Young Arab Spring Blog

Shipwrecked: Obama’s Middle East Policy in Uncharted Waters

Selma Bardakcı* and Julie Sherbill**

When the Arab Spring began, President Obama was pursuing a proactive foreign policy approach towards the Middle East. This approach is evident in his 2009 Cairo speech, one which promoted diplomacy, dialogue, and collaboration with the Arab World. Entitled "A New Beginning," it embodied the Obama Administration's determination to combat U.S. animosity towards and anti-Americanism in the Middle East that resulted from Bush-era policies.

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Indeed, at the start of the president's term, Obama's approach towards the Middle East was characterized by advanced planning and an intention to establish trust and friendship with governments of Muslim countries. At the same time, the U.S. was drawing down the war in Iraq and emphasizing the importance of multilateral approaches. For example, the administration often mentioned Turkey's role as a regional partner, referencing the frequent phone calls between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan.

The Obama Administration was among those who had not predicted the Arab Spring, and consequently could no longer apply their advanced planning policy when such events occurred. Instead, the start of the Arab Spring was also the start of a U.S. policy that was largely reactive, placing a high premium security. This policy can be broadly characterized by what it lacked: advanced planning and tailored responses to individual events or countries. Instead of focusing on repairing America's image in the region or fostering democratic change, the Administration seemed to be preoccupied with damage control. U.S. policies towards both Syria and Egypt embody this phenomenon. Given U.S. ties with the Egyptian military, Obama was hesitant to actively support first Tahrir protesters, and then the Brotherhood-dominated government. Later, given sectarianism and the threat of religious extremism in Syria, the U.S. waited quite a while before calling for Assad's ouster.

Unfortunately, this reactionary policy is based on a false dichotomy between stability, which can only be gained through repression and the region's long-standing strongmen, and the instability that results from democratic transition and increased freedom. The apparent relevance of this dichotomy has only grown stronger as U.S. officials have observed the pattern of popular votes empowering religious parties, such as Hamas, Al Nahda, or the Muslim Brotherhood, which are often perceived as a threat to America's agenda. The increasing influence of religious groups has further fostered American reticence to intervene or provide support for democracy advocates or revolutionaries, regardless of their ideology or intended action. Thus, in many cases, critics have accused Obama of clinging to the status quo—a united Iraq, or a military-dominated Egypt—even as it becomes increasingly clear that this status quo is failing. Even in cases where many argue that the Responsibility to Protect doctrine clearly applies, the administration has wavered and pursued a middle ground that ultimately only further delays the problem.
This hesitance and lack of a clear agenda has fostered the perception of Obama as weak; even if the U.S. is acting strongly behind the scenes, there is a lack of assertive, public actions. U.S. foreign policy has become confused and contradictory—and this perception is only sharpened when juxtaposed with Obama's rhetoric and stated American aims. The U.S.' frequent failure to act decisively in the face of clear human rights abuses, particularly in Iraq, has harmed the international reputation both of this administration and of America overall.

When the U.S. does respond, it is often too little, too late. According to UN figures, in Iraq over 400,000 Iraqis have been displaced since June, and over half of those people are contributing to growing refugee camp populations in the northern Dohuk province. Indeed, humanitarian airdrops and U.S. airstrikes saved some of those trapped from an Islamic State siege in the Sinjar Mountains, yet thousands of those from the minority group in question—the Yazidis—are arriving at camps within and around Iraq. In the meantime, Obama has changed his call for a "democratic" Iraq to an "inclusive" Iraq in order to better fight Sunni militants. Instead of U.S. focus being on Iraq's development, it has instead zeroed in on Iraqi security and unity.
This reasoning accompanies the administration's support for Prime Minister Maliki backing down; Maliki has been accused of seeking only to advance the interests of the Shia majority. As the situation in Iraq shows, a lack of foresight and leadership threatens the fragile gains America's reputation made in the region and the world after George W. Bush left office. The Obama Administration needs to craft a definitive, clear policy approach if it wants to chart its own course in Middle Eastern politics and avoid being buffeted further by its many conflicting currents.

* Selma Bardakcı works at Bahçeşehir University, School of Government and Leadership. She focuses on international relations and Middle East. Bardakcı graduated from Bahçesehir University with a Master's Degree in Global Politics and International Relations

** BAU Global Affairs (MA)