Obama and the Middle East: Continuity and Change in US Foreign Policy?

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Fawaz A. Gerges*
POMEAS BRIEF, No. 4, November 2014

Almost six years after all the rhetorical flourishes and promises that accompanied his entry into office, the fog has been lifted, and it is now possible to assess his foreign policy record clearly. Two broad questions are explored in my recent book called Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment? in evaluating the Obama foreign policy approach.

First, to what extent has Obama's foreign policy been transformational, and to what extent does it represent a resumption of America's embrace of realism—that is, has he challenged the basic established priorities on which US Middle East policy is traditionally based: 'Israel first', relations with oil-producing regimes, and the war on terror? Second, how high does the region stand on Obama's foreign policy agenda, and what does his response to the Arab popular uprisings in early 2011 and subsequent contentious politics in several countries say about American influence and engagement in the region?

The book lays out four big arguments. First, Obama's foreign policy in the Middle East has demonstrated more continuity with the past than real change. While shifting his approach significantly from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush, Obama has adopted a centrist–realist approach towards the region, consistent with the dominant American foreign policy orientation. While departing significantly from Bush's ideology of proselytizing about democracy and the liberal deployment of force in world politics, Obama has not pursued a transformational foreign policy and has refrained from challenging the predominant narrative in Washington. Throughout his presidency, Obama has aimed at retaining the status quo with a few minor corrections. In fact, it appears that Washington has changed Obama far more than he has changed Washington. For Obama, who has compared his foreign policy to that of George H. W. Bush (the father), realism means understanding the limits of U.S. foreign policy and avoiding unnecessary risks in the international system. It also represents an expectation that Washington's allies will have to step up their contribution to U.S. international efforts if they wish to continue benefitting from the American-led international system. U.S. allies from Europe to Turkey and beyond should no longer expect to free-ride the American giant. Multilateralism, burden sharing and 'leading from behind' have for better or for worst come to be associated with Obama's foreign policy.

Obama's approach to the Syrian conflict is a case in point. Despite vehement criticism by the right and the left of Obama's reluctance to intervene directly in the war-torn country and stop the bloodshed, he has repeatedly stressed the limits of U.S. power and the risks inherent in direct intervention there. Not even Syria crossing the so-called chemical weapons "redline" would motivate Obama to embark on a military venture. Even in Afghanistan, where the president embarked on a three-month policy review before agreeing to surge U.S. combat forces in the country in 2009, Obama's decision to send troops was accompanied by an unusual timetable for withdrawal, again exposing the president to much criticism from both left and right. That in a nutshell is what defines Obama's realist policy – it is cautious, risk-averse, and conservative, and some would go further and say that it is amoral.

The second argument is that from the issue of Palestinian–Israeli peace to Afghanistan, this continuity in Obama's conduct of foreign policy stems in large part from the US's increasingly dysfunctional domestic political setting and the strength of those structural–institutional forces that govern the process of U.S. foreign policy making. More than in any other region in the world, presidential policy in the Middle East is hampered by institutional, bureaucratic, and domestic politics. America's dysfunctional political culture, a description which covers the role of special interest groups, particularly Israel's friends and supporters, as well as Congress, imposes severe constraints on his ability to pursue an even-handed approach toward the Israeli–Palestinian question, which remains an enduring and pre-eminent issue. US politicians, including Obama, are trapped in a political culture that promotes conformity and groupthink about Israel and strongly discourages dissenting voices. Like his predecessors, Obama has allowed the politician to prevail over the statesman, following a long-standing pattern of presidential behaviour that explains why US Middle East policy persistently fails.

