Four more years - but what will Obama do with them in the Middle East?

Will Barack Obama finally deliver on his promises of peace and better relations with the Middle East? His re-election certainly offers him a second chance - don't waste it this time Mr President!

Obama's victory speech in Chicago, Illinois. Demotix/Laura Fong. All rights reserved.Obama's 2012 victory speech in Chicago, Illinois. Demotix/Laura Fong. All rights reserved.

Under-promise and over-deliver. Perhaps no cliché so aptly summarizes the problems that re-elected US President Barack Obama has had to deal with over the past four years with his foreign policy in the Middle East, and certainly a cliché that he can take heed from in the coming four years.

On 4 June 2009, six months removed from his historical inauguration, US President Barack Obama stepped onto the podium in front of a packed auditorium in Cairo University. As a political, cultural, and religious focal point in the Middle East, it marked the first time since Bill Clinton’s visit to Cairo in August 2000 that a US president had visited Egypt’s capital, with George W. Bush only meeting with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Shiekh during his two terms in office. Off the back of visits to Baghdad and Riyadh, this marked the final leg of President Obama’s Middle Eastern tour, and Egypt and the rest of the Arab world awaited to hear what the young fresh-faced and extremely well-spoken president would have to say on the direction US foreign policy would take under his custody in a region where the United States’ reputation suffered greatly after its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama’s message during his first race to the White House was one of hope and new beginnings, most importantly a new beginning in US foreign policy in the Middle East, and on the podium in Cairo in front of a crowd of academics, journalists, politicians, and students, he seemed a man who both respected and understood the cultural and religious sensitivities of the Middle East. He began with “Assalaamu alaykum” the traditional Islamic greeting which, while a small gesture, exemplified that Obama came with an olive branch on his visit to Cairo and knew how to effectively extend it. His own acute cultural awareness was amplified by what, or rather, who, came before him. His predecessor, George W. Bush, was infamous for his cultural unawareness, committing numerous faux pas during his two terms in office including famously calling Pakistanis by the derogatory term “Pakis”, and so Obama’s cultural and religious sensitivity stood out even more. He was also not afraid to speak in clear terms, outlining the conflicts between the west and the east, but also quick to draw a line underneath them. He spoke of the Middle East as an equal partner, and not an enemy of the west. To rapacious applause he declared: “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. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles - principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

Obama was barely eighteen months removed from his Cairo speech when the Arab Spring took everyone by surprise, none more so it would appear, than the White House and Obama himself. As Tunisia swiftly took to the streets and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in turn fled to Saudi Arabia after twenty four years of dictatorial rule, Obama barely had time to catch his breath as the iconic Tahrir Square, a mere two miles from where he delivered his famous speech, became the number one news story around the world. Obama made his first comment on the Egyptian uprising three days after it began on the 25 January 2011, supporting his democratic discourse in the Middle East and warning the Egyptian authorities “to refrain from any violence against peaceful protestors. The people of Egypt have rights that are universal.” It was clearly apparent, however, that just as journalists and political commentators scrammed to keep up with the ferocious pace of events in Egypt and the Arab Spring, so too was Obama trying to play catch up, and much of his discourse was reactionary to events rather than preemptive.

As Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain became the focal point after Mubarak’s resignation on 11 February, the Middle East in 2011 continued in turbulent form and on 2 May, Obama addressed the United States to report that Osama Bin Laden, the organizer and chief behind the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks had been tracked and killed in Pakistan by US Navy Seals. This was obviously a moment of success for Obama in front of his own nation: but to the east, it was a reminder that the US, even with an articulate president, was still willing to be heavy-handed if the need arose. To say that this was the outstanding achievement of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East underlies how little else he contributed to the region. The achievement of killing Bin Laden would have been a gold star for George W. Bush, and one that he coveted, but we expected much, much more from President Obama. Bin Laden’s death was greeted, for the most part, with apathy from the Middle East as the political upheaval that swept through the region during the spring and summer of 2011 took precedent over the death of a man no one claimed as their own.

As the Arab Spring nations came to terms with their new political states and began a rebuilding process, Obama was careful to show support for the emerging political structures of democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, while also mindful that the rise of Islamism could lead to hostile governments towards the west, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt who now occupy the presidency through Mohamed Morsi. This delicate tight rope has led many to label Obama a hypocrite who openly praises the rich heritage and practices of Islam as well as the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, while also seemingly behind closed doors trying to protect US interests in Egypt and have an “understanding” with the Brotherhood in fear that an Islamic based government may become hostile to the US and reignite a war with Israel. What will be key in Obama’s next four years in office is how he approaches and maintains dialogue with the newly elected Islamic governments of Tunisia and Egypt, particularly the latter, who remain a key player in maintaining the peace with Israel. For better or for worse, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were democratically elected, and as Obama himself stated in Cairo, “No system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” In other words, going forward, Obama has to accept Morsi and the Brotherhood.

Then there is Iran. Similarly to his speech in Cairo, Obama never misses a chance to extend an olive branch in the form of his cultural awareness. Every year he records a YouTube video wishing Iran “A Happy Newruz” and praises the country’s traditions. In Cairo he declared: “Rather than remain trapped in the past, I have made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question, now, is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.” Again, a far cry from what we would regularly expect from George W. Bush.

However, during Obama’s presidential term in office, tensions between Iran and Israel have increased, and by proxy, this has involved US interests. The growing threat that Iran is gearing towards nuclear arms capability remains the biggest challenge that Obama will have to confront in the next four years in the Middle East. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has steadily become more aggressive in his discourse on Iran. Upon his election into office in March 2009 he stated, “Iran is seeking to obtain a nuclear weapon and constitutes the gravest threat to our existence since the war of independence” and it is comments like that which place President Obama in a precarious position between achieving peace in the Middle East and being seen to unilaterally support its ally, Israel. Israel, for its part, appears more and more comfortable with the notion of striking Iran first before it develops the capability to strike back. The sanctions on Iran continued during Obama’s first term, so his next move in tackling the Iranian predicament will almost certainly be a permanent mark on his record - no matter which course of action he decides to undertake.

Before he even gets a chance to tackle the Iranian dilemma, Syria and its ongoing civil war will perhaps be his first port of call. British Prime Minister David Cameron sent his congratulations to President Obama after his re-election, but also set a clear agenda on what he believes should be at the top of the President’s priority list. Speaking from Jordan, Cameron noted, “I am hearing appalling stories about what has happened inside Syria so one of the first things I want to talk to Barack about is how we must do more to try and solve this crisis.” For all his talk on democracy and universal human rights, President Obama has been a passenger and not a leader in trying to solve the Syrian crisis which has left Syrian President, Bashar al–Assad, unchecked and unhindered in the numerous atrocities he continues to commit. President Obama has obviously had a re-election campaign to keep him busy for the past twelve months, but with victory secured, his immediate action concerning Syria will be extremely telling on how active he intends to be in Middle Eastern affairs in his next term in office.

Obama’s four years in office have not been faultless in his relationship with the Middle East, his main critics citing him as a man of words with no substance. There is a lot of merit in that argument, but it only took a brief look at his competitor for the presidency, Mitt Romney, to suggest that Obama is certainly a step in the right direction. Romney appeared to have all the airs of false superiority and misunderstanding of the Middle East of his Republican predecessor, and while Obama often borders on the cliché or grandstands when he is aware the eyes of the Middle East are on him, he has gone some way to relaxing the feeling of Middle Eastern enmity towards the US that President Bush's Afghan and Iraqi wars fostered.

On the stage in Cairo, Obama could do no wrong. From directly quoting Islam’s Holy Book, the Quran, to making references to the Middle East’s contribution to western civilisation and development, he personified a potential new beginning between eastern and western relations that seemed incomprehensible during the tumultuous tenure of President Bush. President Obama almost did too well. He over-promised. Yet, as we fast forward to now, with another four years in office secured, the good news for Obama is that he now has a second chance – despite the cloud of disappointment hanging over his head. He will have no excuse not to practise what he preached that summer day in Cairo. Rest assured, however, that whatever course of action he takes in the Middle East in the next four years, he will inevitably have learnt from his previous term. He will do a lot less talking and a lot less promising. 

About the author

Ahmed Kadry is currently doing his PhD in Arab Cultural Studies at Imperial College London on Egyptian socio-political feminist identity and discourse in the 1952 and 2011 Egyptian Revolutions. He blogs here and tweets @ahmedkadry.