Has Obama Failed in the Middle East?
Monday 18 October 2010
By Adel Al Toraifi
“Obama is indecisive”, “the president’s generals disagree with him”, “Afghanistan is Obama’s presidential battle.” These are just a few extracts from Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars that sparked considerable debate upon its publication at the end of last month. Woodward spent around a year observing the Obama administration, conducting dozens of interviews with senior officials including President Obama himself. Woodward concluded that Obama, who had described the conflict in Afghanistan as a “just war” had become unable to find a way out of it, and that this war is on the verge of heavily affecting the future of his presidency at a time when his popularity has declined sharply due to the problem of unemployment and the decrease in America’s economic growth.
There can be no doubt that Obama is facing domestic challenges which on one hand is related to the difficult situation that he inherited from his predecessor, and on the other to the growing conservative trend represented by the Tea Party movement that opposes all of his plans, and which is now preparing to break Obama’s Democratic party at the mid-term elections. However, the greatest challenge facing Obama right now is the large proportion of the young people turning away from him after he failed to live up to their huge expectations. Perhaps the most fitting description of the crisis that Obama is facing was put forward by Professor Fouad Ajami, who wrote that “he appeared as a savior” and “the crowd is left to its most powerful possession – its imagination.”
Obama’s popularity might seem to be in decline in America; however, the greatest decline in Obama’s popularity is in the Middle East; not just at a grassroots level, but also among the elite. It was natural for the people of the region to experience a moment of fleeting jubilation upon the election of an Afro-American candidate to the presidency; and particularly an American who calls for dialogue with the Muslim world, however it was just a matter of time before things returned to normal in the Middle East. What is interesting here is the decline in confidence of the Middle East’s elite in Obama’s ability to contribute to – let alone impose – stability on the region. The dominant impression amongst a huge sector of this Arab elite is that the Obama administration’s weak position towards Iran, its controversial approach to Syria, its neglect of Lebanon, and its inability to make any political progress in Iran, not to mention its faltering peace project, point to signs of a huge failure.
In two articles published this week, one by James Traub (in Foreign Policy Magazine; 8 October), and another by Raghda Durgham (al-Hayat newspaper; 8 October), argued that the policies and positions adopted by the Obama administration were counter-productive, particularly the revival of the Syrian-Iranian axis, not to mention Lebanon, where the government is on the verge of collapse. What Traub and Durgham said was that the indecisiveness of the Obama administration towards Iran and Syria’s policies – as well as the policies of their allies Hezbollah and Hamas – has decreased the momentum of democracy and independence in Iraq and Lebanon. This is something that has resulted in the Iraqi election results being delayed in the interests of the allies of Iran [in Iraq], and everybody remaining silent about the attempt that was made to blackmail the Lebanese Prime Minister by Syria and Hezbollah with regards to the international tribunal – despite his apology for accusing Syria of being involved in his father’s assassinations given to this very newspaper.
In my opinion, the Obama administration is responsible for this, as well as responsibility for the change in the policies of a number of influential Arab countries, however any keen observer of US policy should have expected all of this.
It was natural for America under Obama – who won the presidential elections on an anti-war agenda – to move towards appeasement and become more pragmatic, avoiding confrontation with regimes classified as being opponents of the war in Iraq. Whilst at a political level, Obama was and remains a “realist” despite his victory with the help of the Democrat party left-wing.
Obama is a president who is a “realist” and avoids ideals and slogans, and in this he is closer to Nixon or Bush Senior. Obama chose the path of moderation, thereby losing both the left-wing and the right-wing. This is a strange comparison; however, everybody who knows Obama’s political history is well aware of this. On the foreign policy level, he is no less pragmatic than the most realist politicians. Evidence of this can be seen in his inauguration speech in which he said that his administration was not aiming to change the world or impose the American democratic vision on anyone.
On the Arab level, the Arab-Syrian reconciliation began before Obama’s rapprochement with Syria and, in fact, the French rapprochement with Syria preceded both the Arabs and the US. In other words, rapprochement with Syria was a project that three parties participated in; the US, Europe, and the Arabs. Therefore it is unfair to lay the blame solely on the shoulders of the Obama administration with regards to the deteriorating situation in Lebanon. The failure of the Obama administration in Iraq was a result of its persistence with the policies of the former administration, and the same applies to its rapprochement with Syria which actually began before the Bush administration left office. Therefore the Obama administration is not responsible for all this; it is only responsible for continuing in the same direction.
As for Iran, the Obama administration did all that it could. It managed to impose international sanctions against Iran with the assistance of China and Russia. It also succeeded in imposing additional US and European sanctions on Iran, which have placed Iran’s economy in a precarious position. Just reading the “Economist” magazine’s most recent report on Iran is enough to realize the impact that these sanctions have had. Should the Obama administration have done more than this?
Personally, I believe so, but what more could it have done if all the influential countries in the region are hesitant about escalation with Iran and its allies? The Obama administration is powerless at this point because everybody else is reluctant to take the decision to confront once more, and this is the crux of the matter. If the region’s countries have no desire to confront the challenges of the Syrian-Iranian axis, I don’t think the US or any other country would be willing to shoulder further responsibilities in this respect. The strength of countries like Iran and Syria stems from the fact that other countries – for whatever reasons – are unwilling to confront them till the bitter end. Obama fails when the others are unprepared to support him in undertaking a necessary confrontation, and share the costs with him. The Obama administration tried to revitalize the peace process but was humiliated by Netanyahu’s government which managed to entangle the Obama administration in the settlement freezing issue and force it into making unjustified promises.
In fact, the solution to this is not in the hands of President Abbas, but rather with Hamas leader Khalid Mishal in Syria. Anybody who wants to strike a deal to ensure stability in Lebanon does not need to go to the presidential palace of Saad Hariri, but rather to Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s hide-out in the Beirut suburb of Dahiya. Anybody who wants to form a government in Baghdad has to first convince the Iranian ambassador to Iraq. In a nutshell, the ability of the US – or any other country – to change the situation depends on facing those powers that possess arms and forcibly imposing their logic.
To some, Obama’s handling of the countless crises in the Middle East may not have been convincing and decisive, however, for a “realist” who is aware of the heavy cost of crucial decisions, he is not prepared to pay the costs for this whilst others do not wish to as well.