Rapprochement, retrenchment or resignation?

Barack Obama’s foreign policy driver, at times fuzzy, appears in sharper focus as the American President confronts his second term challenges.

Obama walking away 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Obama walking away 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Barack Obama’s 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 alike.
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 the Palestinians.
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 imperialism.
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 democratic revolution.
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 West.
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.
If 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 again.
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 Keiswetter.
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 America.”
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 non-intervention.
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 proliferation.
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 Jerusalem.
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.
Yet, hope 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 rapprochement fail.
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 and retrenchment.
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.