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Opinion: Obama is back from vacation, so expect the worst | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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US President Barack Obama listens as a protester shouts during a speech about his administration’s drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. (TOPSHOTS/AFP PHOTO/Saul LOEB)

One of the funniest jokes told about the former US president George W. Bush’s vacations was what Pam Spaulding said on August 12, 2007: “I guess you could look at it this way—the more he’s on vacation, the less damage he can do to the country.”

The current US president, Barack Obama, came back yesterday from a week-long vacation he spent in the state of Massachusetts. The vacation comes at a bad time in terms of Obama’s Middle Eastern policy. With the accumulation of the US administration’s mistakes, as well as the increase in Washington’s hypocrisy towards the Middle East, I believe that Spaulding’s remark applies to Obama as well.

The worst that the Obama administration has brought to the peoples of the region—who naively believed its much-vaunted ideals—are the illusion of “positive engagement” and the lie of Washington’s ethical commitment to justice, human rights, public freedoms and democracy. Today, all illusions are dispelled and lies are uncovered a little more than four years after Obama’s Cairo speech—which he delivered on June 4, 2009—promising us more US understanding based on mutual respect and common interest.

Palestinians and Israelis genuinely seeking a just and lasting peace and the freezing of settlements have woken up to the bitter reality. Syrians who believed that Washington would eagerly rescue them from a corrupt, sectarian and bloody regime, as well as the Egyptians—who had big hopes for Obama, whom they thought would understand the deep meaning of democracy in countries that rarely experienced it and endured the consequences—were confronted with the same reality.

In this painful and decisive period for the region, it has become clear for Arabs, first, and their neighbors, second, that the Obama administration attaches weight neither to the positive engagement based on mutual respect, nor to ethical commitments, save in clichés. These clichés might fool an honest US voter who is able to hold his politicians accountable when they lie, but they are no longer convincing to the Arabs, who have been deceived by the US policy over and over again, particularly over the last two years.

Obama’s ideals failed in the first real test, represented by Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on building and expanding settlements. The American president turned his back on the moderate Palestinians willing to negotiate and the Israelis who believe in peace, granting hardliners on both sides—Hamas and the Likud, as well as similar-minded factions—an invaluable favor. Now we are witnessing new, farcical negotiations which Netanyahu’s government preceded by approving more settlement units. As usual, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, only expressed his regret and urged both sides to go ahead with their empty and fruitless negotiations.

In Syria, the situation is just as bad. The Obama Administration is no longer interested in toppling the Assad regime, which successive US administrations put on the list of countries supporting terrorism and which has carried out the most appalling massacres and crimes. This US administration is continuing what the George W. Bush Administration started, namely to leave the region an easy victim to Israel’s and Iran’s intersecting ambitions.

Obama, I think, remembers well enough how Iraq was dealt with. He also remembers how Iraqis—whose main interest was to topple an oppressive regime that only knew the language of murder—were deceived, and later realized that their country has become a fragile entity subordinated to Iran, with its Kurdish-dominated north almost independent, internal security absent, and future uncertain.

Although Obama endeavored to adopt policies completely different from the ones George W. Bush and his pro-Likud neocons had pursued, especially in Iraq, he is currently following in the footsteps of his predecessor, albeit in a different manner. He is handing Syria to Iran on the pretext that more serious danger is posed by the Syrian opposition, namely radical Islamists and the similar-minded Takfirist groups. However, the problem here is that Washington realizes only too well that the presence of Takfirists in Syria is only accidental and the majority of them came to Syria from abroad several months after the popular, peaceful revolution erupted.

The “self-distancing” policy adopted by the US towards the most horrific crimes committed against civilians in the Middle East’s modern history has been a part and parcel of the Syrian tragedy. Furthermore, following the PR-style bluff of Iran’s presidential elections, the obvious intersection of interests between Israel and Iran in the region suggests that we have moved to a more serious political and military stage. The serious consequences of this stage may become even worse in the light of emerging hostility between Erdoğan’s Turkey and Egypt following the military-backed popular uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president, Mohamed Mursi.

The Turkish democratic model has already suffered a loss of prestige around the world following the Taksim Square protests, as well as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s awkward take on the transformation taking place in Egypt.

In turn, the Egyptian military’s attempt to rescue the country from a destructive state of polarization has provoked the anger of the West, which deplored its purge of democracy. Incidentally, here we are faced by a West that refuses to provide aid to Syrian rebels on the pretext of its Islamist Takfirists, while failing to realize that Egypt’s Brotherhood represented a hotbed for radical Islamists. In fact, Hamas, which both Israel and US accuse of terrorism and radicalism, is the Palestinian franchise of Egypt’s Brotherhood.

In contrast, Iran managed to depict the election of Hassan Rouhani as a “quantum leap” marking the return of discretion, moderation and the desire to arrive at an understanding with the world after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive term and its provocative discourse. However, Ahmadinejad’s term was fairly beneficial to Iran’s promotion of its “regional project,” which on its face claimed to be confronting the West and Israel, while embarrassing the Arab regimes, which Tehran bellicosely accused of weakness and cowardice. Today, it is noted that Western capitals are willing to believe the so-called quantum leap in Iran’s policy, although they do know it is a fake one.

In brief, Western capitals, particularly Washington, do not mind being deceived because they—contrary to what they claim— have a vested interest in Iran playing a significant regional role in the Middle East. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s recent and recurring comments on the danger of Takfirists simply signal the implicit agreement among US, Israel and Iran. In fact, the true relationship between Iran (and its lackeys in the region, such as the Assad regime and Hezbollah) and the Takfirists is worth investigation and serious review.

Sponsoring Takfirists and facilitating their movement through the Middle East have been a part and parcel of Iran’s strategy, with Israel’s consent—and, perhaps, the US’s blessing.