Obama’s Foreign Policy Crossroads

By Frederick DeknatelOctober 22, 2012

Obama’s Foreign Policy Crossroads

Obama and the Middle East by Fawaz A. Gerges

WRITING IN THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS in 2008, Max Rodenbeck, the Economist’s Middle East correspondent, called veteran Washington Post reporter Robin Wright’s Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East “in many ways […] an admirable book.” Wright argued that Middle Eastern governments, for their own viability, had to respond to popular pressures for change and tackle the issues of political prisoners, women’s rights, and political Islam. “Perhaps,” Rodenbeck, a longtime Cairene, wrote, “but that sounds closer to concerns in Washington than to the more mundane things, such as jobs, the corruption of local officials, and the soaring cost of marriage, that actually exercise many Middle Easterners.” Democracy was no doubt desirable, but Wright seemed to be projecting a narrow definition of reform. So, Rodenbeck concluded, “One cannot help wondering whether some of the wishful thinking that has proved so injurious when translated into American foreign policy has been influenced by the finely turned but subtly distorting prism of honest and talented reporters such as Wright, reflecting their ultimate faith that one day the rest of the world, and even the benighted Middle East, will come to embrace the American way.”

In the year and a half since Tunisians and Egyptians overthrew their autocrats, sparking popular uprisings in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, the hopeful but otherwise unforeseen Arab spring has produced a bumper crop of new media experts. They can be found on most of the cable news shows proffering insights on Islamist electoral politics, the tactics and importance of young, tech-savvy activists, and the collective desires of a region of 350 million people. Many of these experts seek to create an American storyline where one does not necessarily exist, either by amplifying America’s role in the protests, especially in Egypt, or by suggesting that they had few foreign policy motivations and goals and, therefore, that America need not adapt its policies to profound and popular changes in the region. Such a view plainly ignores that Arab authoritarianism was not only supported by Washington, but was integral to protecting the tenets of America’s Middle East concerns: the flow of oil, Israeli security, and counterterrorism.

Some experts warn of Islamist takeovers by the ballot box, or even cast the Arab spring as a vindication of George W. Bush’s “freedom” agenda. The latter interpretation is a reactionary neoconservative defense, articulated by former Bush administration officials like Elliott Abrams, now at the Council on Foreign Relations, and former Bush speechwriter Paul Wehner. Amid this political culture of misplaced punditry, Fawaz Gerges is a welcome contrast, and a voice of dissent. His answer to the question posed on the cover of his book Obama and the Middle East is a forecast of decline: “We are witnessing the beginning of the end of America's moment in the Middle East. Illegal and unjust wars have not only been costly in lives and money but have also undermined the moral foundation of American power and authority.”

He is not the first to say that American credibility and power were undermined by the long, brutal “9/11 wars,” one of which still seethes in Afghanistan. Nor is he the first to describe Iraq as a new satellite of Iran, rather than America, as Bush’s Middle East advisers hoped. But few make the case for American decline in the Middle East as soundly, and with a longer view before the days of shock and awe, to a regional outlook made after World War II. Even fewer view this turn optimistically, a sign of Arab publics shaping politics on their terms, not Washington’s. In doing so, Gerges elevates his book above two crowded fields: well-promoted but quickly out-dated policy books that promise bold world predictions from recent events, and the related books rushed into publication to cover the last 18 months of uprisings in the Arab world — books that offer a mix of first-draft-of-history reporting and rough-draft political and historical insight. Instead, Gerges, writing from London where he teaches at the London School of Economics, aligns himself with a biting critique of Washington, and of the latent biases and tropes in much American reporting and policy-making on the Middle East.


The recent news that Iran has resumed flying cargo planes and commercial airliners loaded with military supplies to Syria through Iraqi airspace was described by the New York Times as presenting “searching questions for the United States.” That the man America brought to power in Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, tolerated Iranian arms flying over Iraq to Syria, where the Assad regime bombs its people in restive towns and cities, “suggests the limits of the Obama administration’s influence in Iraq,” the Times offered, “despite the American role in toppling Saddam Hussein and ushering in a new government.” Gerges put it another way last May on CNN when he said, “the Tehran-Baghdad road has become the lifeline of the Assad regime,” nine years after Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For a half-century, American policy-makers saw the Middle East as a Cold War chessboard, its countries either satellites of Washington or Moscow. The period of American hegemony that followed the Cold War led to the ideological Bush Doctrine, which promoted democracy, unilateral “preventative war,” and a substitutive binary of Islamic terrorism for Communism. Barack Obama promised transformation, “a new beginning,” in rousing speeches before Turkey’s parliament in Ankara and a lecture hall at Cairo University (where Hosni Mubarak was noticeably absent). He delivered initially, by pledging American respect and cooperation with the Muslim world and veering from what Gerges calls Bush’s “social engineering project” in Iraq — an odd phrase, perhaps, for a war of devastation, but one that conveys how the “freedom agenda” was received in the Arab world.