This line of argument does not deny the role of agency and the significance of the imperial presidency. Far from it. In fact, I show that in the first few months of his administration, Obama pursued an ambitious foreign policy agenda toward the Middle East, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran to a lesser extent, a policy that challenged the dominant institutional-bureaucratic narrative. But when Obama faced stiff resistance to his policy, he caved in. The structure reasserted itself. This does not mean that Obama's personality (his timidity in particular as well as his lack of managerial skills and experience) did not play an important factor. My argument is that the political system, including Israel and its friends, was the independent variable, the driver behind Obama's retreat. As a politician, Obama, together with senior aides, must have calculated that the costs of carrying out his ambitious agenda – exerting real pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and educating the American public about the need for rapprochement with Iran, would outweigh any political benefits. In the case of Israel, and in the wake of Obama's humiliating backtrack on the US's initial call for a complete settlement freeze, the U.S. has consistently backed away from confronting the Netanyahu government on any number of important disagreements, from Iran to Gaza and Netanyahu's repeated intromissions on the side of the Republicans in the 2012 U.S. presidential elections. While always forthcoming on the topic of aid and military assistance – see Israel's Iron Dome missile defence system for which the US government, particularly the Obama administration, has spent more than $1.3 billion – Obama has been less forceful than past presidents in working to stifle criticism of Israel by European and other allies, leading to what Peter Beinart has describe as a policy 'benign neglect' toward Tel Aviv.

As to Obama's critical choices and key appointments on the Middle East before his inauguration, there is no mystery there. Obama and his close advisors knew that Dennis Ross, a senior director in the National Security Council, and U.S. negotiator with Israel, would get the seal of approval from Israel and its supporters at home, while former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinski was a political liability. It was that simple. The structure is neither destiny nor is it set in stone but it exerts considerable influence on every ambitious politician in the White House. Even when the President did appoint personal envoys on what he understood to be major foreign policy priorities for his administration – George Mitchell on the Middle East peace process until 2011 and Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan until his death in late 2010 – these were soon to find that Obama was either out of reach or reluctant to take on board many of their arguments in favour of a bolder foreign policy approach in these theatres. Their advice was repeatedly superseded by that of Obama's close personal advisors in Washington, people who on the whole were more focussed on the President's political standing at home than his engagements abroad.

Third, despite Obama's lofty rhetoric about a new start in relations between the United States and Muslim countries, the Middle East does not rank very high on his agenda. Putting America's fiscal house in order and renewing its long-term economic strength have been Obama's priori¬ties. That meant reducing the nation's commitments abroad, especially in the Middle East, where, in the opinion of Obama's aides, they have extended beyond vital national interests. From the outset, Obama has been shifting U.S. foreign policy priorities away from the Middle East to the Pacific and Asia where he and his aides believe that America's future lies. This so-called "Asia pivot" stands as an example of Obama's scant popularity in the foreign policy domain because it has not convinced or satisfied many both in Washington and among the US's Asian allies who remain unconvinced about the US's determination to fully commit to this region.

For example, in a joint television interview with Obama and Hillary Clinton to mark her exit from the State Department in January 2013, Clinton relates what Obama said when he offered her the highest position in his cabinet. 'Obama basically said, "You know, we've got this major economic crisis that may push us into a depression. I'm not going to be able to do a lot to satisfy the built-up expectations for our role around the world. So you're going to have to get out there and, you know, really represent us while I deal with, you know, the economic catastrophe I inherited.' Clinton's insight is revealing because it shows that from the outset of his presidential term, Obama's priorities were domestic, and primarily economic. Foreign affairs, including the Middle East, did not rank high on his agenda. Not only was it not considered a priority, the Obama administration appeared overly cautious about opening up new engagements in the Middle East. Other than vague rhetorical promises for a new beginning in relations with the Muslim world, Obama and his advisors seemed to consider U.S. Middle East policy primarily though a domestic political lens, emphasising Obama's pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq as a means to shore up political support at home and distance his policy from that of his predecessor. For many in Washington, including Obama, ignoring Iraq's problems and avoiding spending precious political capital in attempts to develop a wider diplomatic and political strategy in the run up to the U.S. withdrawal appeared preferable to having to make the Iraq file a priority for the White House and U.S. foreign policy establishment. The ghosts of the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of that country appeared to haunt the Obama administration, with the result being that Washington ignored the advice of its diplomats and ambassadors on the ground in the region while prioritizing the need to close the Iraqi file and announce the end of America's ill-fated adventure in Iraq.

