Obama has failed the Middle East

29 October 2012

Win or lose the US election, President Obama has been a Middle East flop

It’s difficult to dispute Barack Obama’s presidency has been a disappointment in the Middle East. Little constructive has been achieved and the failures have outweighed what he has done. This was of course predictable. No one person can reverse history’s course in the region, but it was nice to hope, at least for a bit.

Obama failed to be more assertive with Israel about its approval of yet more settlement-building on Palestinian territory. Benjamin Netanyahu, who became Israel’s prime minister at the head of a coalition following Israel’s March 2009 elections, is an intractable demagogue that reasoned argument rarely influences. The White House should nevertheless have taken more risks in denouncing Israel’s actions in the West Bank, though Obama’s need to get his healthcare law passed probably outweighed the need to demonstrate America’s capacity to be an honest Middle East peace-broker.  

It’s the results, however, that count. The Arab-Israel peace process is in far worse shape than it was in November 2008. That’s Obama’s failure number one, and it’s a big one.

Number two is Iran. Obama’s hope that he could begin a dialogue with Iran, expressed in his 20 March 2009 video message to the Iranian people, has proven to be naive. Tehran’s hostility to the US was largely unassuaged. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won for a second time in the manipulated Iranian president poll of June 2009 and street protests were crushed. A year later, Obama backed new UN penalties against Iran for its failure to comply with resolutions about its nuclear programme. Since then, and mainly due to Israel’s threats of unilateral military action, America’s used nothing but threats and sanctions against Iran. So much for Obama’s overture to the Iranian people.

He has failed to be a peacemaker elsewhere in the region. In Iraq, the withdrawal of US troops completed at the end of last year, fulfilled a promise Obama made before he was elected, but in reality represented a continuation of a process begun by his predecessor. This has been offset by Obama’s decision to support military escalation and yet further avoidable death in Afghanistan. Obama’s claim to be a different type of president is further undermined by his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp as he said he would.

How’s the president’s Middle East democracy agenda developed? Reflecting his own instincts rather than considered policy, Obama backed Arab popular movements when they took to the streets last year. On 11 February, the president welcomed Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down as Egyptian head of state in language that echoed speeches made in the 1960s by Dr Martin Luther King. But the Arab world’s not Alabama. And Obama had little more than words to offer the demonstrators.

Saudi Arabia, dismayed by America’s new unreliability, sent troops to help Bahrain suppress demonstrations in the kingdom and cracked down on internal dissent. America’s response was muted as it should have been from the start. As the world can see, instability in the Middle East almost always makes things worse.

America was nevertheless drawn into supporting the campaign to depose Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi, though its involvement was initially discreet. The incoherence of Washington’s Middle East policy was exposed when the White House refused to approve military action to protect US citizens targeted in an attack in Benghazi in September. The ambassador and three others died. Obama and his administration looked weak, made mistakes and sounded dishonest: this sentence could be applied to his Middle East policy generally.

The affair stripped the sheen off Obama’s single clear foreign policy success:  locating and killing Osama Binladin in Pakistan in May 2011. The operation outraged Pakistan, but allowed Obama to appear patriotic and decisive.

Obama’s been a Middle East flop, though his problems with the Arab and Islamic world are a surprise only to those with no knowledge of the region. Obama wrongly raised expectations about matters over which the US even at its mightiest has failed to address.

It sets the stage for Mitt Romney, who, like Obama, is an unlikely potential president. A Mormon, son of a governor and Nixon cabinet-member, and wealthy, Romney is almost as unrepresentative of contemporary America as his rival. And like Obama, he’s a centrist with subliminal appeal to his party’s ideological base.

Romney is Israel’s uncritical fan; wants stronger US action in Syria and suggests he’s prepared to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. This is different to Obama, but not by much.

People who suggest his administration will be like that of President Bush II or even President Bush I, have got it wrong. Pre-emption and state-building, the defining impulse of Bush II, is unaffordably risky and won’t be tried. Romney’s got neither the appetite not the capability to launch grand initiatives like Bush I’s coalition to drive Iraq from Kuwait and the Madrid peace process. It’s true that most of his foreign policy team served the last Republican in the White House. But America’s economy and psychology has changed radically since 2000. More war in the Middle East is too expensive. Middle East initiatives are too complicated and the average American, to the extent he or she thinks about them, believes they don’t work.

President Romney, if that is what next week’s poll produces, will therefore try to ignore the region and its turmoil. He will focus on domestic issues, principally the federal budget and the economy.

But will the Middle East ignore Romney? We all know the answer to that one.

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