It has become an article of faith that President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, along with the rest of his foreign policy, is adrift. According to a slew of would-be policymakers and pundits, the United States is “weak” and “feckless.” These criticisms are not exclusive to the Obama administration’s adversaries in Washington, but also routinely heard among officials and pundits in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Jerusalem and Riyadh. Such critics believe that Washington has not “done enough” to meet the challenges of the region, portending disaster for America’s national security and its allies in the region. Has it really?
Calamity and misfortune may be the future of the Middle East, at least in the short run, but the region’s problems are not the result of the White House’s policy choices. Lost among the complaints about what the administration is or is not doing and demands for leadership is an appreciation of just how difficult the region has become or what demonstrating “leadership” actually means.
The Obama administration has had its problems, no doubt. The White House got itself into trouble with its now-infamous Syrian “red line” on the use of chemical weapons, confusing friends and emboldening enemies. It is fair to say that since August-September 2013, when the administration reneged on its vow to respond to the Syrian regime’s use of such weapons, President Bashar al-Assad has prosecuted the civil war with even greater impunity.
In regard to Egypt, Washington has sought to split the difference between its strategic interests and efforts to hold leaders there accountable to their own democratic commitments as they engage in a harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and all other dissenters. As a result, Washington’s Egypt policy is muddled.
When it comes to prosecuting the war against terrorists, the White House’s overreliance on drones has led to the deaths of a number of civilians, needlessly antagonizing innocents and ensuring that generations of Yemenis and others will harbor resentment and anger toward the United States. Despite the administration’s bold effort to reach a “grand bargain” with Iran, hard-liners in both Washington and Iran may still block a final deal from reaching fruition.
Even taking into account these problems, much of the Washington-based criticism is rooted in politics rather than an objective analysis of what is happening in the Middle East. After Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak fell and protests began in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and Syria, Washington policy geeks and journalists began to ask if they were witnessing a Middle Eastern version of the Eastern and Central European revolutions of 1989 or maybe the Arab analogue to 1848’s Springtime of Nations. These are interesting analogies that may offer analysts some general insights about political change, but there is no precedent or policy playbook for the historic changes underway in the Arab world.
It has almost become a cliche that Arabs are engaged in battles over the hearts and soul of their countries, but that is precisely what is happening. The uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya were successful in chasing long-time authoritarian leaders from power, but since then, the struggles to shape new and more just political orders have produced instability, uncertainty and violence. Even Tunisia, which pundits and analysts consider the most promising prospect for a democratic transition, confronts significant economic challenges that could threaten political progress.
Then there is Bahrain, which, with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has suppressed demands for political change. The Bahraini leadership along with the Saudis and Emiratis clearly believe that these demands and the demonstrations that have accompanied them are part of an allegedly broad sectarian struggle playing out in the region. With the prevailing unstable circumstances in North Africa and the perception of threat in the Gulf, where local political actors think they are engaged in existential struggles, it is unclear how US “leadership” can alter the calculations of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military, Libyan militias, the Bahraini ruling family or King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.