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Obama's legacy in the Arab world

US President Barack Obama [file photo]
US President Barack Obama [file photo]

With American President Barack Obama’s presidential term coming to an end, many have begun talking about his legacy and the debate is starting to grow. His supporters have much to say about his domestic achievements, starting with his healthcare system that saved about 46 million Americans from the clutches of death and neglect.

They also talk about how he rescued the economy from the mortgage crisis and how he reduced the unemployment rate on the night he took office from nine per cent to less than six per cent today.

However, when it comes to assessing his foreign policy, especially regarding the Arab world, the justifications begin. Some say that the man “started out as Carter and ended as Nixon”, which is a claim that means to say that Obama started his term promoting the spread of democracy and the protection of human rights, but that the situation in the region and the failure of the Arab revolutions so close to achieving their desired goals caused him to actually end as Machiavelli.

This is what happened with Nixon, who put America’s security and strategic interests before anything else, even if it meant sacrificing democracy and supporting military coups, such as that in Chile, when the American intelligence sponsored the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s elected government to allow for the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

The problem with this comparison is that not only does it not work as a justification due to the difference in circumstances and the lack of similarities, but also because it is not accurate and relies on the shortness of memory. Since day one, Obama has adopted a foreign policy in which he only takes into account American interests as seen by his administration, therefore, Obama never hesitated to bury the democratic ambitions of the region’s people and to crush their dreams of a dignified life when this served his interests.

In fact, this actually happened long before the Arab Spring revolutions. Due to the fact that he wanted to cooperate with Iran in order to achieve relative stability in Iraq that would allow him to keep his electoral promise to withdraw the troops from the country by 2011, Obama refused to support the Green Revolution that broke out in June 2009 in protest against the alleged rigging of the election in favour of President Mahmoud Ahmadi Nejad. At the time, Obama watched in striking silence, how the Basij and Pasdaran fighters crushed the protest movement, throwing its symbols in prison, including Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who are still under house arrest.

For the same reason, in the following year, Obama scarified the results of the “democratic process” in Iraq and instead supported the Iranian quest to restore Nouri Al-Maliki to power. This is even though the State of Law coalition, led by Al-Maliki, lost the March 2010 elections against the Iraqi list led by Ayad Allawi. Obama did not stop at trying to please Iran with his support for Al-Maliki’s stay. Instead, he pressured the regional forces opposed to this option to change their position. He did not allow the return of the American ambassador to Damascus until the Syrian regime agreed to end its opposition to Al-Maliki, who had accused Damascus of being responsible for the “Bloody Wednesday” bombings on 19 August 2009. Obama also asked that the Security Council create a special tribunal to try those responsible for the “crime”.

In this context, the Arab Spring was an unpleasant surprise for President Obama’s administration. This is not only because it threatened the calm that this administration tried to impose on the region in preparation to withdraw from the area, but because the revolutions almost “messed up” the administration’s other regional arrangements. President Obama was asked to take a clear stand on the Arab revolutions, and this became increasingly difficult as the Arab Spring moved from one country to another.

Tunisia was the easiest of its stops, as it is small and does not carry many major interests, but it got harder in Egypt. Despite this, the removal of Hosni Mubarak was not a serious risk because the army took the reins. In Libya, no one, other than possibly the Russians, shed any tears over the departure of Muammar Gaddafi. The real challenge was in Syria, where President Obama’s real position on the overall democratic transformation process in the Arab region became apparent. It was at this point that Obama appeared to be keen on not angering Iran, even if that led to wiping Syria off the map, even after completing the process of withdrawing the troops from Iraq. This is because the process of agreeing on a solution to the Iranian nuclear programmed had been put on the back burner, on low heat, in Oman.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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