Obama's Middle Eastern policy - a recipe for success or disaster...?!

Gus Olwan

Senior advisor at the Saudi Cultural office.

Since Barack Obama became the 43rd president of the United States, the country’s foreign policy in the Middle East has shifted towards one of a non-engagement, which has brought controversial debate over scope, role, and significance. It thus becomes important to analyse the conduct of the U.S. policies under Obama’s administration that have influenced the current shape of the Middle East map.

Obama’s second term started with the eruption of the Arab Spring and a strong wave of movements demanding change in the region. Now, it seems that the region is in extreme chaos, particularly in the wake of the new Islamic State territories in Syria and Iraq. So, what are Obama’s greatest achievements in the region, or has it just been a disappointment?

The analysis of the U.S. foreign policy during Obama’s presidency towards the Middle East region will consider three major challenges, which confront his administration. These are the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the war in Syria; and the U.S. approach to dealing with the Arab Spring movements and its aftermath. 

The U.S. being the only broker dealing with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not yet achieved any breakthrough. There were a number of obstacles that shifted the U.S. policy away from this conflict, but at the same time kept the streaming of negotiations between the parties open. The Israeli government, under Netanyahu, is unwilling to make any territorial concessions to the Palestinians that will move the peace process further, or allow the Palestinians to proclaim a Palestinian State without the consent of the Israelis. Also, the Palestinians are politically divided, between Fatah and Hamas, and territorially, between the Gaza and the West Bank, making it harder for the U.S. to achieve any success towards this conflict.

Other contributing factors are the U.S. administration itself, such as, how they prioritise their interests in the region. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. security ties to the imploding Middle East and the oil flows remain a serious issue for the American policy makers. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its current form will not make any significant disruption to America’s two primary interests of security and oil flow in the region. Furthermore, the priority of shifting the attention towards more prominent challenges, such as fighting the Salafi-jihadi movements in the region has become a priority for the Obama administration. These challenges have taken attention away from helping the Palestinians in their struggle for justice and dignity, or at least not until the new map of the Middle East emerges, and the whole region becomes politically transformed.

The U.S. policy in dealing with the Syrian war remains controversial to many scholars. While the UN resolution 2254 is seen as a success to the Americans in producing a road map for peace in Syria, many still have their doubts of the possibility of such a deal succeeding. The Obama administration’s strategic approach to Syria, since the killing started in early 2011, remains around containing the conflict inside Syria. It includes asking Assad not to be part of Syria’s future; demanding political transition; helping the moderate Syrian opposition and arming and training the Free Syrian Army; while fighting Islamic State operators within Syria.

The destruction of Syria over a period of five years offers a menu of legitimate questions, starting with what is the wisdom of the U.S. playing a waiting game that has allowed Syria to be dragged towards this end. Rethinking policy approach alternatives could be less costly if perhaps the Americans had tried some different strategies in dealing with this war from the very beginning. Their focus on the use of tactical air strikes to combat the Islamic State; training the Syrian rebels; and helping the refugees was doomed to fail because it has not addressed the underlying causes of this conflict – a civil war between the Syrian people and the Assad regime. A strategy of diplomacy towards a peace plan followed by a marathon of negotiation in Geneva should be accompanied by some proposals to place U.S. and allied forces in Syria. An allied presence will perhaps strengthen the position of the moderate rebels and limit Assad’s dream of alternative victory rather than endless negotiations. The Obama administration’s fear of a post Assad failed State is seen by some U.S. policy makers as a reason for urging Obama to seek reengagement with Assad.

The Obama administration’s caution towards supporting mass protests in the Arab world was caused by fears of chaos in the region that could result in having failed States, potentially leaving a vacuum that could be filled with Salafi-jihadi movements. The Arab Spring called for a change of governments and democratisation in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Syria, Obama gave his support when he addressed the Arab Spring in Cairo in May 2011, and clarified his government’s support for a democratisation process in the Middle East and North Africa region. However, the balance between U.S. interests and principles of freedom and democracy collided together in mistrust and confusion. The support of ousting some of the former autocratic regimes in the region, such as the one in Egypt during the mass protests in January 2011, resulted in a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood; a new ruler who lasted for one year. Later, Obama refused to describe the July 2013 Egyptian military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood from power as a military coup. Perhaps this could be explained by the emergence of growing terrorist activities in Egypt, particularly in the Sinai, and halting Obama’s support for change and democracy that aggravated security concerns.

The legacy of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East will remain arguably controversial. While the administration wanted to end the U.S. wars and disengage from the Middle East, it was confronted with circumstances and a turn of events in parts of the world, particularly the Middle East and North Africa that hijacked Obama’s intention to limit the U.S. direct engagement outside of its borders. The Arab Spring resulted in having some failed States, creating a vacuum in security and order that was seen by Salafi-jihadi movements as an inbound environment for them to fill. Obama’s strategic restraint approach in dealing with the region’s affairs can be seen as a contributing factor towards more unrest in a region divided by religion, and governed by autocratic rulers; an approach that has contributed to chaos in an already troubled region.  

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