Obama and the Middle East: the lessons of Iraq?

Why has the Obama administration been reluctant to intervene directly in the raging Syrian conflict, or even to arm the rebels? Why did the US president refuse to take ownership of the NATO mission in Libya, failing to engage in Tunisia and Egypt? What makes sense of Obama’s strategy towards the greater Middle East?   

Part one: Obama’s world-view

To understand Barack Obama’s foreign policy towards Syria and the Middle East in general, we have to understand his worldview, his vision, how he views America’s role in the world. It is only by fleshing out Obama’s worldview that we can make sense of his approach to foreign affairs.

The most important point to stress about this worldview is that in contrast to George W. Bush, who embraced the “Freedom Agenda”, Obama has consistently refrained from offering an expansive foreign policy vision and has preferred to be guided by practical considerations and shifting tides. When asked to describe the “Obama doctrine,” at the end of his first term in the White House, Obama responded: “[Mine is] an American leadership that recognizes the rise of countries like China, India and Brazil. It’s a US leadership that recognizes our limits in terms of resources and capacity.” 

Obama’s new way relies not on abstract moral values, or brute military strength, but on real relationships and shared interests with other nations. He is a realist, not an idealist, who refrains from using force and military intervention to advance international liberal values. His foreign policy has been cautious and incremental rather than transformational. In reality, Obama has not departed from the Washington foreign policy consensus, his foreign policy approach consistent with that of moderate Republicans. Like Secretaries James Baker, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, Obama understands the limits of US power and he is on record as opposed to open-ended military commitments abroad.

Throughout his presidency, Obama has aimed at retaining the status quo with a few minor corrections. While he has reversed some of the worst ideological excesses of the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policy, Obama has only brought the United States back to the cautious middle.

Another point that must be stressed is that the Middle East is not a priority on the Obama foreign policy agenda. The Administration has shifted its foreign policy and economic priorities to Asia where Obama and his aides believe that America’s future lies.

The Obama administration has reduced its commitments in the non-oil producing Arab states and has relied on its regional and European allies to shoulder the burden and responsibilities of maintaining western influence. Although Obama’s rhetoric had given the impression of heightened US involvement and commitment to the region, his actual foreign policy priorities lie elsewhere – the rising powers in the Pacific Ocean. But as often happens, before the end of Obama’s first term in the White House, the major popular uprisings witnessed in the Arab world forced him to become more involved in the region against his own will.     

Obama’s approach to the Arab popular uprisings 

In the Middle East, the Arab popular uprisings more than any other event have challenged Obama to show that he meant what he preached. At the same time, his varying response(s) to the conflicts in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere have exposed a realist foreign policy focused on securing American interests abroad.

Interests and power, not democratic promotion, are the hallmarks of the Obama approach to the Arab world. Like George Bush Senior (the father) and Bill Clinton, he has refrained from using military force to advance international liberal ideas. Time and again, he has stressed that he is a liberal interventionist and that he will send American troops overseas only when American vital interests are involved.

The 2011 uprisings came as a surprise for American policymakers. The US foreign policy establishment had not seriously considered or envisioned a post-autocratic Middle East and dismissed warnings about popular dissent as a domestic problem that the region’s security services could contain.

While Obama projected a new rhetorical posture towards the Arab World, he also recognized that America’s core national interests – security of energy resources, stability of US traditional allies - must be preserved. Thus, it is no wonder that the Obama administration quietly embraced pro-American autocratic rulers, like Mubarak, whose help was needed in tackling terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy security, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. This historic blindness stems from misguided concepts and premises about the structure of Middle Eastern societies and politics – an overemphasis on high and elite politics and underestimation of the weight of social movements and public opinion. 

The lessons of Iraq: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Bahrain 

With the lessons of Iraq and a pressed economy at home, Obama refused to take ownership of the Libyan mission and insisted that his European and Arab allies take charge. His preference was for “leading from behind”, as opposed to the Bush model of leading alone. However, in a last minute decision, Obama backed NATO’s military intervention in Libya because he feared that, unless deterred, Gaddafi would carry out a bloodbath against the rebels in Benghazi.

Obama initially pursued a subtle and non-interventionist approach toward democracy promotion in the region. While he voiced his preference for open governments because they reflect the will of the people - an implicit criticism of Hosni Mubarak and other Arab autocrats - he did not address the widespread abuse of citizens’ rights in many Muslim countries. However, Obama reportedly wanted to weigh the risks of both “continued support for increasingly unpopular and repressive regimes” and a “strong push by the United States for reform”. According to a White House official, a review requested by Obama before the Arab uprisings just as the Tunisian protest movement gathered momentum, concluded that the conventional wisdom in US policy circles was wrong: “All roads led to political reform.”

