Obama’s Gift to Donald

As even the most casual observer of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will note, the situation that Donald Trump will inherit from the Obama administration on January 20, 2017 is a mess. Trump, having campaigned and won on promises to “shake things up in Washington” and “make America great again,” has attempted to deliver on these promises by appointing a series of officials who do not come from the list of usual suspects sitting on the bench at the Heritage Foundation awaiting the election of a Republican president. However, dealing with the complicated, interlocking situations he will face will not be as easy as making campaign promises.

For the first time in several decades, the situation in Israel and Palestine will not be at the top of the agenda. The concept of a “two state solution,” which has long been the hallmark of American policy, has not been a viable concept for 20 years. U.S. policy makers have been reluctant to face this reality, as it forces recognition that Israel is already calimed to be a bi-national “state” with 6mm Jews governing or controlling 6mm Arabs. The only issue is what kind of a state Israel will be. America’s interests and desires are irrelevant to this situation, because, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon once said, “Don’t worry about American pressure on Israel. We, the Jewish people, control America, and the Americans know it.” President Trump will have a number of more pressing issues to deal with in MENA.

The Syrian War, now entering its sixth year, has devolved into a bloody stalemate involving the Syrian government in Damascus, numerous fractious rebel groups with different agendas and an assortment of outside actors, also with differing agendas. At the beginning of the uprising in 2011, the U.S. had a choice between collaborating with Russia and Iran to try to reach a peaceful accommodation between the rebel groups and the Syrian government, or arming and supporting the opposition groups in order to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration, seeing an opportunity to weaken the alliance among Iran, Syria and Lebanese Hezbollah and thereby strengthen the position of Israel in the region, chose the latter course. Obama made this choice knowing that there would be a risk that the resulting conflict would leave space for radical groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS to assert themselves. Over time, various other outside actors with differing agendas have intervened in the conflict. Britain, France and the U.S. support so-called moderate opposition groups. Iran, Russia and Hezbollah support the Syrian government. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) support the “Islamist” rebel groups. Turkey supports Turkman rebel groups, is indifferent towards ISIS and opposes the Kurdish opposition groups. President Trump, having vowed to “end overseas intervention and chaos”, will need to answer the question: How does the U.S. benefit from this intervention? He will need to decide to go all in, all out or to continue the current half-measures and prolong the conflict. At best, the end game will probably result in a federated state with pro-forma central government.

In Yemen, the U.S. has intervened in a multifaceted civil war between the Saudi Arabia-supported “government” of “President” Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and numerous opposition forces, including Houthi-led tribal groups, al-Qaeda and ISIS. The U.S. has supported the Saudi intervention by providing intelligence, offering air to air aircraft refueling, selling weapons and at times directly attacking Houthi forces. The U.S. has justified the intervention with the need to secure the adjacent narrow straits through which much of the world’s oil supply flows, and by the desire to maintain a government in Yemen that will accede to operations supporting the “War on Terror.” The intervention has become more difficult to support because of Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, which has resulted in allegations of war crimes. Once again, differing agendas among the participants make a solution more complicated and difficult.

In 2011, a U.S.-led NATO coalition intervened in Libya in order to overthrow and kill President Muammar Gadhafi. Since that time, the U.S. has largely disengaged from the situation and left behind a civil conflict involving two governments and numerous tribal and radical groups, including al-Qaeda and ISIS. This failed state across the Mediterranean from Europe continues to be a festering sore and a source of terrorists and refugees.

Having inherited a messy civil conflict in Somalia from the Bush and Clinton administrations, the Obama administration has maintained a low level of involvement with aircraft and drone strikes on the al-Shabab rebel group. Of all of the U.S. military interventions in MENA, this one is the most difficult to justify in terms of American national interest—and as such may be the most likely candidate for American withdrawal.

As President Trump considers how to deal with these complicated and messy conflicts, the differing approaches favored by Trump, his advisors, Republican members of Congress, members of his own cabinet and members of the Republican foreign policy establishment will make a coherent policy difficult to achieve. As a result of many years of failed policies in MENA, the U.S. will, absent direct military involvement, have little influence over the outcome. Whatever choices President Trump makes will, however, involve a myriad of opportunities for unintended consequences.

