international analysis and commentary

Obama and the Middle East: hard times to be a realist


The Obama Middle East policy could be best interpreted by looking at the “new realism” of the last two years of the Bush presidency. The shift away from “transformative diplomacy” and the Freedom Agenda, already underway under Obama’s predecessor, was a result of the combination between the apparent failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, military overstretch and budget constraints induced by the 2008 financial crisis.

Barack Obama came into office determined to pursue a policy of “status quo with some reform” as Greg Aftandilian defined it: an emphasis on regional stability rather than on democracy promotion, on engagement with all local actors rather than on “black lists” and on cooperation with European and Arab partners rather than on unilateralism. The events in the region have not facilitated these plans and often forced him to quickly adapt his professed realism to the reality on the ground.

Obama’s hierarchy of priorities was tested earlier on in his presidency, when Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27, 2008. This led the new president to devote more attention to the Middle East peace process than many had predicted. The American request for a complete settlement freeze led to a standoff with the Netanyahu cabinet. In the end, Obama blinked first and the peace process returned to the back burner where many in the US policy elite thought it belonged. After four years, this is probably the issue on which the administration’s failure is more evident.

The first months of Obama’s presidency were marked also by the Cairo speech, a spectacular outreach effort towards the Muslim world – after a decade of aggressive unilateralist policy. The effects on Arab opinion polls were short-lived. And yet, the lack of anti-Americanism in the 2011 “revolutions” signaled an at least partially post-ideological attitude by the so-called Arab street.

On the Iranian nuclear program, Obama came into office with a plan of engagement and negotiations with the Tehran regime combined with multilateral efforts to be conducted jointly with Europeans. Again, reality subverted Obama’s plans: with the 2009 Iranian (rigged) presidential elections and the repression of the “green movement”, the Iranian regime became a hard sell as a peace partner. The administration had to carefully navigate between the need to keep the channels open with the regime on the nuclear issue and deal with an increasingly hardline Congress, eager to increase the pressure on Tehran. As a matter of fact, negotiations and engagement did not go far enough, while the other pillar of the strategy – namely, multilateralism – was used to provide successive doses of crippling sanctions. After four years, the administration’s policy on the Iranian nuclear program was closer to regime change than to a grand bargain, and this shift was also used to show that there was “no daylight” between the White House and Israel – a good campaign statement, albeit not necessarily accurate.

As if this was not enough of a headache, the Arab uprisings showed how little the status quo was tenable without some progress towards democratization or, at least, some cosmetic changes in the policies adopted by the pro-US ruling elites. One could fairly acknowledge that national interests, and not democracy promotion, remained the guiding principle of US policy in the region.

Libya was a different story, one in which the various trends within the US foreign policy elite came into play: Gates’ cautious “realism” subdued under the weight of a peculiar alliance between women policy makers (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power to name but the most relevant) who, mindful of the failures of the 1990s, advocated intervention in the name of the “Responsibility to Protect” principle. After having carefully weighed his support for the removal of Mubarak, Obama wanted to look more clearly on the “right side of history” in Libya. Initially, Operation United Protector seemed successful: at last, the US had toppled an Arab dictator, spending just a little bit more than one billion of taxpayers’ dollars and shedding no American blood. Libya, however, was not pacified and its chaos eventually generated the September 11th attack in Benghazi which haunted Obama well into the last presidential debate.

Syria is yet another story, being a victim of the regional chess game where US allies pursue their own strategy, not necessarily dovetailing with America’s. The Syrian crisis also underscores the end of the “unipolar world”: a decade ago, the Iraq war was waged despite the opposition of Russia and China, but in 2012 Syria epitomized the changed international balance of power and its reverberations on the Middle East landscape. In Syria, no easy solution is in sight and the ghosts of the humanitarian disasters of the 1990s, which US policy makers were eschewing in Libya in 2011, are again tangible.

Finally, when talking about US policy in the wider Middle East, the so-called “war of the drones” should not be overlooked, whether it takes place in Pakistan, Yemen or Libya. In 2011 alone, 7,000 drone missions have been carried out, a sharp increase if compared with the Bush administration’s figures. Decisions about these strikes are heavily concentrated in the hands of the President, leading to a further expansion of executive powers within the US system. The “war of the drones” marks a decisive upgrade of the “war on terror” (officially repudiated by the Obama administration), it is certainly more coherent with the “post-heroic age” and its value of American blood as compared with massive operations on the ground like Iraq. It remains to be seen  whether it will be effective in uprooting terrorism.

Are all of these scenarios evidence of “the end of America’s moment”, as Fawaz Gerges asks in his recent book? It is fair to say that this moment probably ended some years before President Obama entered office. Even a Republican successor would have had to cope with financial constraints. The limits to the use of US military power that Obama experienced do not just have to do with overstretch: the wars in the greater Middle East have shown America’s inability to cope with asymmetrical warfare and “small wars” while pursuing the democratization of countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ultimately, the irony is that the US had stopped looking for transformation in the region just when the region itself started to crave for it – and in a rather decisive way. Increasingly, each national case tends to be more and more a story of its own and yet attempts to tailor US policy on these differences may appear as double-standards. Unfortunately, tougher challenges lie ahead: the drafting of democratic constitutions along with the stabilization of countries dominated by Islamist parties and aggressive Salafi constituencies; the evolution of the Iranian nuclear program and the entrenched Syrian civil war with its spill-over effect. If, on the contrary, more freedom of the press will spread through the region and governments will become more accountable to their citizens, this will pose a new challenge to US policy makers: their inability to address Palestinian sufferings might be more harmful to US credibility vis-à-vis new “democratic” Arab public opinion. Finally, consistent program of economic assistance might be needed to build up US leverage in the region – a complex task in times of burgeoning deficits. The only good news is that the political economy of the new Islamist ruling classes dovetails well with the free-market recipes advocated by US policy makers. Cold comfort for an administration committed to realism, to which reality showed some rather uncomfortable and challenging truths.