The Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy In The Middle East

Obama: the promise-breaker.

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n his “Cairo speech”, Barack Obama expounded a set of issues threatening the relations between the US and the Islamic world. Specifically to the Middle East, Obama singled out three crucial issues and made respective promises. Firstly, he addressed the issue of the Iraqi War expressing his disagreement with it and emphasising the need for diplomacy. He promised the withdrawal of all troops by 2012 and help in achieving a stable future. Secondly, he addressed the problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He made it clear that America would not deny Palestine’s right for statehood and explicitly denounced Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank underlying its role as a hindrance to peace. In other words, Obama promised a radical departure from the position the various US administrations had held before him. Thirdly, he addressed the issue of Iran’s aspirations to attain nuclear weapons. He expressed the fear that it would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and thus that his administration was ‘willing to move forward without preconditions’ towards a reconciliation.

Although the last US combat troops left Iraq in December, thus fulfilling Obama’s first half of the promise, they left behind a country on the brink of civil war. Sectarian strife looms large and the government seems ineffective in providing any kind of security to its citizens. In fact, slightly ironically, it is reported that governmental security forces are applying the same methods used by the Saddam Hussein regime on Iraqi citizens. Whilst the natural resources of the country are being exploited by international corporations and there have been many doubts about the fairness of the 2010 Iraqi elections, Obama, in his Fort Bragg speech, called the ‘stable’ progress in Iraq an ‘extraordinary achievement’. Although Iraq is one of the biggest recipients of US foreign aid, the Obama administration should have devised a more specific and committed plan of reconstruction. None of this seems in sight: the future of Iraq is more uncertain every day.

The Obama administration has not repeated the common position held by former administrations in taking Israel’s side unconditionally in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In actuality it has vehemently increased US support for the Jewish-majority state. In terms of settlement construction (illegal under international law), the Obama administration never really posed a threat to the Netanyahu government. The only concession it achieved was a ten month freeze (excluding East Jerusalem) in exchange for giving Israel nearly $3 billion worth of military aid on top of the annual $3 billion in grants (despite the financial turmoil of the US economy). Just to make it clear where the Obama administration stands on the issue, it promised to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations. So much for his earlier promises.

At first sight, Obama’s only virtue seems to be the use of sanctions rather than force in dealing with Iran’s nuclear project. But if we consider the amount of military support the Obama administration gives Israel and the continued belligerent messages the Netanyahu government conveys to Iran, then we are justified in claiming US responsibility in any attack Israel might be planning against the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, if Obama is truly concerned about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and if he is truly committed to stopping it through diplomacy, then perhaps he should show impartiality by beginning with Israel’s disarmament, the only country which actually possesses weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (and which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; Iran has). But the administration’s double standards are well known.

When Obama was delivering his speech in Cairo, few could have guessed that in just a year and a half’s time the Arab world would have experienced a wave of revolutions toppling dictator after dictator. The Obama administration’s reaction was carefully calculated. At first, especially in the case of Egypt, the administration did not express itself in favour of the protesters. Only once the public abuses became undeniable did the administration pronounce its opposition to Mubarak’s rule, hypocritically to say the least since Mubarak’s dictatorship had been supported by the US from its inception. Perhaps Obama’s best bet so far has been not to get too involved in Libya during the recent intervention, but the UK and France had already fulfilled that role. The opposition to Syria’s Assad regime is just but not for the right reasons. While the right reasons should be a genuine valuing of democracy and of human rights, the administration’s opposition to Syria is in part due to the latter’s financial and military support of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia which opposes Israel.

Although Obama has broken most of his promises it is imperative to hope that, in case of his re-election, something might change. Because the administration will not depend anymore on the pro-Israeli vote, and thus will not need the heavy support of the various pro-Israeli lobbies, perhaps it will place its own priorities first in dealing with the Middle East. The same can be said about the other lobbies’ influences. To be sure in its first three years the administration showed a lack of autonomy in its decision making.

2 thoughts on “The Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy In The Middle East”

  1. This hardly seems fair to Obama (and I'm no great fan). He calls for Mubarak – a close American ally of 30 years – to step down, but he is seen as hypocritical for not doing so before the protests began? Do we really want American presidents to go around telling foreign heads of state to resign? You then applaud him for *not* getting involved with removing Gaddafi, before castigating him for calling for Assad to step down, but for the wrong reasons. Even when he is on the right side, you find ways to knock him for it.

    Literally all of those American stances were and are opposed by the Israelis, by the way, which goes some way to suggesting that pro-Israel lobbies have far less influence on the presidency than you imagine.

  2. Interesting article indeed. However could it not be the case that when Obama gave his Cairo speech he sincerely believed in what he was saying and more so imagined much of it to be achievable during his first 4 years in the White House? Was the then recently elected US president still too much of an idealist at that particular moment?

    I would say that yes in many ways he was, as he sought ways to make progress in all of these issues that you have listed. He did approach Iran and tried to smooth US-Iranian relations by adopting a more diplomatic and less aggressive approach towards Teheran. He additionally succeeded in getting the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to meet with one another and talk face to face about the conflict. And while critics may argue that US did not exert enough pressure on the Israeli or the Palestinian leadership, in the end of the day it was still Netanyahu’s government that decided not to stop building settlements and Abbas’s negotiators that walked out from the negotiations. In terms of the Iraq conflict, as you say, Obama delivered what he had promised. He ended the war that he did not support and especially did not start. He was cleaning up after someone else mess and did it as best as possible. It is to be seen what will happen to Iraq, but in my view the dim future of Iraq was written long before Obama came to office, namely in April 2003 after the invasion had finished and the Coalition Provisional Authority came to power, having absolutely no coherent plan how to rebuild the war-torn country.
    The reason why Obama has said much but done little is relatively simple. When running for office of being in opposition, you have the “liberty” to make bold statements and promises. It is when in power that politicians realize the obstacles they actually have to overcome to fulfil all that they have promised. Isn’t that what we, here in the West, hope will happen to such “extremists” as Hamas, Hezbollah or if looking at the recent discussion in world media – the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Having power often moderates one’s ideas as they have to take in account the realities on the ground or opposition to these ideas from other forces.
    What further illustrates this to be the case with Obama, is the fact that he has still not closed down Guantanamo Bay, something that was one of his core promises during the 2008 election campaign. Why has he not done that? We know that he tried, as during the first months in office, US representatives went around the world asking for governments if they would allow these inmates to be resettled in their states. Surprisingly I found the answer (or at least part of the answer) in today’s Metro – in recent years it has not only been the Republicans that are against closing the detention centre, but also the Democrats.
    What I am trying to say is that I would not judge Obama as harshly because he like every other politician in power often has to stands against very powerful forces that want the total opposite. I sincerely think that he did try to address all these issues that he stated in his Cairo speech. With Iraq he succeeded (although yes the future looks unstable) and while he did not make (much) headway with both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s nuclear issue, he is not to be blamed wholly for it. Conclusively while his Middle East foreign policy has not produced a major success story, it similarly has not produced a major blunder that could be held up against it. In my eyes when compared to the Middle East foreign policy of the previous administration Obama has done exceedingly well.

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