It is no wonder, then, that when faced with challenges in the Middle East, such as in Syria, Egypt, or Iran, Obama has more often than not cut his losses and refrained from deepening U.S. involvement there. In case after case, Obama has shown an inclination to keep a distance from the region's social and political turmoil and raging conflicts, a choice that is consistent with his world-view and priorities. Once again, the reluctance of the Obama administration to intervene militarily in Syria is a case in point. Realism informs the Obama foreign policy approach, not liberal interventionism. Obama's embrace of realism does set him apart from other high level officials in his administration, starting with Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Powell who do share many liberal interventionist values. In those occasions when Obama was convinced to act – as in the case of Libya and the more recent intervention in northern Iraq to rescue the besieged Yazidi community on Mount Sinjar – these advisors are known to have played a decisive role in convincing the reluctant President to intervene. Even in these cases however, U.S. engagements were limited in scope and risks, again demonstrating Obama's caution and restraint on the international scene.

The U.S.-led international coalition against the so-called Islamic State or ISIS does not indicate any substantive shift in the Obama approach toward the Middle East. Rather it confirms much of what I contend above. The U.S.-led coalition demonstrates Obama's focus on multilateral action, the limits of U.S. power and the need for U.S. allies to assume greater responsibilities in their immediate neighbourhoods. Obama's repeated remarks that the United States can no longer act as the 'world's policeman' are a case in point. A convincing argument could be made that given the swift collapse of the American-trained Iraqi security forces and advances by ISIS, Obama felt obliged to act and prevent the collapse of the Iraqi state, though his choice is consistent with his strategic worldview. A deliberative president took his time to construct a broadly-based coalition and to stress that the US will lead but will not send ground forces to either Iraq or Syria. In other words, US re-engagement in the Middle East will be limited and does not entail an-open-ended commitment or all-out war. Despite considerable domestic and international pressure, Obama has stood his ground and has made it clear that regional powers, particularly Iraqi and Syrian boots, must battle ISIS and take back their countries. Indeed, the Maliki government in Iraq had requested U.S. military aid and airstrikes against ISIS in May, about a month before the takeover of Iraq's northern city of Mosul by ISIS, a request that was turned down by the White House which conditioned U.S. support on political reform in Baghdad and a greater willingness by Iraqi forces to combat ISIS directly. Obama's stance is informed not only by recognizing the limits of American military power but also prioritizing other interests and concerns, particularly economic recovery at home.

Finally, Obama and the Middle East argues that the U.S. finds itself in a similar position to that of Great Britain after the Second World War, at the beginning of the end of its hegemonic moment in the Middle East. The short-lived unipolar system in which the United Stated dominated international relations has come to an end. A global redistribution of power has curtailed America's freedom of manoeuvre and exposed its relative decline. The beginning of the end of American hegemony in the region stems from internal and external causes, including an awakened public opinion in the Middle East, the emergence of geostrategic and geo-economic regional powers with assertive foreign policies, America's relative economic decline via other rising powers, a deadlocked legislative branch in Washington stifled by increasingly partisan politics, the high costs of war, and the shift in U.S. foreign policy priorities to the Asia–Pacific region. The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has undermined not only America's moral standing and credibility but also its deterrence strategy. More than any time since the end of the Second World War, the United States faces an insurmountable challenge in maintaining its preponderant influence in the region in the face of sweeping historical and sociological changes after the large-scale popular Arab uprisings in 2011 and the evaporation of traditional alliances that had underpinned America's position since 1973. Obama inherited an altered regional environment in which local actors frequently challenge the United States and feel more empowered in an incipient multipolar world. America is neither feared nor trusted to act rationally and wisely to preserve world peace. "You're still a superpower" remarked one high-level Middle Eastern diplomat from a close U.S. ally in the region in July 2014, "but you no longer know how to act like one." Although Obama has laboured to rebuild trust lost during the Bush years, the genie is out of the bottle. Increasing evidence shows that key regional powers, driven by awakened public opinion and civil society as well as contorted strategies of regime balancing and survival, no longer show deference to the great powers, particularly the United States. These countries—from Turkey to Iran—pursue autonomous and assertive policies that frequently clash with US interests. Israel also repeatedly ignores the wishes of its great American ally and sponsor. Saudi Arabia dispatched troops to supress popular demonstrations in Bahrain allegedly without informing Washington beforehand, while later bankrolling the Egyptian military in the wake of its coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013. Turkey's open defiance of the US over the besieged Kurdish city in Syria, Kobane, is another case in point as is Ankara's refusal to clamp down on the passage of people, weapons and supplies to the galaxy of Jihadist groups fighting in Syria (and now Iraq). The Turkish President, Erdogan, has repeatedly insisted that unless the US takes his country's strategic interests into consideration, Turkey will not fully join the American-led coalition against ISIS.