President Obama’s Middle East Legacy

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.

Obama Baghdad Middle East

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.

Grade: B+

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.

Grade C-

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.

Grade: B

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.

Grade: F

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.

Grade: D

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.

Is Terrorism Ever Justified?

First published in the American Herald Tribune

On September 20, 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush declared a “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) and proclaimed, “You are either with us or against us.” This declaration setup and enabled a program of attacking and killing “terrorists” around the globe and of supporting other countries that agreed to participate in the GWOT. The result of this strategy was to make the words “terror’ and “terrorist” so common in the lexicon that they have, in large measure, lost their meaning. Many unsavory leaders have used the label to justify their actions, including imprisonment without trial and assassination, against those who oppose their policies and to receive the millions of dollars of aid lavished upon allies in the GWOT. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Egyptian Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Abdel el-Sisi come to mind.

In exploring the rationale and morality of terrorism, a good starting point would be a definition. In literature, definitions of terrorism are more numerous than terrorist attacks themselves. Many definitions are self-serving. The U.S. Department of State defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” This definition gives the U.S. and other nation states a pass on the “terror bombing” in Germany, the use of the atomic bomb in Japan or “shock and awe” in Baghdad. The State Department’s list of terrorists and supporters of terrorism is also not a useful tool in evaluating terrorists as it is frequently used as a political club to authorize otherwise illegal actions against those on the list. Cuba was placed on the list for political reasons and remained on the list long past any rational period. Nelson Mandela remained on the list until 2008; long after he was elected President of South Africa and received the Nobel Peace Prize. A generally accepted definition, which I subscribe to, is “Deliberate attacks or attacks that callously disregard the consequences of the attack, by governments or non-government groups, against innocent civilians, as well as their social, economic and societal institutions and infrastructures, aimed at reaching political, religious or ideological goals.”

War on Terror

For centuries religious theologians have wrestled with the question of whether or not it is morally allowable to use unjust means to reach a just end or to realize a just cause. Catholic tradition holds that evil may never be done to achieve good. Thomas Aquinas took a more nuanced view in his Summa Theologiae, which takes into account motives and consequences. Taking into account the relative consequences of inaction or action, one can argue that the consequences of terrorism might be morally preferable to the status quo if terrorism is the only means of changing the status quo. U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright used the consequences argument when asked if the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children as a result of U.S. sanctions were worth it. She said “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.” You decide.

Hezbollah was placed on the U.S. terrorist list as a result of the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon which killed 241 U.S. servicemen and for the killing of CIA agent William Buckley. Hezbollah, on the other hand, would argue that these were legitimate military targets attacked in an effort to protect their country against foreign intervention.  On the other hand, the CIA set off a car bomb in Beirut that killed 80 civilians in a failed attempt to kill Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fadlallah for his alleged role justifying the Marine barracks attack. Which act was terrorism?

Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups have long been classified as terrorist organizations by the U.S. Leaving aside the asymmetry of the power relationship between Israel and the Palestinians in justifying terrorism, the magnitude of the terrorist actions employed by Israel in attacks on Gaza and Palestinian refugee camps, which have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians, far exceeds the toll inflicted by Palestinian organizations. As friends in the Middle East have pointed out to me, democracies such as Israel which elect former terrorists, Itzak Shamir, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon as President, have little standing to condemn terrorism. Israel has even less standing in justifying its destruction of Gaza, including hospitals, apartments and schools in the name of retaliation for a few Palestinian rockets fired into Israel.

For weak states and non-state actors, terrorism is often the tactic of choice because, not only is it cheap, but also, it is effective. Strong states on the other hand have other options. Nelson Mandela said, “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” Terrorism has often been a major contributing factor in ousting colonial regimes and liberating oppressed people from colonialism. Examples include Algerian independence, ANC terrorism against the South African Apartheid regime, the defeat of British colonialism in Kenya and the success of Zionist terrorism in the founding of Israel.

Tragically, as is the case in Israel/Palestine, when an oppressed people loses hope that the present situation can change, terrorism is seen as the only option.

Live Interview With KDPI – What News Are You Missing?

I recently sat down with Norm Leopold on Case in Point to discuss Middle Eastern media coverage in the US and the latest events from the region.

