The Obama doctrine

Friday 25/03/2016
His Middle East policy has been plagued by indecisiveness

Written by Jeffrey Gold­berg, The Obama Doc­trine, pub­lished in the April 2016 issue of the Atlantic, is an indispensable reference to understanding the US presi­dent’s approach to the world, seeking to explain Barack Obama’s reluctance and impas­siveness towards the Middle East.
In the lengthy article, based on interviews conducted over a number of months, Obama demonstrates contempt for European and Arab states that have been among Washington’s closest allies. It seems that Obama, whose term in office expires in January 2017, no longer cares about the traditional rules of the game.
Obama appears to be a man beyond self-criticism or self-doubt. Justifying his approach, Obama sought to stand out from his predecessors, believing that he is setting forth a completely new foreign policy regarding the use of soft and hard power that will be followed by whoever sits in the Oval Office.
Obama proudly says that one of the best decisions he made was to back away from taking military action against the Assad regime in 2013 after it broke his famous “red line” and used chemical weapons. Obama seemingly fails to show any awareness that his decision not to take action led to the current Syrian disaster, which has expanded to embroil the wider region; he does not seem to feel any responsibility for the Syrian crisis.
Based on the disastrous military adventures pursued by his predecessor, Obama’s Middle East policy has been plagued by indecisiveness and caution. The US president likens the Middle East to the Hobbesian “war of all against all”. Based on this view, Obama says the United States should avoid, as much as possible, becoming embroiled in the Middle East.
Thanks to America’s energy revolution, he views the region as being of “negligible relevance” to the future of the US economy, which he believes lies in Asia.
This withdrawal from the Middle East flies in the face of almost 60 years of Washington policy. The complexities of constant conflicts, the scale of regional and international interests and the simple lack of successful states have transformed the Middle East into a quagmire of crises.
At the same time, the Obama administration’s failure to advance Palestinian-Israeli peace and its action, or lack thereof, on the massive changes that have swept the region, not least the rise of Islamic extremism, as well as its latest rapprochement with Tehran, have hardly helped.
The Obama reading of the Middle East, including the latest dealings with Iran, is not circumstantial but based on concrete thinking regarding what he would like to see in the future. In particular, Obama is reportedly an admirer of Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, who advocates balance in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shias and says that Washington’s role should be to intervene only if that balance is upset.
For Obama, the Sunni Gulf must learn to “share” the region with Shia Iran. Riyadh and Tehran must move towards “some sort of cold peace”, Obama says, blaming “proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen” on “competition” between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Obama was well aware that the nuclear deal would anger America’s traditional allies in the Middle East, from Israel to Turkey, to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. He pursued it anyway.
He also criticises Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arabs, seemingly holding them responsible for changes within Islam, including the popularisation of the hijab in Indonesia. But the Quran is an Arabic document and Islam is intrinsically linked to the Arab world; you cannot separate one from the other.
Obama is keen to point the finger but makes no mention of the ties between Iran and al- Qaeda or even his own country’s history in Afghanistan or the fall of the shah, which arguably paved the way for the rise of religious considerations in international politics.
The article exposes Obama’s unemotional and “Spockian” nature. He was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office but perhaps that was premature. When Obama leaves office almost eight years later, he will be leaving behind a less secure and more troubled world.