Is Obama shifting to a more realistic foreign policy?

Friday 11/03/2016
Minimalist approach. US Secretary of State John Kerry at a news conference after the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich in February.

Washington - US President Barack Obama is ending his presidency as he began it — as a foreign policy realist with limited ex­pectations about what he can ac­complish, especially in the Middle East.
This contrasts with his predeces­sor, George W. Bush, whose vision of a transformed Middle East re­sulted in a never-ending war and dashed hopes from democracy ac­tivists who initially took his rhetoric seriously.
Obama entered office with few goals for the Middle East: 1) to re­set relations with the Muslim world after the war in Iraq and the growth of anti-US sentiment; 2) to renew the pursuit of a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement and; 3) to with­draw US troops from Iraq.
Democracy promotion was not high on Obama’s agenda. In his June 2009 speech in Cairo, which was aimed at assuring Muslims that the United States was not at war with Islam, democracy promotion was near the bottom of his stated priori­ties.
Obama’s realistic approach was clear in an interview he gave shortly before his inauguration in January 2009. He said he did not discount “the sincerity” of his predecessor’s concern about democracy and hu­man rights but he criticised Bush’s reliance on elections as a barometer for democratic progress.
When the “Arab spring” erupted in January 2011, Obama was com­pelled to rethink his reticence about democracy promotion. After some hesitation, he came to the view that the United States should be on “the right side of history”. In one of his most eloquent speeches, given the day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, Obama stated in part:
“Over the last few weeks, the wheel of history turned at a blind­ing pace as the Egyptian people demanded their universal rights,” adding that Egyptians have “in­spired us”. But there was no equiva­lent to a Marshall Plan for the Mid­dle East and optimistic scenarios about democracies replacing au­thoritarian regimes, with the excep­tion of Tunisia, were soon dashed. Cynicism in US policy circles about democratic change in the region has returned.
One of the most problematic chal­lenges was the uprising in Syria that led to a civil war and the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). Obama was re­luctant to get involved; he saw the Syrian crisis as a potential Iraq-like quagmire. As he was drawing down US forces in Iraq, he was deter­mined not to get involved militarily in Syria.
The rise of ISIS changed Obama’s calculus somewhat, compelling him to send military trainers and US Special Forces back to Iraq, bomb ISIS targets from the air and provide some assistance to anti-ISIS fighters in Syria.
Although Obama’s goal is to “de­grade and ultimately defeat” ISIS, his emphasis has been on a politi­cal solution to the Syrian crisis as opposed to a “transformative” ap­proach that may involve a heavier US footprint. Granted, the Syria cri­sis would be a challenge for any US president given its complexity but Obama’s realist outlook has encour­aged a minimalist approach.
Counterterrorism is the overrid­ing concern for Obama, not just because of the rise of ISIS in the region, but because of its threat to the United States itself. This in­volves not only air strikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya against ISIS targets, along with occasional drone strikes against al-Qaeda elements in Yem­en, but also shoring up traditional US friends in the region. Democracy and human rights have been de-emphasised.
For example, in the new US budg­et request for Egypt, the Obama administration excluded language linking military aid to Egypt with democracy and human rights pro­gress.
In testimony to Congress, US Sec­retary of State John Kerry under­scored that “we’ve got a huge inter­est in making sure Egypt’s doesn’t go down into a more difficult status than it is”.
Kerry added that the Gulf states have more leverage than the United States, implying that a return to a policy of suspending US military aid to Egypt, which was done from Oc­tober 2013 to March 2015, would be counterproductive.
The one major achievement of the Obama administration in the Middle East is the Iran nuclear deal, which Obama hopes will lead to more moderate policies from Teh­ran. Although the deal prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons and aids the cause of non-prolifer­ation in the region, it has spurred Saudi fears of an emboldened Iran bent on undermining Sunni-dom­inated states. So even Obama’s re­alistic approach with its signature accomplishment has its downsides.