Lee Smith, senior editor with the Weekly Standard, Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and author of the 2010 critically-acclaimed book, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations, briefed the Middle East Forum via conference call on February 6, 2013.
Mr. Smith characterized the Obama administration's Middle East policy as one of "extrication" from the region. The major problem with this policy, he argued, is that "vacuums are filled by other people, and not always filled by friendly powers."
Nor has the administration explained why it no longer deems the Middle East a region of vital interest. If, for example, the U.S. becomes a net exporter of energy in the near future and is less reliant on Middle Eastern oil, the administration has yet to make this case with the public. Instead, its policy of "leading from behind," adopted during the Libyan intervention, is a prime example of the vacuum left since the toppling of Qaddafi as the decision to leave the newly elected Libyan government to fend for itself has led to instability.
The tragic consequence of this instability was most notably seen in the attack on the Benghazi consulate and the killing of four Americans, including ambassador Christopher Stevens, but Libya has also become an "exporter" of small arms. Had the IDF entered Gaza during Operation Pillar of Defense, it would have run into a NATO-quality arsenal that had been in Qaddafi's care. These same weapons have also ended up in Syria in the hands of seasoned jihadist fighters. According to Smith, the U.S. should have empowered other groups at the jihadists' expense so that different assets were fighting on its behalf.
Reverberations of the Libyan vacuum have also been felt across the Levant and North Africa:
The notion of "leading from behind" is now playing out in the administration's avoidance of entanglements in Syria, though bringing down the Assad regime would serve U.S. interests. While the Sunni majority opposition is unlikely to rule democratically or become an important ally and friend, Washington should be sequencing threats in order to undermine its foremost threat in the region - Iran - which has identified itself as a sworn enemy and has effectively been waging war against the U.S. over the past 30 years.
In North Africa, the Libyan vacuum can be seen, inter alia, in the Mali turbulence, where Tuareg nationalists who were among Qaddafi's fighters are pitted against Malian forces. The conflict has drawn in al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) which played an active role in the 9/11 attack on the Benghazi consulate.
How will Washington's extrication from the region affect Israel and other allies? The realist approach subscribes to the concept of "offshore balancing" whereby the U.S. doesn't need to land troops abroad but can instead rely on local allies to advance its interests. Israel is the only ally in the eastern Mediterranean capable of filling the role of "an unsinkable battleship" and Washington has to draw the obvious strategic conclusions.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Associate Fellow with the Middle East Forum