Obama's other legacy in the Middle East

Obama's other legacy in the Middle East
Comment: The outgoing president encouraged us to take responsibility for our own societal change, instead of looking to the US as if it were a global NGO, writes Bassel Salloukh.
7 min read
20 Jan, 2017
Obama looked after American interests during his term in office [AFP]

So much has been written about Barack Obama's legacy in the Middle East, much of it, alas, negative.

It is of course one thing to judge Obama's record at home and on the world stage: launching the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) against unfathomable resistance, negotiating the New Start nuclear-arms-reduction treaty, responding to the effects of the 2008 financial crisis on the US economy, a proactive approach to climate change, containing the rise of China through a new trade network, the rapprochement with Cuba, and restoring some faith in multilateral diplomacy.

On other issues, such as his mishandling of Russia's strategic interests in Eastern Europe and the inability to punish those who created the mess that was the 2008 meltdown, he was not so successful.

But in the trenches of Middle East politics, the litmus test of success and failure was always going to be much more difficult.

A number of policy issues have shaped how pundits evaluate the Obama legacy in the Middle East. The first, and perhaps the benchmark for later decisions, was how he handled the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring.

At the outset, and perhaps against his own personal instincts, Obama prioritised America's geopolitical interests in the region. Some pundits tend to glide carelessly over Vice-President Joe Biden's endorsement of Mubarak at the height of the popular demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

Obama would then stun the Arab world - especially America's own allies in the region - when he signalled that Mubarak was disposable, and that the Muslim Brotherhood were not so anathema as long as they respected Egypt's international obligations - read the peace treaty with Israel - and retained their predecessor's neoliberal economic policies.

In Iraq - never his mess in the first place - he refused to be dragged into the country's domestic politics, opting instead to operate on the sides or from the air

But for a president who had claimed in his "A New Beginning" speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University on June 4, 2009, that "the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose … [these] are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere," - the mute reaction to the subsequent regime-led counter-revolutions against popular uprisings demanding basic political freedoms and socioeconomic rights proved just how realism trumped any sentimental idealism in Obama's approach to the Arab world.

The rest, as they say, is history. The same realism determined how Obama approached his administration's other Middle East worries. Reading his April 2016 interview with The Atlantic, you get the feeling that he had a deep sense that something was structurally (not culturally) broken in the Arab world, and that Washington had no business trying to fix it if the region's regimes were not willing to even try.


In Iraq - never his mess in the first place - he refused to be dragged into the country's domestic politics, opting instead to operate on the sides or from the air.

True, this unleashed Nouri al-Maliki's vengeful hand in Iraq, with disastrous consequences for the later rise of the Islamic State group.

But blaming Obama for Maliki's policies exaggerates Washington's real capabilities in Baghdad, and assumes an Iraq suspended from a larger regional geopolitical battle involving Iran and Saudi Arabia.

These limits on American capabilities in the region were also starkly exposed in the endless hours spent trying to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The recipe he used for advancing a two-states solution was faulty - offering Israel generous military aid to win minor political concessions. Nevertheless, it was a failure also rooted in domestic US politics and Binyamin Netanyahu's doctrinal intransigence - not a lack of desire on Obama's part or a balanced approach.

The disastrous intervention in Libya confirmed his allergic reaction to direct military involvements. His refusal to interfere militarily in Syria did not make much sense from a liberal interventionist perspective, but it made perfect sense from a realist one: there were no strategic American interests at stake.

And as any realist theorist would add, it was bound to invite even more military involvement from Russian, but more so from Iran and Hizballah - fighting machines willing to sustain disproportionate casualty rates defending their geopolitical interests, for whom the strategic arc stretching from Latakia to Zabadani represents the umbilical cord connecting Tehran to Beirut's southern suburbs.

The drone-orchestrated war to "counter violent extremism" - we had to learn a new acronym under Obama: CVE - fitted perfectly with his obsession to avoid American boots on the ground.

Read more: Obama's drone war - ten times more strikes than Bush

IS - or ISIL in his lingo - would be "degraded and ultimately destroyed", but from the air. Air support for Kurdish allies in Erbil and northern Syria, and for the Iraqi state's regular forces but also a posse of pro-Iranian Shia militias, avoided the mess and American deaths that would have come with ground warfare.

He left the fighting to ethnic, tribal, and sectarian groups busy reclaiming their always historically constructed primordial identities. He was not deluded by the Washington foreign policy establishment's obsession with a "vacuum" created in the Middle East as a result of his policies. Ever since the Eisenhower Doctrine, the region had been perceived from Washington through this illocutionary gadget, an ideological stance that always incurred local destruction and American disappointments.

It goes without saying that Obama's policy choices in the Middle East were calculated to serve American interests

Yet, where strategic American interests were at stake, Obama was not timid to marshal the full force of US diplomacy or the threat to use force. And so, against diplomatic odds and decades of hostility, he produced a startling Iran deal that committed Tehran to forsake producing the materials required for a potential nuclear weapon: highly enriched uranium, but more importantly weapons-grade plutonium.

Iran's regional enemies appreciated the value of the agreement more than many in the Washington foreign policy establishment.

It goes without saying that Obama's policy choices in the Middle East were calculated to serve American interests, something that deserves highlighting - because many in this part of the world still look at America as a kind of a global NGO.

Yet beyond the grim realism of US policies, there is an alternative legacy that peoples of this region should take away from the Obama years: an ethos of serving the public good, not always succeeding but always trying, appealing to a sense of solidarity that binds the community together, inviting citizens to wage the battle of ideas that shapes politics, and preparing future generations for the challenges that await them.

There is a line in Obama's farewell address that would resonate in every nook and cranny of the Arab world: "And so we're going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need… to give workers the power to unionise for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now, and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from this new economy don't avoid their obligations to the country that's made their very success possible."

As we bid the Obama years farewell, maybe we should ponder what kind of new social contracts our societies so desperately need, and how we can reboot our political economies in a manner that benefits all the members of society.

These are much more useful takeaways from the Obama years than crying over the spilt milk of US geopolitical interests.

Dr. Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.