“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition,” Barack Obama said in June 2009 in his famous speech at Cairo University. It was only six months after he was elected U.S. president for the first time.
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Eight years later it seems little is left of this declaration. Obama has apparently kept the faith, but in most Arab countries his time in office has left a thick residue of bitterness, disappointment, frustration and misunderstanding. In Israel, meanwhile, he’s considered an Israel hater and even a Muslim who by nature doesn’t seek the country’s good.
Obama’s America is perceived as a weak power divorced from reality, a country that has left behind destruction, war, hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees and unsolvable conflicts.
Russia became the major power in the region, Iran benefited effortlessly and grew stronger at the expense of the Arab countries, the Palestinians were pushed aside, and the America of that “new beginning” is perceived as a colonial power.
But that narrative doesn’t do justice to Obama and his policies. Obama inherited a hostile, disjointed, terror-filled Middle East from his predecessor George W. Bush, even before anyone had ever heard of the Islamic State.
Iraq was already suffering the worst of the wholesale terror. The Iraqi government, built on the shoulders of the U.S. occupation under Bush, was torn between ethnic groups.
Politicians, especially Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, favored the ethnic group they belonged to. Shi’ites abused Sunnis, Kurds reinforced their autonomous region and the American forces that largely rooted out Al-Qaida terror couldn’t stabilize the political conflicts.
In this situation, Obama understood that the best thing he could do for his country was a timetable to get American troops out and leave Iraq to the Iraqis. In retrospect, it can be said that if U.S. forces had stayed in Iraq they would have encountered the Islamic State on Iraqi soil and would have become a direct target à la Al-Qaida during the first years of the occupation, or Afghanistan, where some 2,400 American soldiers and civilians died.
Obama also understood that “marketing democracy,” Bush’s excuse to justify the war in Iraq after no weapons of mass destruction had been found, was a hollow one.
Sunnis vs. Shi’ites in Iran
Some say America’s exit from Iraq at the end of 2011 cleared the way for the Islamic State’s takeover of large swaths of the country in 2014, but this claim is hard to prove. The “new” Iraqi army, which was to have stopped ISIS, received poor training from the Americans, and its motivation was nil. It also faced Sunni tribal forces that cooperated with the Islamic State, in part because they detested the Iraqi government that treated them as a subversive minority; basically, as the enemy.
Also attributed to the strategy of American withdrawal from Iraq was Iran’s growing strength in Iraq; it turned Iraq into a client state. There’s no doubt that Iran took advantage of the vacuum left by the United States to build an economic and political outpost in Iraq.
This was also Saudi Arabia’s main complaint against Obama. But the Saudis were the ones who refused to recognize the Iraqi government and did not cooperate with it, thwarting the possibility of bringing Iraq into the Arab sphere and extricating it from Iranian influence.
Still, that claim stands on weak legs because there’s no guarantee that Iraq under the control of a Shi’ite majority would turn its back on Iran. This is especially the case when most Arab countries, especially the Gulf states, suspect that any government change after Saddam Hussein in “Shi’ite” Iraq could encourage subversion by Shi’ites in their own countries.
The next upheaval Obama had to deal was the Arab Spring, whose leaders expected American backing. Obama at first took a value-based stand in line with the ideology in his Cairo speech. The end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule “must begin now,” Obama said in a speech on February 1, 2011, 10 days before President Hosni Mubarak resigned.
According to American sources, Obama expected the revolution in Tunisia, which had broken out shortly before, to become a trend throughout the Middle East that could even bring down the Iranian regime.
Did Obama act wisely when he sided with the revolutionaries? Did he make a mistake to consider the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory the beginning of the democratic process in the Middle East? Was he right when he withheld support for Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi after he seized power in July 2013?
Ideology melts in the desert
In retrospect, it seems Obama was wrong the whole way. Many months would pass before he could to patch up the deep rift with the Sissi government. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood turned out unfit to rule while seeking a tyrannical regime based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law, leaving the young revolutionaries unable to fulfill their ideological and political aspirations.
But in January 2011, and during the revolution’s first year, the United States could have acted no differently before the direction of the anti-Mubarak revolution became clear. Should Washington have supported Mubarak and lost the support of the Egyptians who supported the revolution? Could it have let itself seem not to support democratic moves in Arab countries?
But this defense has one major flaw. The democracy-loving president was struck dumb when Saudi Arabia and Bahrain brutally suppressed the Arab Spring activists in Bahrain. It seems high ideology had melted in the heat of the desert.
Then three years later, Saudi Arabia received a resounding slap in the face. The United States and Iran began their long negotiations designed to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Millions of words have been written citing the importance of (and objections to) that treaty. But there’s no disputing that it was one of the most significant diplomatic moves of Obama’s presidency. Here too, Obama weighed the options well and dropped those that represented the most serious threats to the United States.
The first of these was the military option that could embroil the United States in a regional if not global war. Israel’s statements that it might attack Iran on its own did not free Washington from its dilemma. Because even if Israel attacked alone, the United States, obligated to protect Israel, would have had to intervene.
In fact, Israel took away Washington’s right to choose when it said it might act alone. Bringing down the Iranian regime didn’t seem an option after Iran’s 2009 presidential election. The only avenue left was the diplomatic channel, and this wouldn’t be possible as long as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remained in power and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei refused to grant him the authority to negotiate during the wait for Ahmadinejad’s successor.
Obama couldn’t control Iranian politics, but he could take the stance that Bush took when he didn’t respond to an Iranian proposal in 2002 to freeze the nuclear program in return for a lifting of sanctions. Instead, Obama took the opportunity.
The Iranian opportunity of course had its price. It quelled Washington’s ability to intervene in Syria while it was negotiating with Iran. The fear of all-out war trumped humanitarian efforts that could have saved some of the 300,000 Syrians who died, but might have sparked an international conflict in Syria.
Thus Obama preferred to provide limited assistance to the rebel militias rather than intervene directly against President Bashar Assad. American military involvement in Iraq and Syria was confined to noncontroversial targets – the Islamic State and the “war on terror.”
Caution also characterized Obama’s policies toward Israel. His administration’s efforts to revive the peace process with the Palestinians ended with the realization that there would be no real change in the parties’ positions during his term.
The United States can’t want peace more than the parties to the conflict – that’s how James Baker, secretary of state under George H.W. Bush, put it. Obama showed a deeper aspiration and was willing to invest more, but in the end he chose the better option for him and his country. The possible option.