According to Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, Barack Obama’s prescription for U.S. foreign policy is “Don’t do stupid stuff.” As a guide to the conduct of foreign policy in the Middle East, that was evidently not enough.
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Obama’s best laid plans for that area of the world have come to naught. Worse, thousands of American lives have been lost, trillions of dollars have been wasted and turmoil in the Middle East has only gotten worse. What were advertised as achievements have turned into failures. Enemies of the U.S. are in control of most of what used to be Iraq and Syria, and Washington in desperation is turning to none other than Iran for help.
This is obviously not what Obama had in mind when he arrived in Cairo on June 4, 2009, and gave his “New Beginning” speech. Emphasizing that his middle name was Hussein, that he had spent his youth in an Islamic environment, and quoting liberally from the “holy Koran,” he tried to make it clear that he was uniquely qualified to understand the Muslim world and bring about an understanding and an end to hostility between it and the U.S. There was, he said, going to be a “new beginning” in that relationship. His speech reflected great dreams and pious hopes, but hardly a realistic appreciation of the Middle East and the developments in the Muslim world.
It turned out that his Islamic credentials and his good intentions did not stand him in good stead in the Muslim world. To radical Muslims, Shia and Sunni, on the rise in the Middle East, his Cairo speech must have seemed as a sign that Muslim terrorist attacks against U.S. targets were bearing fruit.
To be fair to Obama, his administration was not the first to make serious mistakes in Middle East policy. Harry Truman, although being the first to extend U.S. recognition to the State of Israel, imposed an arms embargo on the Jewish State while it was resisting the invasion of the combined Arab armies, forcing it to turn to communist Czechoslovakia for the supply of weapons during Israel’s War of Independence. Dwight Eisenhower applied brutal pressure on David Ben-Gurion to withdraw from Sinai and the Gaza Strip after the Suez campaign, a decision he later regretted. The Reagan administration provided support to Saddam Hussein during the Iraqi invasion of Iran. With a few exceptions here and there, U.S. Middle East policy over the years was a series of blunders.
And no wonder, how could Americans understand the intricacies of the Arab and Muslim world? The difference between Hezbollah, Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra, and now ISIS? Or the mind set of the Islamic fanatics in Tehran building long-range missiles and developing nuclear bombs? Many of America’s political scientists and diplomats had honed their strategic and political skills during the Cold War and succeeded in handling it well until the fall of the Soviet Union, but the Middle East was another matter entirely.
Were Obama’s mistakes in the Middle East inevitable? Not necessarily. The U.S. had one friend in the area – Israel. A stable democratic country and a strategic ally of the U.S. But not only that – it was the country with the highest concentration of experts on the Middle East and the Arab and Islamic world anywhere. It had a leadership with many years of experience in dealing with terrorism. Israeli expertise could have served America well and possibly prevented some of the mistakes made by the Obama administration.
But Obama decided to pick a fight with its best friend in the area. Already in his Cairo speech his message was clear. Referring to Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, he declared: “It is time for these settlements to stop.” In the years to follow he let it be known that he expected Israel to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines, which he preferred to call the 1967 lines. His criticism of the Israeli government and his pressure on Israel never let up. It was hardly a climate to produce close cooperation and consultation on other matters. It may have been an opportunity missed.