The Obama foreign policy team, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had pursued a quiet, low-risk approach toward the promotion of human rights. The State Department released annual reports and stated in their speeches that there are human rights violations in the Middle East. As the Egyptian crisis reached a climax in the first week of February, Obama implicitly called for a change of ruler. He had to abandon two loyal friends in Egypt and Tunisia: Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Throughout the heated debate among his advisers, Obama’s overriding concern was effective management of the crisis and smooth political transition. Obama and his Secretary of State feared that like other revolutions, the Egyptian revolution could be hijacked by anti-democratic Islamist forces. Islamic-based groups and movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah are viewed suspiciously and considered a threat to US national interests.  In contrast, pro-western local autocratic rulers are seen as the lesser of two evils - pliant, durable, and predictable.

Saudi Arabia opposed Obama’s positive approach towards the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt and rebuffed US efforts to influence Gulf countries to institute meaningful reforms and to meet the legitimate aspirations of their people. Saudi leaders described the Obama stance as naive and dangerous. Bahrain provided a test of wills between a divided US administration and this determined regional neighbour. Initially, the Obama foreign policy team cautioned the al-Khalifa royal family in Bahrain against using excessive force against its peoples and encouraged King Hamad to undertake serious reforms in order to avert a prolonged political crisis and violence. A Saudi GCC-led military force entered Bahrain, and the local authorities allowed these Saudi forces to suppress the protesters. In justifying its military intervention, the Saudis and the Obama administration accused Iran of infiltrating the Arab Shi’a population and hijacking their political demands for geostrategic advantage. Meeting King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in April 2011 – a meeting which marked the thawing of tensions, then Defense Secretary Gates acknowledged that he did not even raise the question of Saudi intervention in Bahrain. Gates and the Saudi king discussed more pressing issues, such as the sale of more than $60 billion worth of arms, the biggest arms deal signed by the United States, and the modernization of the Kingdom’s missile defence system.

The 2011 Arab uprisings did force Obama to reconsider his engagement with the region. On the one hand, Obama recognized the significance of the moment in the Arab world as “a time of transformations” and called on the world to respond to the calls for change elsewhere in the region, particularly in Syria. On the other, he separated the Arab world’s pursuit of dignity and freedom from the Palestinians’ pursuit of those same ideals. By doing so, he risked being seen as hypocritical, at the same time as he alienated the rising forces to whom he was reaching out.

Obama fully embraced the nascent order in the two countries, but offered no Marshall Plans to help repair broken Middle Eastern institutions and economies. His offer of paltry sums of aid testifies to his foreign policy priorities and America’s hard-pressed economy. 

Obama’s position reflects the diversity of views of his foreign policy team, uncertainty over the meanings and effects of the uprisings, as well as his awareness of America’s relative decline. As a strategic ally, Saudi Arabia in particular was not mentioned once in his hour-long speech in order to avoid lumping it in with Egypt and Tunisia. He cares less about consistency and more about successful outcomes and maximizing American bargaining power. The weight of evidence clearly shows President Obama will not invest precious political (presidential) capital on risky foreign policy issues which face domestic resistance at home and do not fall within what he perceives as vital American interests. 

Israeli-Palestinian peace-making 

For example, after his initial attempt to help broker a Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Obama has taken a cautious stance. Netanyahu’s opposition has frustrated Obama’s quest. Instead of challenging Netanyahu and exerting more pressure on him to accept a sensible solution, Obama let the Israeli Prime Minister off the hook. Obama squarely lost the first and final round because he was unwilling to spend more political capital at home. He recognized the costs to his domestic and foreign policy agenda and cut his losses. Given Obama’s worldview and his priorities, it is doubtful if the US president will make another major drive to broker a peace settlement between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Just a few days ago, Obama reportedly bemoaned Netanyahu’s decision to build more settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. He reportedly called Netanyahu a “coward” because of his failure to meet the Palestinians halfway, adding that he expected Netanyahu to continue his reckless ways. In his second term in office, Obama will most likely avoid pursuing efforts to broker a peace settlement because he does not see conditions ripe to do so. What this means is that the US president does not seem to be inclined to exert pressure on Israel – America’s strategic client in the region.      

Moving forward but not sideways: Syria

With Barack Obama newly sworn in for his second term as president of the United States, he thus faces a significant test; he could seize this opportunity and craft his own strategy that takes into account the change occurring in the region, leveraging this strategy to re-engage the region, and transform America’s relations with the Middle East and the Muslim world. However, first Obama must come up with a clear plan because the region has fundamentally changed.

It is more likely that continuity, not change, will be the defining feature of Obama’s  policies towards the Middle East in his second term. 

From the beginning of his Presidency, Obama has been reluctant to use force except when US national security is directly affected, and even in these cases, he has emphasized a drawn-down approach instead of an escalation. Syria is a case in point. Despite pressure by Republican politicians and a bloodbath in Syria, Obama has resisted calls for direct intervention. Having pledged to send America soldiers in harm’s way only if American primary interests are engaged, the Obama administration does not view US vital interests as involved in Syria, a small, poor country. Instead, Obama has limited American involvement in Syria to providing political and financial support to the opposition and waging a war-by-other-means against the Assad regime – economic warfare.

Recently, reports have resurfaced that Obama has overruled his national security team which called for arming the nationalist elements within the opposition. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, General Martin E. Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Pentagon, including Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, supported a plan to arm Syrian rebels. According to The New York Times, that plan - developed last year by David H. Petraeus, CIA director at the time, and backed by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was then Secretary of State - was presented to the White House and called for vetting rebels and training fighters who would be supplied with weapons. However, with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan.

