Gerson: Pretending victory doesn't make it so

Michael Gerson
Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON – Break out the name tags and Styrofoam-flavored coffee; it is conference season for Iran.

Iran's foreign minister will attend the Vienna talks on Syria's future for the first time, effectively ending his country's regional diplomatic isolation. Supporting terrorists, brutally repressing human rights, making a play for regional hegemony, propping up a dictator guilty of mass atrocities, and doing as much as anyone to destroy Syria's future are no longer disqualifications. The nuclear deal is evidently Iran's all-access, backstage diplomatic pass.

And let's not forget the annual "Death to America" events in Iran surrounding the Nov. 4 anniversary of the 1979 American embassy takeover. Also the second annual "End of America" confab in February, featuring academics explaining American decline.

At that event, it may be hard to pick among the sessions. Even if you consider the Iran nuclear deal a good thing, everywhere else in the region is likely to be markedly worse when President Obama leaves office than when he took it: Iraq in pieces; Syria in ruins; the rise of a terrorist state with unprecedented reach and resources; Yemen in civil war; Egypt under repressive military rule; Libya in chaos; Afghanistan with unraveling security; poisoned relations with Israel and the Sunni powers.

Obama's chance for a positive legacy in the Middle East depends entirely on the nuclear deal. Many of his other policies in the region are really more like poses. The administration still says that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must go — but everyone knows this is another meaningless red line, with Russia and Iran now intervening heavily to save the Syrian dictator. The administration insists that the nuclear deal is separable from confronting and isolating the Iranian regime on other issues like proliferation and terrorism — but containment already seems to be collapsing.

The administration pledges to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State — but has produced a strategy of stalemate, in which the U.S. military is struggling to fight within the political boundaries of Obama's claim to be the ender of wars. So, no "boots on the ground," but boots on the ground. No combat mission, but combat missions. And now Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is promising a new stage of direct American attacks in Iraq and Syria to help turn the tide in Raqqa and Ramadi.

So what does this improved military strategy actually mean? Does it reflect a new set of national goals that Obama has set and will be held accountable for achieving? If so, why didn't the president announce these goals himself? Carter, for all his virtues, is not the commander in chief. Why isn't Obama leading the public and the military into this new phase of the conflict and potential sacrifice?

Or was this announcement just a CYA maneuver, in case there are more casualties in America's non-war against the Islamic State? Or maybe it was the military trying to remind an insular White House staff that they are actually in a desperate fight and need more leeway and leadership to win?

Who knows? But the situation points to the administration's ultimate pose: Obama has claimed to conclude a war that he has continued to fight — just not adequately or competently. This fight continues because Sunni radicals want to destroy American allies and proxies and establish a terrorist kingdom. At the same time, Iran and its Russian ally want a tired and humiliated America to retreat from the region, leaving an open field for Hezbollah, the Quds Force and the Russian air force.

Into this strategic snake pit came the Obama administration, utterly convinced of a few things: That America has been too focused on the Middle East and too prone to ill-considered commitments. That our friends and allies have often been freeloaders, and that America should pull back and take off their training wheels. And that a nuclear deal with Iran was pretty much worth any price, and that it might lead to a strategic rebalancing, in which Iran and the U.S. could cooperate against Sunni radicalism.

The results? A vacuum filled by the worst people in the world. A massive humanitarian disaster, which Obama will be forced to explain for the rest of his days. An emboldened Iran, with an infusion of legitimacy and cash. An emboldened Russia, preening on the global stage. Friends and allies who feel betrayed. The cynical abandonment of human rights and democracy promotion in America's approach to the region.

And still for Obama, the pose of victory.

Michael Gerson is a columnist for The Washington Post.