Listen to it right here by pressing play below, or right click on this link and select “Save Link As” to download the MP3.


Questions? Followups? Comments? Leave them below. Let’s get another conversation going.


Surprising Progress in the U.S./GCC Summit

This post is also featured on Foreign Policy Journal.

I am frequently reminded that satisfaction is proportional to the difference between expectations and reality. This fact became abundantly evident in the case of the recent summit meeting among U.S diplomats and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders at Camp David.

Leading up to the summit most observers, myself included, had very low expectations that there could be any positive or useful outcome. In interviews prior to the meeting, President Obama had indicated that he wanted to speak frankly to GCC leaders about the current situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This was not a message that was going to be well received by GCC leaders since it has been clear for some time that the instability in the Arab Middle East is largely self-inflicted by the Arab governments and not the result of Iranian meddling as is so often claimed by Arab states. Wahhabi jihadist exports by Saudi Arabia contribute much more to MENA instability then Iran’s meddling. The time for straight-forward conversations about this state of affairs has been long overdue. It is possible that the U.S. administration has finally realized that it no longer needs to cow-tow to wealthy petrostates in the region, but can pursue its own national interests. The GCC countries need the U.S. more than the U.S. needs them.

Even with the best of intentions, there were a number of questions and concerns about the timing and setting for the meeting. Why have the meeting at all? Perhaps the Obama administration wanted to assuage the concerns of some of the Gulf States about a potential Iran nuclear deal and its impact on U.S. policies and preempt any effort by the GCC to roll out its financial, PR and lobbying muscle in Washington in order to defeat any nuclear agreement. When only Qatar and Kuwait sent their heads of state, with others sending lower level officials, many critics and pundits decried it as a snub to Obama and his policies. On the other hand, perhaps they realized that they were going to get some straight talk rather than the coddling approach of the past and didn’t want to hear it. It was clear that the GCC wanted written security guarantees from the U.S., which they were not going to get.

Arab (and also Israeli) concern about Iran stems less from the nuclear issue and more from the removal of sanctions, which has the potential to unleash the Iranian economy with a subsequent increase in Iranian regional influence. The problem is not with Iran, but is internal to the conservative petrostates. GCC leader Saudi Arabia, which has a small population and, for the most part, is living off of the government dole, currently has little economic potential beyond petro-dollars.

Obama at GCC Summit

President Obama meets with Persian Gulf leaders (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

Despite all of aforementioned headwinds, the summit turned out to be more successful than most observers expected. According to Barbara Slavin of al-Monitor, GCC assistant secretary general Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg told a press conference on May 15 that the Camp David summit “exceeded the expectations of most of us.”

The Joint Statement issued following the meetings was striking for what it included and what it did not. The long standing issue of Gulf State’s funding of jihadists was addressed.

“The leaders decided to enhance their counter-terrorism cooperation on shared threats, particularly ISIL/DAESH and Al-Qa’ida, to deter and disrupt terrorist attacks with a focus on protecting critical infrastructure, strengthening border and aviation security, combating money laundering and terrorist financing, interdicting foreign fighters, and countering violent extremism in all its forms.”

The need to resolve conflicts through diplomacy was recognized.

“They decided on a set of common principles, including a shared recognition that there is no military solution to the regions’ armed civil conflicts, which can only be resolved through political and peaceful means; respect for all states’ sovereignty and non-interference in their internal affairs; the need for inclusive governance in conflict-ridden societies; as well as protection of all minorities and of human rights.”

Obama seemed to have persuaded the GCC of the need to make Iran part of the solution and not part of the problem.

“They emphasized that a comprehensive, verifiable deal that fully addresses the regional and international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program is in the security interests of GCC member states as well as the United States and the international community.”

“At the same time, the United States and GCC member states reaffirmed their willingness to develop normalized relations with Iran should it cease its destabilizing activities and their belief that such relations would contribute to regional security.”

There was no mention of a no-fly zone in Syria as promoted by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Such an intervention would lead to direct U.S. military involvement in the Syrian civil war.

While recognizing that other regional states have their own interests, the U.S. appears to have decided to take a path toward pursuing its own national interests with regional cooperation where helpful and possible, but without if necessary. All this said, it all depends on whether or not the parties live up to the agreements.