Four Years of Idealism
It has been a bumpy road in the Middle East during the course of Barack Obama’s term in office. Nearly two years ago the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia and spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, in some cases tossing decades-old dictatorships aside. A year ago America’s war in Iraq officially ended with the U.S. military pulling out in full. It has been two years since Israeli and Palestinian leaders last sat down at the negotiating table and nearly four years since President Obama extended an open hand to Iran. It is natural to now tally the scorecard and examine Obama’s legacy in the Middle East. Some suggest recent events signify the end of America’s influence there.
“Today America’s position in the region resembles that of Great Britain at the end of World War II, before its sharp decline in the 1950s. We are witnessing the beginning of the end of America’s moment in the Middle East.” So writes Fawaz Gerges, professor and director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, in the introduction to his new book, Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment?.
Gerges argues that American influence in the Middle East is in decline; its desires for the region will be increasingly challenged and overruled by both friend and foe in pursuit of “policies that mostly cater to public opinion.” For Gerges, America’s waning influence in the region results from decades of poor policies that President Obama continued rather than changed, as many in the Middle East had hoped. Far from the president’s idealist promises—to politically engage with America’s enemies and embrace a multilateral approach—Gerges finds that Obama has favored a realist approach by basing policy on preserving America’s security interests.
Gerges’ analysis, however, does not reflect reality.
One of the president’s first foreign policy maneuvers in the Middle East was to extend an open arm to the Islamic world, its people, and its regimes—drawing little distinction between allies and enemies. So while he traveled to Cairo in 2009 to declare, “a new beginning” for U.S.-Muslim relations, he also sent a message to the Iranian leadership in which he asked for “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect” in a video commemorating the Iranian New Year. A continuation of previous U.S. policies would have led President Obama to address his New Year’s greeting to the Iranian people, rather than the regime he hoped to persuade.
President Obama’s idealist outstretched hand to Iran’s leaders continued with his approval of U.S.-Iranian meetings without preconditions and sending two letters to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seeking cooperation between the countries. Mr. Obama was so focused on an idealist approach that the White House sat on the sidelines as the regime murdered protesters in the streets following Iran’s fraudulent 2009 presidential elections. As part of his engagement strategy, Obama also moved the nuclear enrichment goal post, brokering a fuel swap deal that allowed Iran to export low-enriched uranium to a third country for conversion into fuel rods for Tehran’s use. It was tacit approval that Iran could enrich uranium, in return for a promise to keep the diplomatic channels open. Tehran eventually reneged on the deal and continues to enrich uranium to ever-higher levels.
Following Gerges’ argument, President Obama’s decision to break with traditional allies such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab uprising was also based on a realist assessment of national interests rather than an idealist desire for democracy in Egypt. Obama believed, according to the author, that embracing the uprising would result in Egyptian approval of the U.S. As such, the president went against his advisers, as well as close allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, who did not want the American president to call for a new order in Cairo.
This thinking raises the question: How can Obama’s betrayal of an ally during popular protests be characterized as a realist decision, while his failure to support Iranian popular protests in 2009 also be considered realist policymaking in action? Would it not have been more along realist lines for the president to throw full American support behind protesters seeking to change an enemy regime? Indeed, the same question can be asked of Obama’s current policies toward Syria.
Moreover, the president’s decision following Mubarak’s ouster to accept and even embrace a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government can hardly be considered political realism. It is difficult to imagine how an anti-Western government ruled by an organization that seeks to upend the lynchpin of stability in the Middle East—the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty—and fashion a constitution based on Sharia law would be in the United States’ interests.
Obama’s idealistic approach to Egypt has certainly not benefitted the U.S. Gerges quotes a June 2011 Gallup poll that found that 68 percent of Egyptians think the U.S. will try to exert influence over Cairo’s political future. And of course, the most recent shower of Egyptian love came in the regime-sanctioned storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo on September 11, 2012 in which the American flag was replaced with an Islamist one. President Mohammed Morsi’s initial response did not condemn the attacks but the film that supposedly sparked the protest.
Finally, when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, President Obama has acted idealistically, setting aside hard lessons learned from past presidents on Palestinian intransigence and hoping that pressuring the Israelis to end settlement construction in the West Bank would bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. Instead, the Palestinians adopted the president’s talking point and, since the last settlement freeze’s expiration in 2010, have continued to refuse to negotiate until Israel goes even further by stopping all settlement activities in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and recognizing the 1967 lines as the border of a future Palestinian state. Now, the two sides could not be further away from negotiations while the U.S.-Israel relationship has been seriously strained—hardly the outcome a realist would want to elicit.
Gerges concludes that decades of realist policies toward the Middle East have brought about an American decline, illustrated by the recent assertiveness of Israel to refuse Obama’s demand for a settlement freeze; of Egypt to upgrade relations with Iran; of Iran to continue its path towards nuclear capability; of Turkey to vote against UN sanctions on Iran; and of Iraq to rebuff America’s efforts to keep troops in the country after December 2011, to name a few examples. What Gerges doesn’t consider, however, is that these assertive policies may be a result of the lack of leadership offered by the Obama administration.
Even so, Gerges shouldn’t be so quick to write-off America’s “moment” in the Middle East. While the U.S. may not wield the same influence in the region that it has in past years, leadership in Washington that rewards its friends and punishes its adversaries would go a long way in making governments understand what is and is not acceptable behavior. Such influence through strength would be the cornerstone of a realist approach.
Samara Greenberg is a senior research associate at the Jewish Policy Center and deputy editor of inFOCUS Quarterly. She is editor of GazaWATCH.