Some analysts will take me to task for exaggerating the case about America's failure and decline in the region. These analysts argue that far from declining, "the United States remains the unchallenged extra-regional player in the region's affairs, with a vast Middle Eastern military infrastructure." This kind of criticism of my argument misses my big point about America's relative decline. I make it crystal clear throughout the book that although the U.S. has declined relative to other rising geostrategic and geo-economic powers in the international system, it remains the dominant power economically and militarily and will be so for at least two decades. The real decline has less to do with America's material power than with other measures of power that are as important as hard power, if not more so. It so worth noting that many of the underlining reasons for this relative decline in US influence in the region and beyond cannot be entirely blamed on Obama's leadership style or policy choices. Obama's critics contend that rather than pro-actively trying to address this decline through statecraft and risk taking, Obama has appeared content with merely managing the US's slow, but nonetheless significant, decline.

From the outset, President Obama and his senior aides have been cognizant of America's relative decline and the harm that the 9/11 wars have inflicted on the US ability to influence the course of events in the Middle East. Obama has repeatedly stressed the limits of U.S. power and the need to pursue a cautious, conservative policy in the region and the need for multilateralism and coalition-building. The 9/11 wars have sapped the will of the U.S. and have been costly in blood and treasure (more than $4 trillion in direct and indirect costs). Moreover, the moral and political sanding and status of the United States has suffered a major setback worldwide, not just in the Middle East. The Obama foreign policy team believes that the U.S. overextended itself in the Middle East far and beyond what American vital interests required. This belief, however, seems to have been take to the extreme, ignoring his own presidential advisors, experts, and diplomats, while treating the region – Iraq in particular – as nightmarish land that had to be kept at a distance less the US public, and the world, be continuously reminded of the failures of US policy there during the Bush years. The result has been a short-sighted knee-jerk reaction against further engagements in the region or a lack of inventive and clear political strategies in those areas where the US was already engaged, leading to numerous policy shortfalls that are no doubt in part to blame for the current spread of instability in Syria and Iraq.
There is also a relative consensus that the future lies in the Pacific and Asia, not in the Middle East or even in Europe. It is no wonder then that Obama has been reluctant to get engaged in Libya or Syria and has not invested much political and financial capital in the post-Arab Spring countries, such as Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia. The Middle East is no longer a priority on the U.S. foreign policy agenda and the Obama administration has steadily shifted its focus to other theatres, though he has been forced to militarily re-engage in Iraq kicking and screaming.

Much has been said about the U.S. energy revolution, impending energy independence and the impact of these developments on U.S. Middle East policy. These issues however are of only marginal significance, given that in the first place the U.S. has never been entirely reliant on Middle Eastern energy resources and that America will in any event have to maintain its military and political commitments in the Persian Gulf in order to stabilize world energy prices and ensure the continued flow of oil to its allies in Europe and beyond. What is meant by the above, is that in light of the current uncertainties gripping the international system as a result of an increasingly multipolar world and the innumerable amount of challenges facing the Obama administration, from Russia and Ukraine to China, climate change and economic growth in Europe and the Americas, the Middle East has necessarily been downgraded in importance compared to these other international challenges.

