foreign policy driver, at times fuzzy, appears in sharper focus as the American
President confronts his second term challenges.
What began in 2009 as
global rapprochement and retrenchment grounded in realpolitik, in contrast to
George Bush’s Messianic interventionism, now seems resigned to friend and foe
Nowhere is this cycle of rapprochement, retrenchment, resignation
more evident than in the Middle East.
Here, the policy is consistent and
logical – if one accepts the premise. Obama extended his hand to the Arab world
promising a “New Beginning” in his 2009 Cairo Speech. The message was clear: The
US must step back and let the Arab and Muslim world manage its own affairs. All
the US was obliged to do, Obama intimated, is nudge Israel to forge a deal with
Despite reiterating America’s commitment to democracy,
Obama insisted the US would no longer attempt to shape regimes in the Arab
world. The US would work with populist, Islamic or conservative governments –
provided some respect for human rights was evident and US interests, such as
non-proliferation, were respected.
Whether or not Obama’s speech released
the Arab Spring or whether Bush’s mirage of a democratic Iraq gripped the minds
for an Arab revolt is unclear.
What is clear is that Obama meant what he
said about non-intervention. Jewish national self-determination in Israel fits
Obama’s world view, but so does Palestinian nationalism. America’s role is to
facilitate a negotiated agreement, not impose terms. It was US manipulation,
Obama intoned, that fomented Arab mistrust of the West. This suspicion
degenerated to contempt for perceived Zionist -Crusader
Therefore, the refusal to intervene must be seen for what it
is: an ideological commitment to the idea that the revolutions in the Arab world
will produce regimes that seek pragmatic relations with America for the very
fact that America did not seek to impose the outcomes.
In February 2011,
it was possible to favorably identify the spirit of Woodrow Wilson in Obama’s
foreign policy. In the Huffington Post, Kate Seelye wrote that “A moderate,
non-ideological, pro-democratic Arab voice is emerging. Now is the time to
defend this voice and in so doing help advance democracy in the Arab world.” By
this, Seelye meant allowing unpopular US allies to fall in non-violent
Obama’s approach was exactly that. If the active
Western intervention to depose Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 was the
exception to this rule, then the 2012 Benghazi attack reminded Obama of his core
world view that it is active interference in internal Arab affairs – even if on
behalf of the populists -- that fuels popular Arab anger towards the
Obama’s determined non-intervention in Egypt reflects this.
America’s refusal to prop up Hosni Mubarak was a clear decision not to be “on
the wrong side of history”. The administration’s commitment to non-intervention
encouraged the Egyptian elections.
It accepted the outcome of Mohammed
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. It then reproached the military coup which deposed
him. So committed was Obama to the path Egyptians chose for themselves that
Morsi’s constitutional reforms limiting free speech troubled the President less
than the pro-Western Egyptian military plot.
As we enter 2014 with the
Egyptian military in firm control, US-Egyptian relations are tested. American
threats to suspend aide, met with disbelief and disdain from Cairo, seem
probable now that General al-Sisi has proclaimed the Brotherhood a terrorist
organization. At stake is the most powerful and pro-Western Arab country that
controls the Suez Canal and remains the nexus between paradoxical yet durable
Israeli-Saudi Arabian mutual interests.
These regional interests serve
traditional American interests – stability, the flow of oil, bases for American
power projection, and the displacement of other foreign powers. Now, however,
Cairo entertains offers of Russian aid. Obama has turned back the clock to 1972,
before Sadat expelled Moscow in deference to American influence.
Cairo, Jerusalem, and Riyadh are unnerved by America’s populist foreign policy
in Egypt, this anxiety is heightened by the same approach evident in Syria.
While one empathizes with an America scarred by the adventure in Iraq coupled
with economic decline, the commitment to non-intervention in Syria seems driven
less by practical considerations than by the ideological premise that America
can emerge more respected via non-intervention.
