It seems like an eternity has passed since the Cairo Speech, in which President Barack Obama said he came “to seek a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world,” was delivered a mere five years ago this month.
Half a decade on, Obama’s vision is in shambles. US interests in the Middle East are imperiled as they have not been for half a century. Disrespect of America is rife among those Obama set out to appease, while America’s allies mistrust Obama. Furthermore, an overwhelming majority of Americans – including Democrats – have lost faith in his foreign policy, according to a New York Times/CBS poll published this week.
Back in 2009, Obama delivered more than 5,000 words of sweeping generalizations and pretentious declarations, many of which he now surely regrets.
Quoting the Koran, he preached the merits of truth, apologized to Iran for a US-aided coup in 1953, vowed to close the Guantanamo prison, assured Muslims that America is not “a self-interested empire,” cried “Islam is part of America,” derided governments “dictating what clothes a Muslim woman should wear,” hailed democracy while equivocating that “no system of government can or should be imposed on one nation by another,” insinuated that the Holocaust was the reason for Israel’s existence, compared the Palestinian plight to that of the American slaves, and, to audience applause, demanded an immediate cessation of settlement building in the West Bank.
Obama’s move was already attacked at the time, most notably by Lebanese- born, Middle East expert Fouad Ajami, who incidentally passed away this week.
“I was in Saudi Arabia,” reported Ajami days after the Cairo Speech.
“There was unease that so complicated an ideological and cultural terrain could be approached with such ease and haste.”
Referring to an earlier statement by Obama, that he wanted American- Muslim relations restored to how they were “30 or 20 years earlier,” Ajami noted that Obama’s imagined idyll actually included the Khomeini Revolution, the standoff with Libya, the fall of Beirut to America’s enemies, and the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie.
Still, at the time the damage of Obama’s speech seemed to be mainly to his image, which came across as frivolous. Critics noted that no plan of action was associated with his lecture, no prior coordination occurred with local allies, and no experts were consulted about the likely results of such high-profile rhetoric in societies unaccustomed to American-style public debate.
Now, with events making a mockery of his vow to help Baghdad build its army and “support and secure a united Iraq,” a consensus is emerging in the West that US strategic interests have been seriously damaged, that American diplomacy fell victim to ignorance, arrogance and naivete, and that policy overhaul is imperative – if not for the sake of America’s interests, then at least for the sake of worldwide diplomatic stature.
THE FAILURE of Obama’s diplomacy is climaxing now in Iraq, but his strategic losses began in Egypt.
US Secretary of State John Kerry’s appearance this week in Cairo was a trip to Canossa.
Having previously sided with Egypt’s Islamists, and responded to their ouster by suspending aid to the interim government of Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Obama’s emissary this week arrived in Sisi’s chambers and sheepishly restored that aid.
It was a belated recognition that the florid rhetoric of the Cairo Speech had little to do with reality, which is embodied in the elevation of Sisi to president of Egypt. And as has happened repeatedly because of his Middle East hyperactivity, Obama ended up buying the damaged goods and paying double the price.
Obama’s original sin with Egypt was the delivery of his ideas through a loudspeaker in then-president Hosni Mubarak’s living room. There are only two possible explanations for this conduct: maybe Obama did or didn’t understand that he was potentially helping unseat one of America’s most loyal allies. If he didn’t understand such an elementary Middle Eastern dynamic, he was in no position to discuss our troubled region’s problems. And if he did understand the risks, he should have considered how his ideas would come across to locals as betrayal.
As it were, Obama’s treatment of Mubarak resulted in Egypt turning to Russia, which gladly agreed to sell Sisi advanced aircraft and missiles.
That was a strategic bonanza Moscow had never dreamed of, considering the superiority of American weaponry that Egypt had been buying ever since its peace treaty with Israel. Obama, in sum, failed to bring Egypt closer to democracy, lost its trust, and eased its way back to Moscow’s bosom.
