During his 2009 speech at Cairo University, not long after he assumed office, President Barack Obama declared he was in the Egyptian capital to “seek a new beginning between the US and Muslims around the world”. Three thousand guests listened as the president acknowledged that colonialism in the region had denied Muslims their rights and opportunities, and that Muslim-majority countries were treated as proxies, “without regards to their own aspirations”. The speech was punctuated with shouts from the audience – “Barack Obama we love you” – and wrapped up by a standing ovation and the chant, “Ob-a-ma, Ob-a-ma.”
It was one of Obama’s trademark speeches that back then were considered highly inspirational but over time have become increasingly nauseating. Seven years later, as the president’s last day in office looms, the world has seen a lot of these speeches – but the question is, has he made good on his promises?
In these early stages distancing himself from George W. Bush’s interventionist attitude was high on the president’s list of things to do and in the noninterventionist camp he was praised for this. But for others this has backfired – many believe that one of Obama’s biggest failures was his decision not to intervene in the Syrian conflict on the side of the Syrian people, even when Assad crossed his so-called “red line” and used chemical weapons against his own people. Obama was accused of being a hypocrite in August 2014 when he decided that destroying Daesh was paramount and led a coalition of countries to destroy the group in Iraq and Syria.
Then there was Libya. In March 2011 the president spearheaded the UN Security Council resolution that authorised military intervention in Libya and seven months later Gaddafi was pulled out of a drainpipe in his hometown, Sirte, and shot dead by NATO-backed rebels. Since, Libya has become more of a failed state than a democracy. Many have posed the question: why Libya and not Syria? Others have drawn attention to Obama’s failure to plan and implement a post-intervention strategy in the country.
Obama’s legacy on the Arab Spring is as mixed as his intervention policy. During the Egyptian revolution it looked as though he was finally siding with the people rather than the autocrats, the US’ long-time allies – “change must take place” he told Mubarak in early February 2011 when thousands of protesters filled Tahrir Square to demand he stand down. Two years later he forged a relationship with the military-backed regime and its leader, Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, who had deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013 and since then unleashed an unprecedented campaign of human rights abuses against anyone who opposed them. As Mohamed Elmenshawy wrote for the Middle East Institute, a meeting between Obama and Al-Sisi in September 2014 at the UN General Assembly in New York was “seen as the completion of American recognition of the legitimacy of Egypt’s new administration after Morsi’s removal.”
Along with many other countries in Europe, the US has convinced itself that Al-Sisi is an ally in the “war on terror”. One of Obama’s election pledges was to end this war, but in reality he has done little to curb it and instead inflamed it, with perhaps the most salient example being his failure to shut down Guantanamo Bay.
In May 2011 Obama appeared on national TV to announce that the US had conducted a successful operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda. An article by Seymour M. Hersh explains that top intelligence officials – including John Brennan, Obama’s senior advisor on counterterrorism at the time and then head of the CIA Leon Panetta – said that waterboarding and other torture methods were utilised in the bid to discover Bin Laden’s whereabouts. This added to the murky details that surrounded his death, along with questions over why he was not taken alive and why no photographs of his dead body or DNA evidence were ever released.
There were public accusations that Bin Laden’s demise had been an extrajudicial execution, a term used by Amnesty International when describing the killing of US-born Anwar Al-Awlaki by a drone strike in Yemen in September of the same year. With that strike, Al-Awlaki became the first American citizen to be killed without criminal charges or a trial in the “war on terror”. Though he was not suspected of terrorist activity, Al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was killed in a targeted strike two weeks later.
Throughout his presidency, Obama launched more than 10 times the number of drones as Bush. Most have attacked Pakistan but they have also rained down on Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen and have likely strengthened the terror groups’ resolve. In February 2015 at least 2,464 people were killed by US drone strikes outside the country’s declared war zones since Obama was inaugurated. Some 314 of these were civilians, around double the number of civilians killed under Bush.
Meanwhile, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, settlements continue to mushroom despite Obama’s push for a settlement freeze as a precondition for renewed peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. In 2013, despite the fact that this precondition had not been met, Secretary of State John Kerry launched himself into negotiations. By 2014 they had collapsed. In the first 48 hours of his presidency Obama urged Israel to ease the siege on Gaza: “As part of a lasting ceasefire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce.” Under Obama the siege on Gaza has tightened, not only along Israel’s border with the Strip, but Egypt’s as well.
Perhaps the most positive element of Obama’s legacy in the Middle East was his role in the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran allowing the latter to continue its nuclear programme, with restrictions. Despite the millions of dollars Israeli lobbies poured into a campaign to pressure the US to scrap the deal, Obama secured majority support in the Senate. Many were impressed he publicly defeated the lobby.
But is it enough? Did Obama establish a new beginning with Muslims and Muslim-majority countries as he promised to do seven years ago? As Mark Lynch wrote for Foreign Affairs last year: “[H]is administration has consistently failed to deliver on the promises raised by his inspirational speeches.” Obama’s 2009 delivery at Cairo University was no different.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.