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Barack Obama and the shattered hopes of a new Middle East

November 24, 2020 at 10:28 am

President Barack Obama’s memoir ‘A Promised Land’ at a book store in New York on 17 November 2020 [Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images]

In his new book, A Promised Land, former US President Barack Obama admits that he has a lot to say. So much so, that he felt the need to explain why he was unable to tell the story of his presidency in a single 900 page volume.

“I’m painfully aware that a more gifted writer could have found a way to tell the same story with greater brevity,” Obama acknowledges, but it was the need to “provide context” for the decisions he made during his eight years in the White House that made it necessary to write one volume for each term in office. Reading the 59-year-old’s account of his presidency, one cannot help but feel that in revealing what’s behind the power and the pomp — offering readers “a sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States” — he is also desperate to set the record straight.

His critics view Obama as a failure as much as his supporters think of him as a great champion of freedom and democracy. He made his grand entry into foreign policy by pledging to “fix” his predecessor’s counter-terrorism policies within days of being elected. He promised to close Guantanamo Bay, the US military prison camp in Cuba, which exists in an extrajudicial space of its own. It is still open. Instead of “fixing” the war on terror, Obama accelerated “dirty wars” across regions occupied by US forces, carrying out more drone strikes than his predecessor George W Bush, resulting in thousands of deaths in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, among other places.

Then there was the Arab Spring, a series of revolutions followed by violent counter-revolutions that his critics say left the region in a far worse state than when he came into office in 2008. Obama’s decision not to punish Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad for using nerve gas against opposition forces near Damascus — which Obama had declared would be a “red line” — will forever leave a stain on his legacy. In geopolitical terms, his inaction in Syria diminished America’s standing on the global stage. This enabled Russian President Vladimir Putin to exploit it to the full and stabilise the Assad regime. I should also mention his failure to prevent Israel from continuing to build and extend illegal settlements let alone end the colonial state’s occupation of Palestine.

READ: Obama admits failure to handle Syria tragedy

In sharing his thoughts from key moments in the Middle East during his first four years in the White House, Obama appears to be as honest about the challenges facing the region as he is philosophical about his failures. Having raised the “hope” of people in the way he did, Obama suggests, his legacy was always going to be measured by the many unattainable goals that he had set himself in the first place. These were goals, he argues, that were unattainable to begin with because of the popular uprising in January 2011, which took everybody by surprise; because of the limits of the power of the US President; because the foreign policy terrain is “messy”; and because of America’s “conflicting” interests which consistently pitted human rights against stability.

Obama’s 2009 “Cairo speech” was delivered with the aim of resetting US foreign with the Arab and the Muslim world. “It wouldn’t change the Middle East overnight,” explains Obama about the speech, which he admits exposed him to the accusation that he was “naïve”, but it could “steer America’s foreign policy machinery in the right direction.”

US President Barack Obama at the 11th G20 Leaders' Summit in Hangzhou, China, on September 03, 2016

Former US President Barack Obama

For Obama, a reset of US relations with the Middle East was needed not only because of his predecessors’ disastrous invasion of Iraq but also because America’s record of undermining freedom and democracy in the region was as long as it was shameful. In Cairo, the then US President hoped to send a message to the Arab people and their rulers that America would no longer be locked into a false choice between human rights and stability and that with him in power it was turning a new page.

“For at least half a century, US policy in the Middle East had focused narrowly on maintaining stability, preventing disruptions to our oil supplies, and keeping adversarial powers (first the Soviets, then the Iranians) from expanding their influence.” After the terrorist attack of 11 September, 2001, “counterterrorism took centre stage” to reinforce the failed logic that “made autocrats our allies,” he adds.

READ: ‘Total reset’ is wishful thinking: The daunting task of reordering US foreign policy

Obama hoped that his administration would be able to resist such “fatalism” presented as a false choice between stability and human rights. His Cairo speech, urging the governments of the Middle East “to heed the voices of citizens calling for reform” was meant to mark a break with the past. Emphasising the need for a reset, Obama reveals that in the early days of his presidency three senior officials in his administration had presented him with the blueprint for a Presidential Study Directive stating that US interests in stability across the Middle East and North Africa were adversely affected by the United States’ uncritical support of authoritarian regimes. “We were starting to steer America’s foreign policy machinery in the right direction,” but events in the region took an unpredicted turn. As the protests erupted in Tunisia, his main thought was, “If only our timing had been a bit better.”

