Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment?
No we can't? Four decades of US dominance in the Gulf may be drawing to a close, says Philip Robins
History may yet judge Barack Obama to have been the right man at the wrong moment as far as the Middle East is concerned.
He came into office almost desperate to put right the mess that he inherited from the younger George Bush, notably in Iraq. Within days he was busy thinking about the Israeli/Palestinian issue, before embarking on a historic act of reconciliation with the Muslim world and offering an open hand (rather than his predecessor's clenched fist) to the Iranian leadership. But throughout his first term, the shadow of the credit crunch and its consequences have sapped the political will, collective and individual, available for such activities. On reflection, the Nobel jury was probably right to give Obama the Peace prize before he assumed office.
With the first term of his presidency drawing to an end, it is timely to take stock of the man and the Middle East. There is a lot of ground to cover. There can be few more authoritative and engaging commentators than Fawaz Gerges, director of the London School of Economics' recently established Middle East Centre. Along with a forensic examination of key regional issues, also encompassing the "War on Terror", the "Arab Awakening" and US relations with Turkey, two bigger, more general issues dominate this volume. The first is how we should view Obama the statesman. The second is what sort of a state the US has become, and the attendant implications for its foreign policy.
Looming in the subtitle to this book is an issue that has become something of an obsession for Americans in the past two decades: decline. Echoing a definitive work of two generations ago, Elizabeth Monroe's Britain's Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956 (1963), Gerges asks if we are witnessing "the end of America's moment". He muses that the US' time has passed as far as it being able to wield a critical influence alone on the political fortunes of the region.
On Obama, Gerges is keen to contextualise the man to ensure that he is not misunderstood. Obama was a domestic politics kind of guy when cutting his teeth in Chicago ward politics, rather than a foreign policy obsessive. When he came to the White House, his personal interests abroad were inclined more towards Asia than the Middle East. Moreover, like most of his presidential predecessors, Obama belonged to the realist school, with its overriding preoccupation with security; no idealist, he. But Obama also knew he had to do something about Emperor George II, a man who, for Gerges, had attempted nothing less than "imperialism in Iraq". The legacy had to be challenged.
This Obama attempted by announcing a troop withdrawal from Iraq by 2011, and subsequently from Afghanistan by 2014. Later, his administration would be circumspect with regard to the Arab Awakening. The president was famously accused of "leading from the back" as he let the UK and France make the running over regime change in Libya; ditto Turkey and the moneyed Gulf states over Syria. To his credit, Obama swiftly realised that Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had been terminally damaged by people power...and dropped him without ceremony or sentiment.
These perhaps unspectacular but nevertheless effective moves were supplemented by Obama's public diplomacy, which in 2009 witnessed statements of sober contrition on behalf of his nation in Ankara and Cairo. It is the latter that is best remembered, and is when the new president symbolically "reset" US relations with the Muslim world. In memorable line after memorable line, Obama pledged that "no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other".
Less fortunately, the Cairo speech revealed his youth and inexperience, dangerous traits in the unforgiving habitat of the Middle East. Obama promised that the US would not turn its back on "the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own". Yet the president had spoken without properly preparing the way for complementary diplomacy. He did so, for example, without having visited Israel in a gesture of balance between the two sides. More tangibly, he forged ahead almost recklessly without a real appreciation for the bruising style of Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, and without fully realising that his gestures might be perceived as indulging Israel's enemies. In the end, the hapless Obama could not even get the Israeli government indefinitely to halt settlement building.
Once he appeared to be in serious trouble of becoming a one-term president, his domestic policy instincts trumped his foreign policy dalliance: the Palestinians were expediently dropped. Those in the Muslim world who feel passionate about such matters will not forgive Obama easily, hence the disdainful rhetoric from the ground. Gerges concurs, anticipating that this period will be adjudged Obama's "missed opportunity".
Not all of the shortcomings of the first term in office can be dumped at the president's door. The choices of Obama the man were shaped by the US, its past performance and the nature and operation of its political system. He was not helped by the existence in the US of a growing dysfunctional political culture that promotes group-think, especially on Israel, and strongly discourages dissent. In short, for Gerges, the US political system in which Obama has had to work is nothing short of broken.
The book clearly demonstrates how Middle East policy in the Obama administration increasingly came to be dominated by pro-Israel regionalists rather than global strategists, as the old lags of the Clinton White House burrowed their way back into top jobs. Gerges provides a long list of them, like a chapter in the Book of Genesis. The most egregious example is Dennis Ross, a peacemaker with serial failures to his credit, and who Gerges notes has a "long history of representing Israel-first special-interest groups within and beyond US administrations".
If most of the substantive discussion here is on Israel/Palestine, there is at least one claim that comes from beyond left field: that Obama's "greatest political achievement...lay in nourishing an exceptionally close strategic relationship with Turkey". Were that indeed the case, the cumulative achievements of his first term would be small beer indeed. But Gerges has already made the case for the more incremental but solid successes of: the dual withdrawals; the "speak softly" role in the Arab Spring; and peacemaking with global Islam.
Gerges' Turkey claim sits uneasily with his earlier assertions about the pre-eminence of the Israel lobby. How would Obama have been able to develop such a close relationship with Turkey, while Ankara has experienced such a precipitate decline in its own bilateral ties with Israel, if the latter were indeed so decisively powerful in Washington?
Monroe believed that Britain was the "paramount player" in the Middle East for 42 years. This has an eerie resonance today. Lyndon Johnson was the first US president to throw in his lot exclusively with Israel. It was 1971 when the UK withdrew from east of Suez, thereby ceding Gulf security to the US. We are therefore just passing the 42-year mark of US hard-power domination in the Middle East. Gerges seems to corroborate Monroe's view that four decades is as long as a hegemon can expect to hold sway in the Middle East, regardless of the firepower at its disposal.
"I am part of the 1975 war generation," says Lebanese-born scholar Fawaz Gerges, director of the London School of Economics' Middle East Centre. "My generation was wiped out - killed, mutilated and polluted by sectarian-tribal conflict between 1975 and 1990, or forced into exile.
"I was fortunate to have escaped its physical traumas, but I lost my younger brother, Bassam, to the war in 1990. Although I lived in the US most of my life, I am a citizen of the world and a Lebanese-American."
A graduate of the LSE and the University of Oxford, Gerges' disciplinary path has personal roots.
"I was born in a civil war in 1958 and became conscious during another in 1975. From an early age, I was interested in studying history, sociology, politics, economics and literature as a means to make sense of a world in constant turmoil.
"For me, it was a necessity, not a luxury."
Gerges, who makes regular media appearances in the US, the UK and elsewhere, acknowledges: "Too much of media punditry is superficial or political. 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."
Outside the academy, one of Gerges' favourite pastimes is to "walk the world - and taste it", he says. "It is difficult to name one favourite city, although I am fond of the old city in Sana'a, the Venice of Arab cities. I get lost among the spectacular mosques, Jewish quarter, narrow alleyways, unique architecture and enticing souk, bathed in a sea of colours and smells that overwhelms the eye and spirit, and the warmth of Yemenis - a happy and generous people."
Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment?
By Fawaz A. Gerges
Palgrave Macmillan, 304pp, £16.99
Published 14 June 2012
Philip Robins is professorial fellow at St Antony's College and reader in Middle East politics, University of Oxford.