This does not appear the
case at the New Year. The litmus test for US credibility was Obama’s repeated
assertion that Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons constituted a “red line”
that would trigger US military response. In August, Obama referenced traditional
US interests in non-proliferation, assurance for America’s regional allies, and
a moral revulsion to chemical weapons and the prospect of escalation triggered
by their use.
Obama hesitated. He sought unnecessary and unprecedented
Congressional support for a limited military action. To save face, Obama was
forced to grasp at Russian straws for a disarmament proposal. Even as this
solution is activated, Moscow’s position in Syria – which had become
uncomfortable– is now indispensable.
Vladimir Putin outmaneuvered Obama
IF THERE is one saving grace in American indecisiveness, it is
that Turkey and Israel have been forced to put mutual interests above the fray.
Despite neo-Ottoman ambitions, the mercurial Tayip Erdogan recognizes that
Turkey’s bid to lead the Arab Spring by poking Israel is lost. Despite
Washington’s drift, planets flung afar have gravitated back to traditional
orbits. Israel, Jordan, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt are
almost returned to their pre-Arab Spring postures.
Less than two years
ago, this seemed impossible to respected analysts such as Allen
One might argue this is the result of yet another decisive
Obama non-intervention. The President was determined not to intervene and
support Iran’s Green Revolution. From the period of Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s rigged
re-election until the uprising was crushed by Khamenei, Obama declined
involvement beyond the occasional sop to human rights activists. Critics took
the President to task as he urged the resignation of Mubarak, a friend, but
would not do the same for the Mullahs in Tehran who urged “Death to
The futility of this is noted by Hamid Dabashi, In Al-Jazeera.
Dabashi argues that Obama’s refusal to support the Green Movement did not serve
US interests, because the regime – as usual – convinced the people that the
revolt was an American-British-Zionist plot anyway.
Here is where an
objective observer must confess the unknowns are too many for informed analysis.
First, despite the fact that Khamenei played the imperialist conspiracy card
even though Obama was determined to remove this card from the deck, one must
concede the idea that the American position was not lost on the Iranian
leadership. It is possible that Obama’s non-response to the Green Revolution
opened the door to pragmatic diplomatic engagement with Tehran. This is
speculative, but it is consistent with the President’s approach of
Further, it is difficult to imagine the prospect for
dialogue had the US supported the Opposition. Well before the Geneva Agreement,
Navid Hassibi speculated that the US might sacrifice the Green Movement in
exchange for “controlled engagement” with the regime on
The question is whether the dialogue and the relaxation of
Western sanctions, in exchange for Iran’s agreement to inspection and limited
enrichment, will vindicate Obama. These are the highest stakes. The bet in the
region is that Obama has been outmaneuvered by Hassan Rhouani in a way that
would make Putin blush. Israel’s concerns are well known, but it must be
recognized that Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Gulf States fear a nuclear Persia
with Shia designs on Mecca even more than Israel does. Turkey, too, despite
empathy with Iran, mistrusts Tehran in Syria. Given Washington’s performance in
Syria, Ankara has no more confidence in American credibility than does Riyadh or
Yet, if Obama succeeds in verified controls of the Iranian
nuclear program and prevents weapons-grade enrichment, fair minds would concede
that the President might prevent a war that could otherwise cost thousands of
lives. A prospective détente with Iran –with no illusions that the leopard might
change its spots – could open diplomatic opportunities to defang what Saudi King
Abdullah calls “the snake”.
As we enter the crucial six-month trial with
Iran, history indicates that Obama has saddled his non-intervention horse with
blinders. The President is either naïve or disingenuous where he argues that,
should the agreement collapse, sanctions could be restored.
forces us to consider we may be mistaken.
Reason, too, suggests Obama is
aware of the prospect of Iranian machinations and the catastrophic impact should
It is hard to argue against the claim that Bush
squandered American power through overuse. We will soon know whether Obama has
squandered even more American power and credibility through underuse, or whether
he has restored American power and made the world safer through rapprochement
The writer received his PhD in International Relations in
1991 from Queen’s University, Canada. He completed his post-doctorate at Hebrew
University. Rusonik is now an analyst with the government of Ontario.