There is more to declining U.S. influence in the Middle East than imperial exhaustion. It is a documented fact that the 9/11 wars intensified societal resistance to the United States throughout the region. Anyone who researches social and political movements in Middle East countries, as opposed to circulating with the ruling elite, will encounter hostile attitudes to U.S. foreign policy and a willingness to resist American encroachment. An awakened public opinion, which is a by-product of the large-scale Arab popular uprisings, will change the dynamics of U.S. relations with Middle Eastern societies and will fetter America's hands. The age of contentious politics – social protest, collective action, revolts and counter revolts – will wrack both the internal politics and international relations of the Middle East. What is unfolding before our eyes is the birth of a new order that will likely have critical implications internally and externally.

For example, the Obama administration had no choice but to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq because of internal resistance by leading social and political groups in the country and despite the tacit consent for the presence of those troops by the then Nouri al-Maliki-led government, as well as negotiations with Karzai in Afghanistan. Despite repeated complaints by the Obama administration, Iraq (a country that the U.S. liberated) facilitated the transfer and flow of men and material to Damascus. In fact, the Tehran-Baghdad road was till recently the blood line of the al-Assad regime. Similarly, after Egypt's generals removed President Morsi from power in 2013, the Obama administration pushed hard to force the military-led government in Cairo to compromise with the Muslim Brotherhood by releasing Morsi from detention and refraining from a further clampdown against the Muslim Brothers. America's calls have fallen on deaf ears and Egyptian generals have appeared to be immune to American pressure and have carried out all-out war against the Islamist organization in an effort to break its backbone. To signal its dissatisfaction, the Obama administration suspended the delivery of major weapons systems, including Apache helicopters, F-16 fighter jets, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and parts for M-1 tanks, and is withheld about $260 million in support for the Egyptian budget, though many of the restrictions have now been lifted. Despite these punitive measures, which were withdrawn one year later in June 2014, the military-led government in Cairo acted independently and showed no sign of retreat. If this does not show a weakening of U.S. influence, I plead guilty to exaggeration.

The emergence of geostrategic and geo-economic regional and global powers with assertive foreign policies is another factor that limits American influence in the Middle East. Although America's unipolar moment was buried in Iraq's shifting sands in 2003, it is difficult to say how long it will take for the nascent international system with multiple power centres to consolidate. The U.S.-Russian rivalry in Syria is reminiscent of the Cold War era and the reassertion of Russian and Chinese power testifies to the emergence of serious challenges to America's superpower dominance in the world system. One thing is clear: the United States faces internal and external resistance to its hegemony in the Middle East and elsewhere.

A qualification is in order: Will the rise of ISIS and Obama's measured approach (especially if it succeeds in helping to roll back this extremist organization which is a long shot) rehabilitate US standing in Middle Eastern eyes and show its indispensable role in maintaining the collective security system regionally and internationally? While Obama is right to emphasise the long-term nature of the current U.S.-led confrontation with ISIS, the challenges and potential spoilers remain innumerable. The anti-ISIS coalition does bear all the hallmarks of Obama's policy preferences – it is focussed, multilateral and multi-dimensional, containing a military, humanitarian and political-diplomatic dimension. Out of these, the political front – focussing on what a post-ISIS Iraq and Syria might look like – will likely hold the keys to salvaging or completely burying Obama's foreign policy legacy in the Middle East. Admittedly, however, such a political-diplomatic strategy will likely have to overcome even more obstacles than the purely military reaction we are witnessing today, a scenario whose contours will only emerge after Obama's exit from the White House. When it comes to legacy therefore, a preoccupation that impacts all heads of state as they near their final years in office, Obama is more likely focussed on Iran and the potential for the two countries to mend their differences and reach a comprehensive agreement on Tehran's nuclear program. While few doubt the significant benefits that could stem from such an agreement, the challenges remain impressive and time is quickly running out. That many of those same structural-institutional forces pointed to above as the cause for Obama's inability to enact real and long term change in US Middle East policy are lining up to oppose such an agreement does not bode well for Obama or the moderate-reformist forces in Tehran. In the unlikely event of a last minute deal on the Iranian nuclear file, parts of Obama's foreign policy legacy might just be salvaged, but even this will not be able to change the underlining reality of America's continued decline in the Middle East.

*Fawaz A. Gerges is a Professor of International Relations and holds the Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is author of several books, including "Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment? and "The New Middle East: Social Protest and Revolution in the Arab World."