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The Cautious American President

US President Barack Obama
At the end of his first term, President Obama’s public foreign policy in the Middle East has reflected his presidency as a whole: cautious, measured, haunted by its own high-blown rhetoric, and in many ways a deep disappointment to the young idealists who flocked to vote for him. In private, he has presided over a huge covert expansion of American spying and paramilitary operations against Al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen—and this is to say nothing of the hardline position he has taken on Iran’s nuclear program. At the same time, he deserves credit for resisting calls from the other side of the political spectrum for the US to become more engaged in the Middle East and stop “leading from behind.”

When Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, hopes were high for a “fresh start” in American foreign policy. The title of the famous speech he delivered in Cairo in June of 2009 (in which he sought to recast American relations with the Middle East) was ”A New Beginning,” summing up the hopes many held for the next four years. After the second Bush administration, Obama was seen in some quarters as a transformative figure who would right the wrongs of the previous eight years, repair relations with American allies worldwide, and restore trust in the presidency amongst the war-weary US public. To some extent, he followed through on these expectations. Despite criticism from hawks, Obama ensured that the US met its commitments to pull the bulk of its troops out of Iraq (though this agreement was inherited from the previous administration). To widespread bemusement, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; one commentator wryly observed it was “for not being George W. Bush.”

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney shake hands at the end of the third and final presidential debate.

Problems began to surface when he turned his attention to the American efforts in Afghanistan. Legendary American reporter, Bob Woodward, recounted how the new president struggled with an entrenched Pentagon bureaucracy and his generals over the future of American policy there. “I’m not doing 10 years. . . I’m not doing long-term nation-building. I am not spending a trillion dollars,” he is reported to have told them, but nevertheless acquiesced to an ambitious plan to try another “surge” of American combat troops in the war-torn country, sending a further 30,000 soldiers to battle the Taliban and its allies.

Further tensions with the generals manifested when aides of the US commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, were quoted in a magazine article mocking the administration and its officials. McChrystal was summoned to Washington to explain himself; he resigned after a meeting with Obama and was replaced with General David Petraeus, the former head of US forces in Iraq.

Despite these hiccups, Obama finally thrashed out a policy that will see American troops leave Afghanistan in 2014, if the timetable is followed. Instead, he is reportedly placing more and more weight behind the program of assassinations via drone attacks in the Pakistani tribal belt and to some degree in Yemen, reportedly even going so far as to personally vet the lists of militants to be targeted for drone strikes, and even though this is widely believed to be killing more civilians and embittering ever-larger parts of the population. This has alienated some of his original, liberal supporters, but he has doubtless calculated that he can survive this politically, aware of the benefits of being seen to be ‘tough on terrorism,’ and that the average American voter gives little thought to foreign affairs. This negative may also be cancelled out by the political gain from being the president who authorized the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.

Another measure of a president is how well he deals with the unexpected, the occurrence of which is the only thing that can be expected with a great degree of certainty. In this case, it fell to Obama to preside over the crafting of the American response to the Arab spring and the various travails that have followed it. Obama was criticized from the Right and the Left for his cautious response to the events in Tunisia, Cairo, Libya, and now Syria, but it is difficult to see what else his administration could have done under the circumstances. In the case of Egypt, Obama passed perhaps the most important test: realizing that the ability of the US to directly influence the transition from dictatorship to a more democratic system was, and remains, limited. Obama’s response to the initial unrest in Egypt was therefore cautious—and he remained cautious throughout the process, careful not to get ahead of events. He only called for Hosni Mubarak to go when he was sure that the Egyptian president was doomed, but this was not out of any affection or regard for the man. The US policy towards Mubrarak’s successor, Mohammed Morsi, has also been cautious. As Hillary Clinton said, “I want to be clear that the United States is not in the business, in Egypt, of choosing winners and losers, even if we could, which of course we cannot.”

In the case of Libya, Obama was again cautious. He ensured that American intervention was carefully calibrated, allowing American allies to be appear to be taking the lead, despite the fact that the US military carried out most of the aerial attacks that shattered Qadhafi’s forces. In doing so, he overruled his own influential Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, who opposed US involvement. Judging by the response of the media and public opinion, Obama’s approach was vindicated, with Qadhafi overthrown without the loss of any American life. Subsequent unrest in Libya has tarnished this success somewhat. Especially damaging were the deaths of four Americans, including the US ambassador, Chris Stevens, in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi on the anniversary of September 11th. (To be fair, this reflects Libya’s problems, and is beyond the control of any American president.)

Now, with Syria descending into civil war, Obama is again refusing to be stampeded into hasty, ill-thought-out action. This time, he has the Pentagon on his side. Instead of unleashing the might of the American military, Obama and his advisors seem to have calculated that US intervention would not serve Syrian or American interests. With a war-weary public, a troubled economy and with no clear endgame in Syria even if Assad falls, Obama is probably right to be cautious, and his cold-blooded focus on working behind the scenes to ensure that the crisis does not lead to a new flowering of international Islamist terrorism is probably the least-worst option. It is worth remembering that the Clinton administration’s attempt to solve the crisis in the former Yugoslavia was a long and agonizing process, in a situation that was not nearly as volatile and potentially dangerous, and in the much less contentious neighborhood of post-Cold War Europe.

On Iran and Israel, Obama’s record has been more mixed. His attempts to persuade Israel, in the form of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to make progress on a peace agreement with the Palestinians has been a failure. To be fair to Obama, it is not clear what leverage he had with the Israelis—even the president must respect the will of Congress, which is strongly pro-Israel. This has also plagued his policy towards Iran and its nuclear program. Iran has been a hot-button issue in American politics for 30 years, and the intersection of Iran and ‘nuclear threat’ (as portrayed by Israel and its supporters) has been a potent issue that has succeeded in mobilizing Congressional support for hardline policies. Nonetheless, Obama has been able to put the brakes on the rush to confrontation, insisting on sanctions rather than military strikes, and giving some signs that he may be more willing to try to reach out to Iran once more if he is re-elected in November.
Overall, Obama’s policy in the Middle East has made no new friends, but has not created any new enemies either. Given the problems he has been left to deal with, this is probably the best that he could have hoped for.

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Alex Edwards
Alex Edwards is a desk editor at The Majalla and Asharq Al-Awsat's English editions. He trained as a journalist before receiving his PhD from the London School of Economics, where he researched American foreign policy in the Gulf.

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