This failure to understand the most elementary laws of power-play was repeated in Syria, although in a different way. At stake there was not loyalty and alliance, but enforcement. It would have been one thing for Washington to say that it is neutral on Syria, or to remain mum while President Bashar Assad gassed his people. However, to vow to use force and then fail to deliver on the threat indicates that Obama did not merely play the game poorly – he didn’t even know the rules.
Such conduct calls for bad guys throughout the world to do as they please – which is indeed what they did. The first to test Obama was North Korea, when it violated agreements with the US and conducted a nuclear test, incidentally or not, the week before the Cairo Speech. Obama’s failure to respond to such a drastic provocation was registered by autocrats worldwide, from then-Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who helped Iran survive sanctions, to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who later prowled Ukraine.
The diplomatic inconsistency displayed in Syria was compounded by the ideological inconsistency displayed to its south.
If US policy was to demand democracy in Cairo, then why not make the same demand in Riyadh, Kuwait City and Doha? And if popular upheaval is to win US support, then why not back the Shi’ite majority’s challenge to Bahrain’s pro-Saudi government? Yes, the Middle East is a very complex place, and no one would have demanded that Obama reinvent it. He volunteered to present himself as the region’s reinventor, and the funeral for this pretension is now taking place in Iraq.
THE TROUNCING of Iraq’s American-built army by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s armed forces would have been avoided had Washington thought historically, and acted creatively.
The underlying assumptions of Obama’s policy in Iraq were that international borders are sacred, its army is reliable and its democracy is viable. Yet any student of Middle Eastern history would have told him that Iraq, like Syria and Lebanon, is an artificial country that European colonialists imposed on rival minorities and faiths.
Americans, who by definition superimpose their citizenship on their religious and ethnic backgrounds, find the Iraqis’ inversion of these priorities difficult to understand.
Yet that is the norm in this part of the world, and this mentality is in fact now reshaping Syria, Lebanon and Libya. To distance himself from the colonialist legacy he decried in Cairo, Obama could have embraced Iraq’s organic divides, and supported their building a future around its three major communities’ well-known identities.
Instead, he enshrined the colonialists’ untenable legacy.
A proper reading of Iraq’s American-led democratization would have led to the conclusion that dissolution is effectively the will of the Iraqi people, considering that they voted, and their politicians ruled, according to sectarian priorities. That is also why the Iraqi army unraveled. Handing Sunni conscripts nice uniforms and new guns did not make them feel closer to those who dressed and armed them than to the tribe and faith that defined them.
IT IS NOT TOO LATE to redefine Washington’s Middle Eastern policy. But it must first ask what its overriding interest in this part of the world actually is.
The Middle East has been, over the centuries, many things to many powers. For Alexander the Great, it was a bridge between civilizations.
For the Ottomans, it was an imperial center of gravity. For the British, it was the passage to India. For US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, it was an oil field. For the Cold War’s protagonists, it was a wrestling arena. For US president Bill Clinton, it was a peacemaker’s Gordian knot. And for his two successors, it became a field of dreams.
Now, the dreaming is making way for sober watchfulness.
America has only one enemy in the world, and it is not autocracy – it is Radical Islam. Rulers like Putin, Sisi or Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah are bad for their people, but they don’t target America.
It follows that in the Mideast, the US should play with those who are strong and pragmatic, and focus on confronting the fanatics – be they Sunnis in Mosul and Gaza, or Shi’ites in Beirut and Tehran.
Judging by its acceptance of Sisi, the White House is now beginning to understand this.
The next logical step is therefore to accept Iraq’s and Syria’s dissolution, cultivate the Kurdish Regional Government, accept the emergence of a Shi’ite state in southern Iraq, and help Jordan and Turkey shape a Sunni state between western Iraq and eastern Syria.
No, this will not be panacea.
Western values will remain on foreign to them, and Western interests will still require struggle. However, the struggle’s aim will be clear, and its prospects vastly improved.
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