Is Obama shifting to a more realistic foreign policy?
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.