The Danish cargo ship Ark Futura, carrying Syria's acknowledged chemical weapons stockpile, arrives at Gioia Tauro in southern Italy on July 2, 2014.

The Danish cargo ship Ark Futura, carrying Syria's acknowledged chemical weapons stockpile, arrives at Gioia Tauro in southern Italy on July 2, 2014. Adriana Sapone/AP

Ignoring Obama's Most Important Achievement in the Middle East

The president is successful at hunting terrorists and denying the Islamic State access to vast storehouses of deadly chemical weapons. So why doesn't he get credit? By Jeffrey Goldberg

Here are five observations about President Obama’s frustrating and largely hapless encounter with the Middle East:

  1. Inaction has its consequences, just as action has its consequences;
  2. Just because you’re not interested in the Middle East doesn’t mean the Middle East isn’t interested in you;
  3. Chaos and collapse in the Middle East cannot be solely, or even (perhaps) mainly, attributed to the mistaken or ill-conceived ideas, goals, speeches, and strategies of American presidents;
  4. Obama, more than other presidents, gets no credit for his concrete accomplishments in the Middle East;
  5. Obama’s presidency will be judged a failure in the realm of national security if al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other jihadist groups are still able to maintain significant safe havens across the greater Middle East when he leaves the White House in January of 2017, and if Iran remains on a path to the nuclear threshold.

I’m sure you’re fascinated by Observation Number Five in particular, but I also know that you are asking yourselves, “Just what are the concrete accomplishments of which you speak?” Washington has reached a consensus view that Obama has been hesitant, contradictory, and flinching on a range of issues related to the Middle East. It is true that his rhetoric has not often matched his strategy (seePeter Baker’s story on the disconnect between some of Obama's reassuring statements on the Middle East and the dispiriting reality of the place, and Richard Haass’s comments on Administration promises); it is true that early reports suggest that the strategy he is unveiling to counter ISIS seems limited and evolutionary; and it also true, as Ron Fournier, and others, note, that Obama has a tendency to tell America’s enemies what he won’t do to them, rather than what he will do.

Here are two things that are also true: Obama has become the greatest terrorist hunter in the history of the presidency; and his successful push to disarm the Assad regime of the bulk of its chemical-weapons stockpiles has removed from the Middle East, and beyond, the possibility of an unparalleled cataclysm.

Why does he get no credit for these achievements? He gets no acclaim as a terrorist hunter for two reasons. First, Republicans will not credit him with any achievements in this endeavor because they won’t credit him with any achievement ever, for anything. He could concoct a cure for Ebola in Sam Kass’s kitchen and conservatives would criticize him for wasting time on a disease that doesn’t affect Americans. Second, the left-leaning Democratic Party base is hesitant to tout his record in the terrorist-killing department because it is uncomfortable with the idea of their president as a drone-deploying killer. No love from the right or left means that attacks such as the one that eliminated the head of Somalia’s terrifying al-Shabab militant group received relatively little notice. But I think the record will show that Obama has focused U.S. efforts on combating al-Qaeda and al Qaeda-like groups in at least half a dozen countries in a way that his predecessor did not. (And as for his predecessor’s predecessor, well, he did virtually nothing to stop al-Qaeda from metastasizing into what it became by September 11, 2001.)

On the second issue—the safe removal, and subsequent destruction aboard a U.S. Navy ship, of 1,300 tons of chemical agents from the most dangerous country in the most dangerous region in the world—Obama gets no credit in part because of the awkward and stutter-step manner in which the removal was originally negotiated, and also because it is not in the nature of humans to credit a leader for averting a theoretical catastrophe.

But the catastrophe averted here was plausible, even predictable. Just answer the following question: As the U.S. moves closer to open confrontation with ISIS inside Syria, is it a good thing that ISIS, and like-minded groups, and the regime itself, have no access to vast storehouses of chemical agents? 

I did not think it was possible to remove the bulk of Bashar al-Assad’s stockpile in conditions of war, and I did not think Assad would agree to part with any significant portion of his stockpile, which, of course, represented his ultimate regime-preservation weapon.

On the one hand, it would have been emotionally satisfying—ephemerally, at least—to see Obama enforce his self-drawn red line by bombing Assad’s palace. But bombing Assad’s palace, or other regime facilities, would not have led to the removal of his stockpile. There are consequences to Obama’s last-minute about-face on the subject of airstrikes, though I find implausible the idea that Vladimir Putin would not be doing what he is doing if Obama had appeared tougher on Syria.

The truth is that Assad gave up his chemical weapons in good measure because he saw Obama’s threat of airstrikes as credible. The U.S. still has the ability to deter.

And what does the world get out of the removal of these chemical agents? Here is Laura Holgate, the senior director for nonproliferation at the National Security Council: “By having these 1,300 tons out of there, we’ve massively simplified the remaining challenges of the ongoing conflict. We’ve just removed an ‘x’ factor.”

The regime continues to use chlorine gas intermittently against civilians, and it is widely believed to have held back at least a small portion of its stockpile of other agents and precursors. But the bulk of the stockpile is gone, and with it, the threat it posed to such neighbors as Israel and Jordan, and the fear that sophisticated jihadist groups could lay their hands on these chemicals.

Holgate told me that “the existential threat these Syrian chemical weapons posed to Israel is gone. Period. It’s out of the country.” She went on to say, “That doesn’t mean that there are discrepancies that remain, and we’re in constant conversation with Israel about that. We both believe that there are things that are undeclared, but nothing to the point of being an existential threat. Israel has stopped distributing gas masks to the population. What does it mean not to distribute gas masks? That’s a signal to the population.”

Graham Allison, the director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, called the dismantling of Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpiles a “big deal,” and then went on to say that it is “even bigger if you consider the most probable counter-factual: Had we bombed a limited number of sites, as planned and advocated for by all the ‘authorities,’ what are the odds that additional chemical-weapons attacks would have happened? Ninety-nine-plus percent.”

He went on to make the sobering point that “an international order that excludes killing with chemical weapons is not nirvana, but it is a much better world than one in which Assad and the folks fighting him are also using chemical weapons.”

I’ve been critical of Obama’s hesitation to take a more active role in shaping the Syrian opposition (in the debate between Hillary Clinton and the president on this subject—some of which appeared in this space a month ago—I lean toward Hillary’s view that the U.S. could have done more to help Syrian rebels early on, before the revolution was hijacked by jihadists), but it only seems fair to acknowledge that Obama achieved something important and tangible in his effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons.

As I mentioned above, Obama will ultimately be judged on whether he combats jihadism successfully (without, it should be said, forming an alliance with the Islamic Republic of Iran, or even the Assad regime itself, in the process). He was first voted into power in part by promising to refocus America’s attention on Sunni jihadism. But by removing a deadly ‘x’ factor from the equation, he has done the world a service that ought to be acknowledged.