It's getting complicated.

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Obama's Middle East Fantasy

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Way back in the George W. Bush administration, his progressive critics used to call themselves members of the "reality based community." The phrase was first popularized by Ron Suskind in a lengthy criticism of Bush's so-called war on terror. Bush and his team were blinded by the moral certainties of ideology, whereas their critics understood the world as it is.

Reading through President Barack Obama's new 2015 National Security Strategy, I think it's time to resurrect the phrase, because this document bears very little relation to reality, at least in the Middle East.

A reality-based national security strategy might go something like this: "In my presidency, forces have been unleashed in the Middle East that have disrupted the American-led world order forged in the aftermath of World War II. While it's possible that an infusion of American troops could deter Sunni and Shiite extremists, I was elected twice with a promise to end wars, and I doubt the American people have the stomach for this kind of commitment. So we are just going to have to accept a less-stable Middle East, where leaders and citizens who share and cherish our values will be under constant threat and in perpetual retreat."

Instead, the new strategy is a rich stew of feel-good euphemism. As the New York Times reported, the word "lead," "leadership" or some variation appears nearly 100 times. The word "Islam" is only mentioned twice. There is a lot of "training" and "equipping." Rest assured, our "efforts" are almost always "comprehensive." 

The strategy correctly states that depriving Islamic State forces a safe haven in Iraq "requires professional and accountable Iraqi Security Forces that can overcome sectarian divides and protect all Iraqi citizens." But it fails to account for much of what I saw in Iraq over the last week, including the fact that the U.S. is now providing air power for Iraqi forces that are being led in some cases by sectarian militia leaders.  

In Iraq, nearly everyone with whom I spoke, from the Kurds to the Shiite commanders, said the U.S. reacted far too late to the jihadi menace and is still doing far too little. In the region, many U.S. partners appear to be getting cold feet. It was reported this week, for example, that the United Arab Emirates suspended its contribution to the war against the Islamic State in December. 

The strategy also boasts of Obama's plans "to train and equip a moderate Syrian opposition to provide a counterweight to the terrorists and the brutality of the Assad regime." Recent reports tell a very different story. One U.S.-backed Syrian commander complained to the Wall Street Journal that his men were provided with only 16 bullets a month, whereas al-Qaeda and Islamic State fighters in Syria have received far better supplies. 

Then there is Iran. The strategy says it is the Obama administration's "preference" to "achieve a comprehensive and verifiable deal that assures Iran’s nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes." And yet as the Associated Press reported this week, the latest U.S. proposal in nuclear negotiations would allow Iran to maintain 10,000 working centrifuges. Even if it would limit the installation of more-efficient centrifuges that produce a greater yield of enriched uranium, it seems more like delaying the inevitable nuclearization of Iran's arsenal than a "peaceful" program. It also represents the withering away of one of the president's initial goals: to dismantle Iran's ability to break out quickly and build a bomb after an international agreement. 

Obama has been dealt, admittedly, a tough hand. If he wants to stop the advance of Islamic State fighters, which he has started to do, then it puts him on the same side of a regional war with Iran. And yet he also says he seeks to shore up America's traditional Sunni allies in the region. And the strategy commits the U.S. to work "to address the underlying conditions that can help foster violent extremism such as poverty, inequality, and repression. " This goal, it says, "means supporting alternatives to extremist messaging and greater economic opportunities for women and disaffected youth." 

If Obama really wants to address everything from inequality to political repression to disaffected youth, he will have to jettison his faith in the wisdom of his own disengagement from the Middle East. Yet the strategy document suggests Obama has not learned this lesson. Indeed, it boasts of how the administration shifted away from costly and unsustainable ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to what it calls a more "sustainable approach" to fighting terrorism.   

There are good reasons to support America's disengagement from the region. But to pretend this disengagement will have no cost on America's ability to shape events in the Middle East is delusional. 

Because the reality is this: For all of the problems posed by significant U.S. ground forces in the Middle East, it is the only option right now if Obama wishes to stop the advance of the Islamic State without aiding the advance of the Islamic Republic of Iran. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net