But, Gerges argues, by adopting the policies of a centrist-realist like George H. W. Bush, with foreign policy dispassionately shaped by national interest, Obama sought continuity, not change. He staffed his administration with Clinton-era realists and advisers biased toward Israel, so that his renewal of moribund peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians offered nothing new. Behind his rhetoric Obama managed threats and privileged pragmatism in a way that, from the Middle East, often looked hypocritical. American critics on the left slammed his failure to close Guatanamo, as well as his unrivaled expansion of unmanned drone attacks over Yemen and Pakistan to carry out “targeting killings” that kill more civilians than terrorists. The right called him an appeaser for seeking a diplomatic solution for Iran’s nuclear program. Congressional Republicans, and many Democrats, claimed he abandoned Israel by questioning Israeli settlement expansion and clashing with an intransigent Benjamin Netanyahu.

For Gerges, Israel and Palestine express the scope of Obama’s failings. The president’s threat to veto Palestinians’ symbolic bid for United Nations statehood at the Security Council in 2011 came a year after he told the General Assembly of his plans and support for an independent Palestine within a year, to be recognized at the UN. Before the General Assembly in 2011, Obama praised the popular upheavals of the Arab world: “Throughout the region, we will have to respond to the calls for change.” This apparently didn’t include the Palestinians. During the address, which Netanyahu called a “badge of honor,” Mahmoud Abbas had his head in his hands.

Gerges’s point is not that Obama failed where other American presidents have failed too, but that such failures must now contend with a region that, as it transitions to democratic governance, may no longer suffer them easily. Praising Arabs’ struggle for freedom and dignity, and treating the Palestinians’ as something else, presents more of a risk than inconsistency. “There is a real danger that by underestimating the importance of Palestine for the newly revitalized Arab civil societies, the United States might find itself confronted by them,” Gerges writes. “Regardless of which governments emerge out of the rubble of political authoritarianism in the Arab world, they will have assertive foreign policies that will champion Palestinian rights and challenge Israel's hegemony.”


Following the deadly September riots across the Arab and Muslim world, sparked by an amateur YouTube video made to denigrate Islam and incite violence, CNN flashed the vapid headline: “Was the Arab Spring worth it?” That was the question host Jack Cafferty took from the unrest, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Cafferty echoed critics in the media and in Washington that Obama’s support of popular, democratic movements against dictators had backfired, that the aspirations of a region could be reduced to “was it worth it?” For whom? CNN didn’t answer that.

But the riots were less about the video than about long-simmering social unrest, economic frustration, and recent security vacuums that radical Salafi movements have seized upon. These groups are fighting for a stake in post-autocratic Egypt and Libya — and, in the case of Egypt, are competing over the mantle of popular Islamism with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Obama Administration spoke about the singular role of the YouTube video rather than Salafis, collapsed economies, political turmoil, any broader context for discontent — likely the product of a campaign season, when right-wing critics seize on nuance and explanation as dithering and weakness. Before long Mitt Romney used the American deaths in Libya as a campaign barb against Obama, leading to the recent debate scene at Hofstra University, when Obama called Romney’s suggestion “offensive,” and Romney claimed Obama took two weeks to call Benghazi a terrorist attack. The camera held on Romney’s face, staring down a president who knew his opponent was about to gift him a gaffe by forgetting that Obama had labeled the attack an act of terror — not only the next day in the Rose Garden, but the day after that, on the stump in Las Vegas.

All of which misses the point. How coordinated and planned the Benghazi assault was remains vague and lost in the false bickering of a “terror” label. More important is the loss of a diplomat like Ambassador Stevens, who represented a foreign service attempting actual engagement despite the bunker mentality that has taken over American diplomacy and embassies, wrapped in blast walls and barbed wire. Republican Congressmen Darrel Issa’s posturing over the attacks led him to release sensitive State Department cables in the name of an investigation. But Issa did not redact Libyans’ names, risking the locals who worked with the Americans and undermining engagement altogether.

