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Obama in the Middle East: Continued Circumspection (B+)360°ANALYSIS

In summer 2009, Obama gave a rousing speech in Cairo addressed to the Muslim world, entitled “A New Beginning”. Far from signalling a radical shift in US foreign policy, it was the first step down the by-now familiar path of Obama’s continued circumspection.

Pundits on both sides of the ideological spectrum, in America and abroad, are quick to label President Barack Obama’s policies as complete “successes” or “failures” based on their own political leanings, without much regard to substantive discussions of policy. This is easy because the situation is so complex, rendering prediction and comprehension rare commodities in a market of misinformation and misunderstanding. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of foreign policy, and especially so in the Middle East and North Africa, where the unfolding of regional events and processes continue to confuse and confound pundits and policymakers alike.

Inheritance of American Imperialism

The US president inherited a legacy of American imperialism in the Middle East, a reality accentuated by the facts of former President George W. Bush’s invasion and occupations of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, neither of which had ended when Obama took office.

Other long-term factors guided Obama’s policy choices: the reality of US dependence on Middle East energy supplies and the military commitments accompanying them, the spectre of jihadi international terrorism, ever-present since 9/11, a special relationship with Israel and a troubled relationship with Iran, internal tensions in the Arab world that were soon to erupt into rebellion and regime change in several countries, and decades-old key alliances with regional powers like Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The point is that Obama should not be seen as a success or failure simply based on how regional events outside of his control unfolded, but rather that he should be judged on how well the US reacted to these events as a victim of circumstance in a quickly changing world.

Ideally, a comparison of how the US dealt with each state and its diverse constituencies on their own terms could be undertaken to figure this out: a country-by-country cost-benefit analysis with objectively quantifiable scores to grade Obama on how well or how poorly he handled each case. Unfortunately, each bilateral political relationship between the US and the states of the Middle East and North Africa could fill a tome. Therefore, this brief analysis examines Obama’s foreign policy performance in the region via four simple dimensions: freedom, justice, stability, and influence.

The US and Freedom

Freedom refers to the foreign policy goal, often stated by incoming American presidents, to spread democratic reform and introduce competitive elections in the region. In this regard, it is difficult to see what Obama has accomplished. Mass uprisings in Iran protesting against the fraudulent elections of 2009 were virtually ignored by the Obama Administration in favour of engaging the Iranian government and attempting to negotiate an end to their alleged nuclear program.

A messy and protracted transition in Yemen from 33 years of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to a Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi led government has also failed to deliver promised changes to the impoverished and marginalized masses of Yemeni society.

The US played a central role, along with the oil-rich countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in shuttling between staunch Saleh loyalists and the disaffected opposition forces in brokering the eventual power transfer and avoiding all-out civil war. However, any notion of freedom or democracy maturing in Yemen in the interim is premature.

The Bush Administration’s lofty expectations for a democratic Iraq have long since vanished and been replaced by dysfunctional parliamentary coalitions and extreme insecurity for most of the population. While Obama withdrew US combat troops in December 2011, this has not meant the end of American involvement in Iraq and has certainly not benefited the process of Iraqi democratization. It seems that individual liberty, secular politics, and genuine democracy have not yet quite arrived in the Middle East.

Justice and Ordinary Citizens

Justice can be a broad term, but in this context can be gauged by how fairly these societies have been treated by the US government, especially in the wake of the Arab Uprisings. Tunisia, the first country to undergo revolution and regime change, found American diplomatic and financial aid quickly after deposing Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, despite his decades of close ties with the US and the West. Obama even paid homage to the Tunisian revolution’s democratic struggle in his State of the Union address in late January 2011, though it must be said that Washington was effectively blindsided by the swift and surprising nature of the onset of the revolution, as were leaders in capitals the world over.

The US initially wavered in welcoming revolutionary change to Egypt, cautiously waiting on the sidelines to see if President Hosni Mubarak would be able to reassert control after protests initially broke out on January 25. When Mubarak was eventually forced to cede power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the US doubled down on the military, continuing to provide billions of dollars in aid and equipment in exchange for a seat at the bargaining table for Egypt’s future. Without a hint of irony, the Obama Administration continued to push prosaically for democratic reform in Egypt while simultaneously entrenching a ruling military unwilling to cede power to the people.

Meanwhile, the US strategy in “leading from behind” with the NATO intervention in Libya succeeded in dislodging Colonel Muammar Qaddafi from power but proved less of a success in terms of rebuilding a fractured society. The burden of reconstruction inevitably rests with the intervening party, and while this does not exonerate Libyan society from adopting its own share of responsibility for the state of disrepair there today, Obama should have realized how central Libya’s post-intervention success would be to the narrative of the Arab Uprisings. Establishing law and order, revitalizing the oil export industry, and strengthening civil society would go a long way towards fulfilling the US responsibility to provide modern-day Libyans with justice.

