As expected, President Barack Obama has won a second mandate. What he might do with regard to US policy in the Middle East is anyone’s guess. During the election campaign, Obama tried to remind voters at every opportunity of his main “foreign policy” success: the killing of Osama bin Laden. The truth, however, is that after four years of Obama the US finds itself without a coherent world view let alone a credible foreign policy.
Nowhere is this lacuna more evident than in the Middle East. For almost a century the region has been one of the fault-lines that threaten international stability. With the debris of empires strewn around it, this theatre of big power rivalries has produced many convulsions since World War II. The United States developed an interest there in the 1940s as President Roosevelt began thinking about the post-war international order. Under President Truman, the US asserted its influence by preventing Stalin from annexing parts of Iran to the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine morphed into the containment policy designed to rein-in the USSR.
Over the decades, under American leadership, a political architecture was shaped guaranteeing the region’s stability.
The US exercised leadership in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis with the Eisenhower Doctrine as the backbone of American policy throughout the Cold war. Despite military coups, civil wars, reversal of alliances, revolutions, and full-scale wars, it held because everyone knew that its guarantor, the United States, would prevent the crossing of certain red lines. In that context the US intervened, both militarily and politically, to contain and/or end conflicts in Oman, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait and Iraq not to mention Arab-Israeli wars. With the exception of Jimmy Carter, all US presidents sanctioned the use of force when necessary. However, even Carter did not sanction the retreat that Obama has organized. The Carter Doctrine was a reaffirmation of American determination to defend its interests in the region.
For six decades, under administrations from both parties, American power acted as the pole that kept the tent up. Over the past four years, Obama has pulled that pole away, allowing the tent to sag and, in parts, fold.
American abdication has led to transition from a problematic status quo to an uncertain future. It has created a vacuum that various opportunist powers are trying to fill.
Under Obama, Russia has gained a veto over aspects of American foreign policy, ranging from the building of a missile shield in Central Europe to halting Iran’s nuclear program, to intervention in Syria. After two-decades of virtual absence from the Middle East, Russia is trying to revive the influence that the Soviet Empire once enjoyed.
Moscow’s new activism is partly caused by fears that the American retreat might pave the way for a neo-Islamist domination of the Middle East.
Russia is concerned about the emergence of a “green Islamic belt” containing it to the south while its horizons are also blocked by the European Union to its west and China to its east. A neo-Islamist bloc stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Basin could send wrong signals to Russia’s restive Muslim regions.
For its part, Turkey’s neo-Ottoman elite, is trying to cast itself as the leader of a new Middle East dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood behind a political facade. Four years ago, Turkey was the region’s only nation that had no problems with its neighbors. Today, this is no longer the case.
Meanwhile, Iran is gripped by unprecedented fear and hubris – fear that it might be the next target for regime change and hubris about exporting its anti-West ideology of hate to the region. With its currency in free fall and its economy heading for the precipice, Iran might not be able to bankroll President al-Assad for long. Syria is beginning to look like an expensive mistress that is getting uglier by the day. That could force the mullahs to seek a game-changer by provoking another proxy war with Israel via the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah.
As in Russia’s case, Iran is both encouraged and frightened by the American retreat. It is encouraged because it sees new opportunities to project power in Afghanistan, the Gulf and Iraq. But it is also frightened because it might end up facing a new bloc of Arab powers determined to push it back into its Shiite box.
Some Machiavellians suggest that the best option is to let the Syrian conflict run on, increasing the cost for a weakened Iran while wrecking Russia’s standing in the Arab world, even if that means tragedy for the Syrians.
Obama’s world view was shaped by two factors.
The first was his desire to be the opposite of what he thought George W Bush had been. He saw his predecessor as a “my way or the highway” cowboy who had dictated to others.
In 2009 when Iranians rose against the regime, Obama refused to back them because that would have looked like endorsing Bush’s Freedom Agenda.
Hatred for Bush also led Obama into backing the rulers of “Arab Spring” countries until their positions became untenable. Even then, Obama preferred alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood rather than secular groups that Bush had tried to promote, albeit with little success.
Not-being Bush was also the key motive in Obama’s decision to downgrade ties with Iraq, thus pushing it towards Iran.
Having established that he was not Bush, Obama still had to show who he was. The answer was the second factor in his policy: an exaggerated belief in the potency of his own political charm.
Obama thought that things would happen simply by wanting them.
He promised to create a Palestinian state in one year and appointed Senator George Mitchell as special emissary. But then he forgot about Mitchell who found out that he had been duped and resigned.
Wishful thinking also shaped Obama’s policy, or simulacrum of policy, vis-a-vis Iran. He stretched his “hand of friendship” to Ahmadinejad and was roundly rebuffed. Next, Obama started an epistolary bombardment of the Iranian “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, again earning only derision.
For all that Obama II might prove to be different. No longer concerned about re-election, he may find time to cast a fresh glance at a region that still contains negative energies capable of affecting international peace and stability.