The end to Obama’s ‘New Beginning’ in the Middle East
A New Beginning was the title of US President Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech in which he promised to reverse Western misconceptions about the Islamic world, build mutuality, end extremism and resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the principle of a two-state solution.
Middle Eastern enthusiasts hoped the election of the first African-American US president would signal the dawn of a new era in US-Arab relations.
However, fast unravelling post- “Arab spring” events exposed the limits of neo-liberal idealism, prompting Obama towards “pragmatic” adjustments in policy. According to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who has interviewed the president on several occasions, Obama has revised his Middle East strategy, removing most American boots on the ground in the region, shifting the burden of maintaining regional security towards a tenuous pact between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which he said should “share the neighbourhood” as America leads from behind.
In a 2015 Foreign Affairs article, Marc Lynch described Obama’s approach as “rightsizing”. Martin Indyk has called it “the most important change in strategy since Nixon’s opening to China”, signalling a “‘pivot’ away from the Middle East towards Asia”.
Despite the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the halting of Iran’s nuclear programme, Obama’s doctrine, in both idealistic and realistic versions, has reaped mostly disappointments.
During his term, the Middle East has been rocked by instability, civil wars, displacement, foreign invasions and violent atrocities that have devastated millions of lives. Four Arab states have been engulfed in sectarian and tribal civil wars, more than 15 million people have been forcibly displaced, many cities and towns have been destroyed, more than 40 countries have taken direct military action in the region and sectarian extremism has mushroomed.
Throughout the past eight years, the United States has failed to make a breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations, demonstrated an inability to stabilise a post-Qaddafi Libya and displayed a limited capacity to boost democratic transition in Egypt. It seems to have lost command of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in favour of Russia and Iran as well as the Islamic State (ISIS).
The last development has exposed US weakness. Relations with strategic allies such as Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have grown stiff amid US-Iranian and US-Kurdish rapprochements. During Obama’s term, the Middle East has arguably become the most volatile and unstable region in the world.
It remains difficult to attribute to Obama’s policy a shift in priority that accounts for achievements in Asia. On the contrary, Russia and China have established closer ties. North Korea has prevailed over US ultimatums in the pursuit of nuclear testing and missile launching.
From a realpolitik perspective, it can be argued that the overall Obama strategy, and despite the human and moral toll, has reaped the fruits of a Sunni-Shia regional divide, prompting an arms race that has boosted Middle Eastern states’ purchase of US weapons, lowered oil prices and beefed up the United States’ role as a power broker.
However, the instability of the Middle East has proven to have grave worldwide consequences beyond American control. The refugee exodus has threatened European unity. The Iranian- Russian alliance has increasingly placed Europe and Turkey under the extortion of a Russian and Iranian gas monopoly. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt have all begun to search for alternative and trans-regional security arrangements among Islamic states beyond the regional paradigm being offered by the Obama administration.
Still, it can claim to have made a diplomatic breakthrough by concluding an Iranian nuclear deal that, in the words of the US president, has made “the region, the United States and the world more secure”. In the assessment of his administration, a nuclear-free Iran undermines conservative hardliners, paves the way for moderates and perhaps makes closer ties between Iran and the United States a possibility.
Recent election results in Iran have shown moderate gains for the reformists while conservatives have asserted control over parliament. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has sent threatening messages to those who believe “the world of tomorrow is a world of discourse, not missiles”, including leading reformists within Iran’s clerical establishment, such as Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Thus far the lifting of sanctions has neither undermined the hardliners nor slowed the Iranian- Russian alliance. To the contrary, Moscow has increased its cooperation with Tehran, delivering the first shipment of S-300 systems to create an Iranian-integrated air-defence system. Iranian military intervention in Syria has only grown.
A turbulent and conflict-ridden Middle East has come to characterise the era of Obama’s presidency. His administration is sure to be judged for the conflict-defined quagmire the Middle East finds itself in and the failure of a new beginning.
The “rightsizing” of the US role in the Middle East requires new American leadership that can make stabilisation a strategic priority and regain credibility among strategic allies. Until then, people in the Middle East eagerly await the expiry of Obama’s term with the same enthusiasm with which they cheered his promises of a “New Beginning”.