When the Obama administration looks at the Middle East, it does so through the lens of counterterrorism. A systematic emphasis on the subject has underscored not just the administration’s relentless pursuit of al Qaeda and its new focus on the self-proclaimed Islamic State (or ISIS) but also a wider swath of its foreign policy, from its drone campaign in northwestern Pakistan to its maintenance of the detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Building on the post-9/11 efforts of the Bush administration, U.S. President Barack Obama has established a national security machine adept at identifying and disrupting terrorist networks. Much of the U.S. strategy is based on an intelligence campaign that involves partnering with countries around the world to gather information on suspected top terrorists. In cases in which the U.S. government cannot arrest terrorists, it kills them in drone strikes or through other direct actions.
The U.S. counterterrorist effort has been particularly successful against the so-called al Qaeda core. Relying on intelligence reports, the United States has targeted al Qaeda cells and networks around the globe, arresting or killing key leaders and making it difficult for the group to coordinate its far-flung followers. Confounding doomsayers, there has been no repeat of 9/11—or anything close to it.
Despite some notable successes, an overwhelming focus on counterterrorism has led the United States to miss the broader regional trends undermining U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Counterterrorism not only explains where Obama has been aggressive; it also explains the limits of where he acts. Obama withdrew forces from Iraq in 2011, for example, and initially resisted intervening in Syria. In his second term, he has not significantly increased the U.S. role in Libya or Yemen, even as the violence has mounted and allies, such as Saudi Arabia, have begun to doubt the United States’ commitment to the region. In 2014, when the United States bombed Iraq and Syria, it did so to fight ISIS, not the Syrian leader