The Obama Legacy and the Middle East

December 26, 2016

President Obama assumed office on January 20, 2009. Washington’s relations with Moscow were troubled as a result of the military conflict between Russia and Georgia. The US was moving closer to withdrawal from Iraq but the war in Afghanistan was not getting anywhere.

During his first visit to Moscow on 6-8 July 2009 President Obama tried to “reset” relations. Unfortunately, this failed to materialize. The Arab spring led to a new set of confrontations. Snowden affair became an irritant and lead to the cancellation by Washington of an Obama-Putin summit that was to take place during the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg in September 2013. Yet, their brief encounter there led to the agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. This was followed by the crisis in Ukraine and the “reset” had to be postponed, indefinitely. While diplomatic talks on Ukraine continued in Normandy format between Russian, German, French and Ukraine leaders the US stayed in the background, emphasizing perhaps the European/EU dimension of the problem. But on Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met time and again to secure a breakthrough. Despite their frequent references to their ability “to make a difference when they work together” the breakthrough never came. Beyond strategic considerations, the immediate reason for their failure was the impossibility to separate the “moderate opposition” from those designated by the UN Security Council as “terrorists”.

The Ukraine conflict and Middle East’s proxy wars have since then dominated Washington’s foreign policy agenda and interfered with America’s pivot to Asia. Nonetheless, the Obama administration pursued three other objectives which corresponded with the expectations of the international community: an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, reconciliation with Cuba and some progress at least towards Israeli-Palestinian peace. The first and the second were achieved and applauded by the world. US efforts for the third made no headway. Last Friday, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution which condemned Israel’s settlement policy and the US abstained. If the Obama administration was ever completely united on one specific foreign policy decision, this must have been the occasion.

A “reset” with Russia, defining the relationship with China, achieving some sort of stability in the broad Middle East and preventing a full-fledged clash of civilizations remain major challenges also for the Trump administration.

Coming to President Obama and the Middle East, the title of Kevin Sullivan’s Washington Post article of November 18, 2016 was, “Although much of the world still views Obama favorably, the dominant emotion in the Middle East is disappointment”. I share this broad judgement. My disappointment, however, lies more with the incapacity of Middle East countries to resolve their problems than President Obama’s policies.

Mr. Obama’s policy towards the Middle East was based upon;
• Firm resistance to new major military interventions,
• Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
• Prioritizing multilateralism,
• Democracy promotion, and
• Working with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with Washington on America’s core interests.

Addressing Muslim countries from Cairo on June 4, 2009 he said that he was seeking a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and a sustained effort to seek common ground. He made it clear that America was not — and never will be — at war with Islam. He mentioned that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland and that the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. While saying that no system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other, he stressed his commitment to governments that reflect the will of the people. He underlined the importance of free speech; confidence in the rule of law; equal administration of justice and transparency.

He emphasized that freedom of religion is central to the ability of peoples to live together. He said that richness of religious diversity must be upheld. And, predicting perhaps the sectarian wars which were to engulf the Middle East a few years later, he mentioned a disturbing tendency, among some Muslims to measure one’s own faith by the rejection of somebody else’s faith. He called for the closing of fault lines among Muslims.

Seven years later, on September 20, 2016  President Obama addressed the UN General Assembly (UNGA) for the last time. He dwelt at length on the root causes of the uncertainty, unease and strife which fill societies. He stated the following specifically on the Middle East:
“… Across vast swaths of the Middle East, basic security, basic order has broken down. We see too many governments muzzling journalists, and quashing dissent, and censoring the flow of information. Terrorist networks use social media to prey upon the minds of our youth, endangering open societies and spurring anger against innocent immigrants and Muslims…
“… In countries held together by borders drawn by colonial powers, with ethnic enclaves and tribal divisions, politics and elections can sometimes appear to be a zero-sum game. And so, given the difficulty in forging true democracy in the face of these pressures, it’s no surprise that some argue the future favors the strongman, a top-down model, rather than strong, democratic institutions…
“… We see this mindset in too many parts of the Middle East. There, so much of the collapse in order has been fueled because leaders sought legitimacy not because of policies or programs but by resorting to persecuting political opposition, or demonizing other religious sects, by narrowing the public space to the mosque, where in too many places perversions of a great faith were tolerated. These forces built up for years, and are now at work helping to fuel both Syria’s tragic civil war and the mindless, medieval menace of ISIL.
“The mindset of sectarianism, and extremism, and bloodletting, and retribution that has been taking place will not be quickly reversed. And if we are honest, we understand that no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to co-exist for long. But I do believe we have to be honest about the nature of these conflicts, and our international community must continue to work with those who seek to build rather than to destroy…
“… And what is true in the Middle East is true for all of us. Surely, religious traditions can be honored and upheld while teaching young people science and math, rather than intolerance. Surely, we can sustain our unique traditions while giving women their full and rightful role in the politics and economics of a nation…”

None of the above could have been well-received by Middle East leaders. And beyond that, Saudi Arabia and the Israel have been unhappy with the Iran nuclear deal; Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey with Washington’s Syria policy. Egypt would have liked to see more support for the Sisi regime and Iran has been disappointed with America’s support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. And, no Arab country has been happy with the way Washington handled the Arab spring.

A major source of criticism directed at President Obama has been his failure to enforce the red line on Syria. It has been said that, despite the agreement on the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons, refraining from military action led to questions of credibility for Washington. However, those critics have hardly specified the kind of military action was needed and what it could have achieved. And, their criticism has reflected a rather sad perception of the Middle East implying that use of force remains the only credible language to address the problems of the region.

President Obama has judged that being criticized for failing to intervene would be less costly for the US in the long run than being blamed for a failed intervention. And, had he decided to intervene, he would have been criticized by his regional allies for not following their specific game plan. The President has admitted that Syria has been a disappointment for him. However, his resistance to a major military intervention in Syria may also reflect a deeper assessment regarding Syria’s dynamics beyond the desire to avoid another long war. In his interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on August 8, 2014 Mr. Obama had said:
“… This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards…”

It may be that the President gradually saw that Assad’s ouster from power could only pave the way to radicals’ takeover of Syria and decided to allow the conflict to run its course. And after Russia stepped in, the President might have thought that if Moscow could end the conflict without putting the American troops in harm’s way, so much the better. If not, Syria would become Mr. Putin’s problem. Moreover, recognizing Russia’s major power status is not a concession to Moscow, because that is the reality.

Some of the principles advocated by President Obama in the Middle East context are also reflected in the objectives of the Charter of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Prominently among these are promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms, good governance, rule of law, democracy and accountability. Objectives listed in the Charter also include enhancing and consolidating the bonds of fraternity and solidarity among the Member States; ensuring non-interference in the domestic affairs; respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of each Member State.

Looking at the sectarian strife which has gripped the Middle East over the last five years, one can only observe that neither the OIC nor any one of its members have even made a try to attain these objectives.

President Obama’s approach to the Middle East should have yielded better results. He prioritized dialogue, refrained from military interventions and treated regional leaders as partners. By stringent international standards, his words matched his deeds throughout his eight years at the White House. Yet, regional countries could not match his approach and make a genuine effort to put their house in order. They misjudged his moderation and the emphasis he put on multilateralism. Thus, they missed an opportunity. Maybe, they all would strike a chord with President Trump…

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About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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