If Bush destroyed the foundations of American authority and presence in the region, Obama set about finishing the job.
To say that the Middle East has undergone radical change during the presidency of Barak Obama would be to understate the obvious. And while he may not have directly fathered the baby, he certainly deserves credit as midwife. Tunisia was distant geographically and politically, its inspiration for Tahrir perhaps direct, but not of revolutionary stature. Those who occupied the Square numbered far fewer in number and proportion of population than took to the streets in Iran in 1979, or even in 2009. And Mubarak, distracted by age and illness was yet far more secure than Pahlavi then, and perhaps Ahmadinejad today. No, the “success” of the Egyptian “revolution” was not the result of internal Egyptian factors but of American pressure. That this is true is clearly demonstrated by the fact that Mubarak’s presidency was a military regime, and the military remained in power after deposing him. In terms of Middle Eastern diplomacy the decision of the president regarding Egypt is symptomatic of his abilities, and shortcomings.
Let me be clear. I voted for Barak Obama as the alternative to four more years of the ghost of George W. Bush. I understood that he would have to compromises his ambitious agenda since compromise is the heart of politics. Then along came the party of ideological amateurs, the Tea Party, and compromise disappeared from the lexicon of politics.
Did Obama make mistakes even before those mid-terms introduced the Tea Party to Congress? He did manage to get a more equitable distribution of health care through a reluctant, if Democratic-controlled Congress. That was something that a century of presidents from both parties failed to achieve. And perhaps passage might not have been possible later. But was that success worth the cost to the country and his presidency, a full year’s distraction from more immediate and pressing issues: jobs, the economy?
Having passed it he failed to “sell” it to the public and the Republicans began whittling away at it before his signature on the legislation had even dried. That single issue may even have spawned the successful Tea Party challenge that today effectively ties his hands at blocks even the most obviously bi-partisan legislation needed to confront the ballooning national and global economic disaster. His good intentions are having the paradoxical effect of eroding the Middle Class he so fervently seeks to represent.
Obama’s foreign policy demonstrates the same failures in priorities and judgment.
By his decision to decapitate the Tyrant of Baghdad George W. Bush achieved many unanticipated results. He removed the threat of the Iraqi military to Iranian ambitions with the result that the Saudis and other Arab states now shared a border with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). The new Iranian threat to the region, and the chaos of the US army fighting in Iraq was a jolt to the production and transport of oil, inflating the cost of oil which, as I wrote in 2008, “set the economic and psychological stage for the disaster following the sub-prime mortgage meltdown.” Bush not only precipitated the global economic slide, he also destroyed the foundations upon which America’s interests in the Middle East, and perhaps the world rested.
Whatever his motives for Iraq, what is clear is that he was deftly managed towards that decision by the Iranians. Ahmadinejad, through a plant who was a close confidant of the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, “fed” Bush “intelligence” regarding the mysterious weapons of mass destruction which provided justification and cover to justify the invasion. And once American troops hit the ground the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were there to meet them. With America bogged down by the IRGSC-backed Shi’ite militias, with Iraq in civil war Iran was now free to pursue its regional agenda in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. A distracted America now dependent on Iranian “cooperation” to limit US losses, Bush was in no position to follow through his threats to use force against Iran’s nuclear program. Whether he, or Cheney or someone else whispered the suggestion, the combined US intelligence community provided Bush cover to not invade Iran: the NIE concluded that the Iranians had abandoned their nuclear program three years earlier!
Enter President Obama. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan gave the aura of America as anti-Moslem, and Obama set out to reassure that we are anything but. Whatever transpired at his first meeting with Netanyahu, Obama’s Cairo speech raised expectations in the Arab world of a seismic shift in American priorities. Israelis also got that message. And while American economic interests are in Arab oil, the US has strategic interests in Israel, including her military presence as counterweight to forces threatening that oil supply (Iran for example). Israel is also a source of real-time regional intelligence regarding Arab radical threats to US regional interests. And Israel provides the US depots to pre-position military materiel. Although the so-called “special relationship” is often taken to mean US support for Israel, the US is almost as dependent on Israel.
Except Obama seems not to fully understand the nature of the relationship; he sometimes seems to view Israel more as vassal than ally. And as he fails to grasp the “mind” of the Arabs responding to the long western imperial threat, so he also fails to understand the continuing impact of the Holocaust on the Jewish psyche, the impact of that near “final solution” on Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. Jewish “security” is only so deep.
When Obama introduced "settlements" as a “peace process” issue, his intention may have been to jump-start negotiations. But it quickly became for the Palestinians a “pre-condition” to negotiations. And when Netanyahu bowed to Obama and halted settlement construction for ten months without Abbas taking the bait, still the president failed to absorb the implications. The president had, in the mind of the Palestinians, now fulfilled the promise of his Cairo speech and was representing their cause. Not surprisingly then that Abbas would later express his sense of betrayal: Obama’s failed to deliver that which Abbas had expected. Abbas complained to the press that Obama had invited he join him in a tree, then left him there without a ladder to climb down!
Although serious peace talks were unlikely both by history and the political division of Palestine between Gaza and Ramallah, as he was soon to do in Cairo Obama put his sense of morality before political possibility and diplomatic reality. His failure to recognize the dynamics of diplomacy and his resulting mismanagement of the issue likely ended even the façade of “peace talks” for yet another generation.
1 September 2010. During Middle East negotiations, Mubarak, Netanyahu and Obama (Wikipedia)
But Obama’s most serious failure of judgment regarding regional stability and American interests may well have been his failure to understand America’s interests, the necessity of supporting Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Predictably, if inconsistently (he failed to support the much larger street protests of Iran in June, 2009) the president threw the full weight of office behind the “democratic forces” demanding the end to the Egyptian dictatorship. After three decades of Mubarak as America’s principal Arab ally, lynchpin of relative regional stability, Obama dispatched him as, and this was the perception of other regional leaders, today’s garbage. Outside of the fact of abandoning a loyal American ally, was Obama surprised that the Saudi king would conclude that he, and all Arab leaders aligned with the US, were also expendable, or that Israel would also get the message? If Bush destroyed the foundations of American authority and presence in the region, Obama was on course to completely tear it down.
I could carry the discussion much further, as I have previously: Bahrain, Yemen, Libya. The bottom line is that America was poorly served by electing Bush and then reelecting him. America turned to Obama as the cure only to discover that however well intended, that presidential naïveté is no improvement over macho presidential cynicism. But compounding the tragedy to the US and the world of serial presidential failures, 2012 promises worse yet to come: the choice between a president idealistically naïve, or an updated and even more bungling Republican Bush retread kowtowing to, or actually representing, the Tea Party!
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