Gerges, meanwhile, in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, spoke of “two fundamentalisms. Here you have a very tiny group, who don't speak for hardly anyone in the United States, providing ammunition for fundamentalist Islamist groups unwilling to make the distinction ... between the filmmaker and a few American idiots, and Americans as a whole.” After the riots, Libyans in Benghazi protested the attack on the American consulate. A sign in Benghazi read, “Chris Stevens was a friend to all Libyans,” while Mohamed el-Magariaf, the newly elected head-of-state, publicly apologized for Stevens’ death in a press conference. A week later residents in Benghazi raided the base of a Salafi militia, Ansar al-Sharia, believed to be behind the attack. Libya’s government vowed to disarm the dozens of militias, many of them espousing a radical, Salafi ideology, that occupy former Qaddafi bases and buildings across the country. CNN did not repeat the question: was the Arab spring worth it?


Gerges is better at diagnosing policy failures than writing prescriptions. He faults the Obama Administration’s initial support for Hosni Mubarak in the early days of Egypt’s uprising, but applauds its overdue realization that Mubarak’s days were up, supporting protesters and, likely behind the scenes, ensuring that Egypt’s military kept their guns silent. He condemns American support for the Bahraini government’s suppression, with Saudi assistance, of a popular uprising led by its majority Shia, largely marginalized citizens. “The Obama foreign policy team has drawn a red line in the Gulf sand against revolutionary change of the Egyptian and Tunisian variety,” Gerges writes, because of the US Fifth Fleet’s base in Bahrain, the US-Iranian rivalry in the Gulf, stoked by the Saudis, and the ever-present concern over ready access to oil.

Yet Gerges’s policy solution is a vague directive that America might somehow “strike a balance between keeping a healthy distance from the Arab region’s political and social turmoil and providing leadership and a set of global initiatives to smooth the transition to economic viability, solvency, and pluralism.” For all that, he suggests tens of billions of dollars of Gulf investment “in the reconstruction of newly freed societies.” Yet Qatari money already flowed to Egypt during election season to support the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party; Saudi money went to the Salafi Nour Party. Neither are beacons of pluralism. Dependency on the Gulf’s oil riches characterized Egypt under Mubarak, in particular the privatized crony economy overseen by Mubarak’s son, Gamal, where the state’s housing policies and land assets were given over to speculative, luxury real estate dominated by Gulf investors.

Such are the traps of a book pushing a daring assessment of political developments that haven’t ended. In this way, Gerges’s book is its own version of a rough draft, a kind of working paper of American Middle East policy under Obama, to be reviewed by a potentially second Obama administration. His media appearances are a way of explaining, correcting, even adding to the book. Going on television or the radio to discuss the end of America’s moment becomes a lesson in the practice of punditry, and an exemplary one at that. “Too much of media punditry is superficial or political,” Gerges recently told the Times Higher Education. “By its very nature, TV is a simplifier; the (often frustrating) challenge is to present complex arguments in simple terms. But it is a powerful medium that shapes public opinion. My goal is to be a scholar first and foremost, and in the process allow my research to help inform wider public debate.”

In June, Gerges was debating Syria’s escalating civil war in the aftermath of a massacre in the central town of Houla, and whether Washington should intervene, with Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on Boston’s NPR station. Tabler believed the United States should impose an offshore “arms quarantine” along with buffer zones inside Syria. Gerges countered that Washington had for the past year been “waging a war by other means” (a phrase reiterated in his many other media appearances to discuss Syria in the last few months) through economic sanctions, as well as arms and money sent from its allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar to the fragmented Free Syrian Army. The conflict was dangerously internationalized, Gerges argued; Western intervention would only exacerbate a regional proxy war in Syria. A protracted armed conflict benefited the regime, not only because of its arms advantage, but because armed conflict proved its propaganda, since day one, that this is not a peaceful, popular revolution but an insurgency by armed gangs and foreign agents.

After Tabler outlined plans that would help the Syrian opposition take power through American military assistance, Gerges told the radio host, “I want to be blunt here. I am very skeptical when I hear policy wonks like Andrew and others basically offering options to American policy makers […] [that imply] the idea that somehow America has a magical wand to change social and political conditions in the Middle East. Automatically I become a bit anxious whenever I see Washington policy wonks […]” he trailed off. “The Syrian people will determine their own future.” That was as contentious as the debate got. Yet it reflected a well-practiced line of argument from Gerges, in his book, and in his media appearances to discuss Syria’s civil war, or Egypt’s uncertain transition: the upheavals in the Middle East have outpaced Washington, and the Arab world won’t soon be embracing the American way.


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Frederick Deknatel is the managing editor of World Politics Review. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, and other publications.


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