Barack Obama came to power in 2009 having campaigned on a slogan of “change that you can believe in.” His record of opposing the Bush administration’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq, his Kenyan/Indonesian heritage, his friendship in Chicago with Rashid Khalidi, an internationally known scholar, critic of Israel and advocate for Palestinian rights, and his emphasis on the importance of diplomacy seemed to signal a significant change in the approach to U.S. Middle East policy. But, the first indication that perhaps one should not necessarily believe in a change came in his 2008 speech to the AIPAC conference when he stated, “I have been proud to be a part of a strong, bipartisan consensus that has stood by Israel in the face of all threats. That is a commitment that both John McCain and I share, because support for Israel in this country goes beyond party.”
I was in the Middle East in November 2008, shortly after Obama was elected, meeting with political and NGO leaders of all stripes. To say that the atmosphere was euphoric would be an understatement. The headline in Damascus was “Abu Hussein Wins” and the Cairo media proclaimed “A Dream Come True” and “Only in America.” Most of my time with Arab leaders was spent lowering expectations. In an interview with Al-Arabiya’s Washington Bureau Chief Hisham Melhem, Obama, shortly after his inauguration, stated, “People are going to judge me, not by my words, but by my actions.” Taking him at his word, let’s take a look at what he has accomplished.
Israel and Palestine – Obama moved quickly to address this festering problem that impacts so many of the other Middle East issues by appointing George Mitchell as Special Envoy and demanding a freeze in Israeli settlement building. He was, however, never willing to make the hard political decisions necessary to break the deadlock. There were no consequences for either side for their intransigence. Once Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu realized that he could defy the President of the U.S. and get away with it, there was no chance for progress. Grade: C
Iraq – The technical term for the situation that Obama inherited in Iraq is “a mess.” Having campaigned on ending the “bad war” and focusing on the “good war” in Afghanistan, Obama quickly began to reduce the number of U.S. combat troops. In 2008 President Bush had negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the Iraqi government calling for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops by December 31, 2011. When Obama came into office, there were 148,000 combat troops in Iraq. By the end of 2009, the number was down to 114,000. Obama tried unsuccessfully to negotiate an extension of the SOFA and by the end of 2011, all combat troops had left Iraq. None of the political and sectarian conflicts that have plagued Iraq since the 2003 invasion have been resolved and the arrival of ISIS on the scene changed the dynamic. As of this writing, there are 3,100 U.S. troops back in Iraq. Only time will tell what the future will bring.
Afghanistan – When Obama was inaugurated there were 32,500 U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan fighting the “good war.” By March 2011 there were 100,000 combat troops plus another 100,000 contractors in Afghanistan. As of this writing, there are 10,000 troops on the ground there and the U.S. continues to conduct drone strikes on Afghani insurgent groups. Despite this major commitment of forces and financial resources, Afghanistan today remains a largely failed state with a corrupt and ineffective government and a growing insurgency.
Iran – During his election campaign, Obama promised to focus on diplomacy in order resolve the nuclear-related issues with Iran. After an initial half-hearted attempt at discussions, Obama doubled down on sanctions against Iran, including secondary sanctions on anyone engaged in prohibited activity. Having kept the door open to discussions, he was able conclude the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to limit Iran’s nuclear program in return for removing the sanctions regime. Despite Iran having lived up to its obligations under the agreement, Obama has been reluctant to take aggressive steps to reengage with Iran and has maintained the obstacles that have impeded investment in Iran. This has left the door open for future administrations to renege on the agreement and has increased Iranian mistrust of the U.S.
Libya – Following the 2011 uprising against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi and the repression of the insurgent groups, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing the imposition of a no-fly zone for the purpose of protecting civilians. At the urging of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration liberally interpreted the resolution as authorizing regime change. With the U.S. and its allies offering air support, the rebels overthrew and killed Gaddafi. Subsequently Libya has collapsed into chaos and has provided ungoverned space that has become a haven for radical Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Syria – In 2011, inspired by other uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Syrians began demonstrations designed to reform the Syrian regime and improve economic conditions. The Assad regime responded with repression and cosmetic reforms. Rather than seeking a diplomatic solution, the Obama administration opted for regime change. It demanded that “Assad must go” and began low-level support for the rebel factions. The situation has evolved into a multi-faceted civil war creating ungoverned space in which ISIS and al-Qaeda have found a base.
While it is clear that Obama inherited a mess in the Middle East from the Bush administration and has succeeded in reducing America’s direct involvement in conflicts, the situation in the region is, in many ways, more unstable and chaotic than it was in 2009.