national security, intelligence and counterterrorism.