As the bloodshed continues daily in the seemingly unstoppable Syrian Civil War, one thing is sure: it is doubtful at this point if the US can help to improve the lives of ordinary citizens in any of the Middle East’s troubled post-revolutionary states, let alone those within the decaying dictatorships left standing.

A Stable Region?

Stability: how secure and predictable is life for governments, businesses, and citizens? The biggest impediment to stability is war, and the biggest threat of war in the region for Obama has come from Iranian-Israeli tensions flaring intermittently.

Obama began his term in office by reaching out to Tehran, but a series of national crises within Iran and international developments negating any American-Iranian rapprochement quickly took on a momentum of their own.

With the US election now less than six weeks away, the threat of war between Iran and Israel has reached a fever pitch. This risk of war has also endangered energy supplies, especially given Iran’s repeated calls in retaliation for US-backed economic sanctions to blockade oil tankers from traversing the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway through which nearly 20% of global oil supplies regularly pass.

Terrorism continues to plague governments in the region, and US counter-terrorism operations in Yemen and elsewhere remain hugely unpopular. As the reliance on asymmetric forms of combat increase, most notably with remote-controlled “drone warfare”, airstrikes by these unmanned aerial vehicles in places as far apart as Uganda, Yemen, and Pakistan continue to foster radicalism and perpetuate anti-Americanism as innocent bystanders suffer the most.

The Arab Uprisings have served to undermine regional stability too, with virtually every government in the Middle East and North Africa experiencing some degree of mass protest unthinkable only a decade ago; however, it is debatable how much the US could ever have hoped to “manage” or “control” revolutionary upheaval on this scale, no matter who the US president would have been at the time. Stability ensures hegemony, which is clearly in the US national interest as a secure region nurtures interdependence, facilitates trade, ensures energy flows, cements relationships, and promotes cooperation. Instability risks the Pax Americana.

Influence and the Peace-Process

Influence is a tricky concept to define because it relates to the regional “balance of power” and “distribution of capabilities”, themselves notoriously ambiguous in practice. In other words, can the US government under an Obama Administration exert pressure, mobilize actors, achieve outcomes, and fulfill its objectives in the Middle East?

In terms of building and maintaining a consensus among a core group of states in the region that support American interests, the US maintains positive relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states, Turkey, Egypt and the North African states, including Libya – despite the recent storming of the US Consulate and death of the US Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens.

Egypt has long been recognized as a central pillar in a US-ordered Middle East, which is perhaps why Obama has deftly courted the Muslim Brotherhood movement and the new Islamist President Mohammad Morsi. Thus far, Egypt has acted largely in line with US interests, maintaining amicable relations with Israel, openly confronting Iran on their own turf, and seeking to broker an end to the Syrian conflict. Whether this continues to be the case remains to be seen.

Moreover, consider the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one of the thorniest foreign policy issues any US president must eventually approach. In the course of Obama’s entire term, negotiations have never seriously gained any momentum, from Israel’s disastrous Operation Cast Lead campaign in Gaza in 2008-09 to the present impasse on settlements and Palestinian refugees.

Unlike past presidents, Obama never offered draft proposals. Instead, the US allowed the two sides to engage each other fruitlessly in a never-ending game of broken telephone calls, as regional events spiralled out of control and distracted all the relevant actors from a resolution of the final-status issues.

And the Verdict is…

So how did President Obama react to the tumultuous past few years in the Middle East and North Africa?

The pullout from Iraq in 2011 and the planned departure from Afghanistan in 2014 are major developments that deserve some credit. In addition, the killing of Osama bin Laden last year was a massive symbolic victory for the US in the Global War on Terror and against the forces of al-Qaeda.

No matter the outcome, these interventions have drained the US of resources, morale, and reputation in the Muslim world.

What will happen to the post-revolutionary Arab governments remains questionable. The US relationship with Bahrain in particular is emblematic of the balancing act that Obama has been forced to play between freedom, justice, stability, and influence.

The island-nation houses the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, an armada that preserves the balance of military power in the region. However, the Sunni ruling monarchy has suppressed the Shi'a majority’s calls for democracy and dignity, even asking its Gulf neighbours for help in quelling the incipient rebellion, and all under the watchful eye of US foreign policymakers.

The contradiction lies in the fact that US rhetoric touts democracy promotion as a public good, naming and shaming Middle Eastern non-democracies while scandalously forgetting about Bahrain.

There is no guarantee that the Middle East will become a more hospitable place for American interests as a result of Obama’s policies, but he definitely left an indelible impact that will last for years to come. The US president’s continued circumspection is more a legacy of the “hand dealt to him” as opposed to the “hand he drew himself” at the proverbial poker table of world politics and international diplomacy.

By making adjustments to US policy in the Middle East on an issue-by-issue basis and refusing to overreact to any single event or be overwhelmed by any one process, Obama has been able to respond relatively well to these foreign policy challenges.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.