In January 2011, Obama used his State of the Union speech to say, “Tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.” He admits that his high-minded ideals were put to a test and when he fell short it wasn’t because of a lack of trying. When senior advisor Samantha Powers questioned his commitment to his “human rights agenda” and asked why he was prevaricating on instructing President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to lift the “emergency law” which had been in place since 1981, he replied: “The US government’s an ocean liner not a speedboat. If we want to change our approach to the region, then we need a strategy that builds over time. We’d have to get buy-in from the Pentagon and the intel folks. We’d have to calibrate the strategy to give allies in the region time to adjust.”

There were contradictions, admits Obama, in the way that he handled the Arab Spring, pointing to the contrasting positions of the White House over Egypt and Bahrain. To the dismay of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, Obama recalls, he very publicly opposed the Egyptian President, making Mubarak’s fall all but inevitable. Despite his best efforts, the same support was not extended to protestors in Bahrain, though they were being brutally suppressed by King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa. “I had no elegant way to explain the apparent inconsistency other than to acknowledge that the world was messy; that in the conduct of foreign policy, I had to constantly balance competing interests, interests shaped by the choices of previous administrations and the contingencies of the moment.”

There were similar contradictions when he ordered an air strike against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi but refused to do the same in Syria against Assad. “My team and I spent hours wrestling with how the United States could influence events inside Syria and Bahrain,” he recalls. “Our options were painfully limited.” Washington did not have the same economic, military or diplomatic leverage that it had against Egypt.

No such problem can be said to exist when it comes to US relations with Israel where Washington has plenty of ways to apply pressure on the Zionist state, not least the annual $3.8 billion in aid that it gives Tel Aviv. Obama insists that he wanted to put Palestine back on the US agenda after years of it being ignored. The Bush administration’s focus on Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror left little room to worry about anything else.

READ: Obama follows in Jimmy Carter’s footsteps and speaks out against Israel and AIPAC

Why did Obama face such an uphill battle? He certainly had a plan which he presumed would kick start the so called peace process. He assumed that by offering an “ironclad commitment to Israel’s security” by delivering on the “Iron Dome” defence system and securing billions of pounds in aid, he would have earned enough goodwill to at least insist on a settlement freeze. He quickly discovered, though, that dealing with Israel is unlike dealing with any other country. “Normal policy differences with an Israeli prime minister — even one who presided over a fragile coalition government — exacted a domestic political cost that simply didn’t exist when I dealt with the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, or any of our other closest allies.” He points to the backlash over his insistence that Israel should freeze its illegal construction of settlements.

The pro-Israel lobby was clearly a thorn on his side. “Members of both parties worried about crossing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC),” he says, describing it as “a powerful bipartisan lobbying organisation dedicated to ensuring unwavering US support for Israel.” Pointing out the challenges of confronting the Israel lobby Obama explains that, “AIPAC’s clout could be brought to bear on virtually every congressional district in the country, and just about every politician in Washington — including me — counted AIPAC members among their key supporters and donors.”

The former president soon realised that “those who criticised Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as “anti-Israel” — and possibly anti-Semitic — and confronted with “a well-funded opponent in the next election.” The extent of this challenge was laid bare even more when he discovered that members of his own party were infuriated with him. Obama recollects a conversation with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes following a complaint by an agitated Democrat member of Congress. “I thought he opposes settlements,” said Obama to Rhodes who had spent an hour on the phone to calm the congressman down. “He does,” replied Rhodes. “He also opposes us doing anything to actually stop settlements.”

In this book, Obama looks back at the gap between hope and reality in the Middle East. He appears resigned to the fact that having raised expectations as he did he “was doomed to disappoint.” It seems clear, at least to me, that he left office more cynical about the power of the US President than when he was first elected.

His failure, however, is less a product of the false hope of his high-minded rhetoric and more a result of the corruption and self-serving nature of politicians within institutions who are elected to uphold the highest values of the office they hold. “Looking back,” says Obama as he reflects on his failure to leave a mark on the Israel-Palestine conflict, “I sometimes ponder the age-old question of how much difference the particular characteristics of individual leaders make in the sweep of history.”

This could well be as much of an admission that we are ever going to get that the US is not as important as it likes to think it is. More radically, perhaps, that it is not as important as it has convinced the rest of the world that it is, which should give us all some serious food for thought as we ponder global politics in these turbulent times.

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