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Obama’s First Term May Prove Good for the Middle East | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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President Barack Obama addressing a crowd in Chicago, Friday February 15 2013 (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

Almost 68 years ago, one Valentine’s Day, President Franklin Roosevelt met Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud aboard the warship Quincy in the Suez Canal. The meeting marked the positioning of the United States as guarantor of stability in the Middle East. Eleven presidents from both parties honored that commitment with consistency. Though in appeasement mood, even President Carter defended the policy in 1980 with a forceful statement dubbed “the Carter Doctrine”.

In his first term, Obama vacillated between a desire to disengage from the Middle East and the fear of appearing weak to his electorate. The result was a weasel style policy that exposed America as a fickle friend while encouraging its foes inside and outside the region.

Obama appeared uncomfortable with the values, history and global ambitions of his own side.

Without saying so in so many words he depicted the US as an “imperialist” power that, having done wrong to others, should seek atonement.

That attitude encouraged Iran’s Khomeinist regime to speed up its race towards the nuclear threshold. When Obama entered the White House, Iran was enriching uranium with a few hundred centrifuges. Today, that number is closer to 12000 in defiance of five resolutions of the United Nations’ Security Council.

The mullahs saw Obama’s offer of a “stretched hand of friendship” as America throwing its hands up.

Fear of appearing weak, persuaded Obama to try and prop up despots hit by the “Arab Spring”. Days before Hosni Mubarak bowed out; Obama’s envoy to Cairo announced declared support for “transition led by President Mubarak.” Even then, Obama did not side with pro-democracy groups that had triggered the”Arab Spring”. He regarded them with suspicion, partly because some had benefited from the Bush administration’s “Freedom Agenda” launched in 2003. Since Obama claimed that whatever Bush did was wrong he had to find new allies, and found them in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Earlier, Obama had provoked a quarrel with the Iraqis, using it as a pretext to terminate commitments to that country’s security and development.

Obama’s “weaselism” also manifested itself in Libya. The US did the heavy-lifting in NATO’s bombing campaign against Gaddhafi.

But Obama’s “ leading from behind” meant staying behind, except when it came to having your ambassador lynched by Jihadists in Benghazi.

Obama’s “weasleism” is also clear in Syria. Anxious not to upset “re-set” with Russia, Obama has allowed Moscow to modulate America’s policy through the UN. The “re-set” happened, but on Putin’s terms.

Obama’s other achievement is to downgrade relations with Israel, branding Premier Netanyahu “a coward and a liar.” However, that did not earn him kudos from Palestinians who remember his promise of “a Palestinian state” within a year of his entry into the White House.

Thanks to Obama’s first four years, the US has lost many friends while acquiring more enemies in the region. It has been re-imaged as an indecisive actor incapable of using its immense resources in a coherent manner. Increasingly, many feel that beset by contradictions the US may have become irrelevant.

Paradoxically, Obama’s first four years may prove good for the Middle East in the long run. Obama’s confusion sapped the morale of Washington’s despotic allies, allowing speedy change in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Having come to power in alliance with the US, Islamists could no longer use xenophobic populism to justify their probable failures.

Meanwhile, Arab countries and Turkey would have to work out how to deal with the Iranian challenge without an American or an American-Israeli input.

The American retreat might also force Israel and the Palestinians to stop waiting for the American Godot to end their conflict.