Obama’s Middle East policy was not a factor in his reelection.
his best efforts, from his Cairo and Ankara speeches to his wholehearted support
of the Arab Spring, let alone his massive assistance to the military operations
which brought down Gaddafi, never has America been so reviled in the Arab world.
And that includes Egypt, in spite of the fact that Obama had turned his back on
his long time ally Mubarak and told him in no uncertain terms to “go, go now” in
the first days of the revolution. American institutions have been attacked in
Libya, Tunisia and in Egypt while anti-American rhetoric is at an all-time
Obama did fulfill a pledge made by George Bush and “brought the
boys” home from Iraq but he left the war-torn country in disarray, with al-Qaida
terror on the rise and bitter infighting between Shi’ite and Sunni
The central government may never regain control of all pre-war
Iraq. In Afghanistan, American troops and their allies are engaged in what looks
more and more like a hopeless fight against the Taliban since they have
announced that they will leave the country in 2014.
This eastern area of
the Middle East will now open to a stronger Iranian influence.
Iran, Obama refrained from encouraging the masses who had taken to the streets
to protest the fraudulent presidential election of 2009 and were subject to
violent repression from security forces. Instead of contributing to the fall of
the ayatollahs, he led to the decline of the opposition. His position on the
issue of nuclear weapons remained vague for a long time and though economic
sanctions are exacting a heavy price, they haven’t deterred the
Nor has his declaration that “all options are on the
table.” It was obvious to all that the American president, facing a
difficult reelection campaign with his soldiers still in Iraq and Afghanistan
was not keen on opening yet another front. This in turn led to barely hidden
tensions between Washington and Jerusalem. Then there was a built-in ambiguity
in his policy.
On the one hand, he proclaimed that there was no Islamic
terror and asked that all references to it be erased from CIA manuals; on the
other, he fought al-Qaida and its satellite groups with all his might. He
upgraded intelligence services, sent in special forces and used drones to target
terrorist leaders; finding and killing Osama bin Laden was his greatest
achievement. Yet he persisted in calling his targets rogue enemies of the
United States who were in no way representing Islam, though the so-called rogues
claim they are fighting in the name of Islam and are never condemned by Islamic
countries. In fact, the death of bin Laden triggered an outpouring of
condemnations in Arab media.
What now? Can a strong policy deter American
enemies, without having to send in the troops? Can proactive diplomacy backed by
a broad coalition solve the problems of the Middle East?
What about Iran? Obama
appears determined to halt its nuclear program through negotiations and some
kind of a deal – an end to sanctions and to Iran’s isolation coupled with
economic assistance and a renewal of diplomatic relations. The danger here is
that under the cover of protracted negotiations, Iran could keep on furthering
its program and bring it so close to fruition that Israel might be tempted to
act. Will cooperation between Obama and Netanyahu be strong enough to avoid such
a scenario? And what about America’s traditional allies – Saudi Arabia and the
Gulf states, who rely on America’s might and see in Iran a threat to their
And what about the Palestinian issue? Will Obama again urge Israel
to make concessions – such as a building freeze in the settlements and accepting
the so-called pre- ’67 borders, which are in fact the cease-fire lines of
Israel’s War of Independence of 1948? Will he ask the Palestinians to adopt a
more realistic attitude and to come back to the negotiation table in good faith?
Regarding Syria, will the American president be able to convince Russia and
China to join a coalition that will force Bashar Assad to accept a compromise?
And if not, will he be ready to act alone and impose a no-fly zone to protect
civilians, or to arm the rebels at the risk of having weapons and ammunition
fall into the hands of Salafist or al-Qaida militants working inside Syria?
There are no easy answers and yet Obama will have to make tough choices if he
does not want America to lose whatever credit it still has in the
Obama is no doubt preoccupied by the way the Arab Spring turned
out. The Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Tunisia and Egypt and its influence
is on the rise in Syria, Jordan and Libya – where the regime is in danger of
losing control. Witness the attack on the consulate in Benghazi.
the Obama administration had initiated a dialogue with the Brotherhood before
the fall of Mubarak, there is little in common between a country that
exemplifies the values of democracy and the system of Shari’a law which the
Brotherhood seeks to impose. Will Egypt still be America’s ally in the Middle
East – and keep the peace with Israel?
In his victory speech, the newly
reelected president stressed that his first priority would be the economy of the
country. It does not mean that America will go back to its pre-war isolationist
policy. Today both the security and the economy of the country are
heavily impacted by what goes on in the rest of the world and in the Middle East
in particular. Obama said that the US army would remain the strongest the world
has ever known but that he would seek to achieve peace based on freedom and
Though Arab media is still unanimous in berating Obama for
his “pro-Zionist” positions and his “bias” in favor of Israel, Arab leaders as a
whole did congratulate the American president, adding that they hoped he would
act to bring peace to the Middle East, and an “end to the occupation and the
creation of a Palestinian state.”
Palestinian leaders have called on him
to support their bid for recognition in the UN General Assembly. Their
representative in the United Nations turned down the request of Susan Rice to
wait a little longer, a clear indication of the waning influence of the United
States. It is not the only one.
The Taliban are asking Obama to admit his
failure and withdraw his troops from Afghanistan immediately; the Sudanese
minister of foreign affairs asked him to cancel the sanctions imposed on his
country because of the Darfur genocide.
Will Obama be able to chart a
course out of this minefield? One can only hope...
The writer, a fellow
of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania,
Egypt and Sweden.