There is more to Obama’s refusal to supply the Syrian opposition with arms than electoral politics. In a couple of interviews, Obama throws further light on the rationale for his reticence. “In a situation like Syria, I have to ask: can we make a difference…?" Obama said in an interview with The New Republic. The US president said he has to weigh the benefit of getting more entangled in Syrian shifting sands with the ability of the Pentagon to support troops still in Afghanistan, where the United States is withdrawing combat troops after a dozen years of war.

"Could it [US involvement] trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? "And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?" Obama said. "We do nobody a service when we leap before we look, where we ... take on things without having thought through all the consequences of it," Obama told CBS, a US television station.

"We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation" in conflicts around the world, he said. "Sometimes they're going to go sideways."

In response to critics, such as Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who have questioned Obama’s decision to overrule his national security team, White House press secretary Jay Carney said that Obama and his national security team have been “very careful” in weighing the dangers. “We don’t want any weapons to fall into the wrong hands and potentially further endanger the Syrian people, our ally Israel or the United States,” Carney told reporters. “We also need to make sure any support we are providing actually makes a difference in pressuring Assad.” There’s no shortage of weapons in Syria, Carney said, so the US has “focused our efforts on helping the opposition to become stronger, more cohesive and more organized.”

Although the Obama administration insists that Assad must step down, it does not have the will or desire to intervene militarily because of fears of escalation regionally and internationally. There is also anxiety within the Administration about the rise in strength of radical jihadist groups like the al-Nusra Front and a repeat of the Iraq and Libyan scenarios:

“We have seen extremist elements insinuate themselves into the opposition, and you know, one of the things that we have to be on guard about - particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures - is that we are not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks that would do Americans harm, or do Israelis harm or otherwise engage in, in actions that are detrimental to our national security,” Obama said in a November news conference.

After his confirmation as Secretary of State, John Kerry reiterated the Administration’s anxiety: “serious questions”, he said, are raised by the involvement with the rebels of terrorist groups, such as the al-Nusra Front and al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the US is “deeply concerned” about Assad’s stockpiles of chemical weapons.

As to the way forward, Kerry said, “We’re taking a look at what steps, if any - diplomatic, particularly - might be able to be taken in an effort to try to reduce that violence and deal with the situation.” Translation: Obama prefers more of a political settlement that eases Assad out of power than a prolonged armed conflict that may destroy the Syrian state and the country’s social fabric as well.  Obama close aides have hoped that the opposition will make important military gains that would force Assad to step down without the need for direct western military intervention. They also hoped that Russia would change its position towards Syria and exert more pressure on Assad to accept the inevitable.

Neither approach has born fruit. The result is diplomatic and political deadlock and military stalemate. Although the Obama administration is reviewing its Syrian policy, it remains to be seen if Obama will shift position and intervene directly in the war-torn country in the foreseeable future unless something catastrophic happens there, such as Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama downplayed expectations on Syria by saying little about the war-torn country. He only said he would keep pressure on the Syrian government and support the Syrian opposition politically, while, in contrast, he voiced confidence, as he had in his 2012 address, that Assad would soon be forced to relinquish power. For now, the Syrian carnage continues with no light at the end of the tunnel.  

Of all the explanations offered for Obama’s reluctance to take an active role in the Syrian crisis, the most persuasive are the lessons that he learned from Iraq. The United States should not entangle itself militarily in distant lands, especially in the Middle East, unless its strategic interests are at stake, and unless there is a relative consensus in the international arena that can be translated into a United Nations Security Council resolution. This is the crux of the matter.

Although Obama has recognized the complexity of social and political conditions in the Middle East, he has not departed from the Washington foreign policy consensus.

While Obama has used hard and soft power to maintain a stable course, he has not tapped into the presidency’s extraordinary power, nor has he fully utilized the extraordinary events in the Middle East after the Arab uprisings, to effect change in America’s dealings with the region. While certainly shifting his approach significantly from that of Bush, Obama has not pursued a transformational foreign policy and has refrained from challenging the predominant narrative in Washington.

His Turkey policy has shored up ties with a rising geostrategic and geo-economic power; his outreach to Muslims has been largely positive, though harmed by inconsistencies; his Israel-Palestine policy is a dismal failure, a casualty of domestic politics and timidity; his Iran policy is an uncertain gamble that might escalate into a military confrontation given the reelection of Netanyahu to power in Israel; his counterterrorism strategies have been technically successful but with high human and moral costs; his goal of removing US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan has born fruit; and his responses to the Arab uprisings have been a mixed bag.

About the author

Fawaz A. Gerges is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and holder of the Emirates Professorship in Contemporary Middle East Studies. He was also the Director of the LSE Middle East Centre from 2010 until 2013.

Gerges’ most recent books  are  The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World (Cambridge University Press, January 2014) and Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? (Palgrave Macmillan, September 2013). On the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 , Oxford University Press released Gerges’ book, The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda.