Obama’s Middle East: He Made It Worse

Greenwald characterizes Obama’s foreign policy as one of humbling America. While that may be true, what is also true and more fundamental is his decision to get in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood and now the Mullahs of Iran. Ted Belman

By Abe Greenwald, COMMENTARY May 1/14

I. From Bush to Obama

In the last days of George W. Bush’s presidency, the Economist delivered a damning assessment: “Abroad, George Bush has presided over the most catastrophic collapse in America’s reputation since the second world war.” In the view of the magazine’s editors, “a president who believed that America’s global supremacy was guaranteed by America’s unrivalled military power ended up demonstrating the limits of both.”

Without question, the United States paid a large price for Bush’s policies outside the United States. There were two unresolved wars, thousands of American dead, and the lingering castigations of assorted parties around the globe.

Of course all policy decisions are trade-offs, and Bush’s demonstrated not only the limits of American power but also its possibilities. In return for our sacrifices we saw al-Qaeda decimated and the American homeland secured against attack. By the time the 43rd president left office, an American-led coalition had established a flawed but democratic ally in the heart of the Muslim world. Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, moreover, had given up his weapons of mass destruction, a development whose full benefit would be appreciated a decade later when Qaddafi’s regime fell and his conventional arms were dispersed to jihadists in North Africa.

By the end of Bush’s presidency, some saw the United States as fearless, others saw us as stumbling, and still others as dangerously belligerent. But for all the outrage about unilateralism and cowboy diplomacy, American relations in the larger Middle East functioned within long-standing diplomatic boundaries. Bush promoted freedom in the region but never jeopardized pragmatic relations with the most important autocracies and monarchies, for better or worse. Some European capitals were upset with Washington, but this caused no long-term rift in transatlantic relations.

The most tangible change brought on by Bush’s foreign policy was its domestic impact. By 2008, Americans were sick of war and tired of the Middle East
altogether. Thus, one of Barack Obama’s biggest selling points was his promise to end the war in Iraq, extricate the country from the region, and pursue a more contrite foreign policy. Once elected, President Obama set out to honor his campaign pledge. The question of his ideological disposition can be debated endlessly, but whatever its precise contours, it translated into policies that largely reversed Bush positions in the Middle East. Where Bush was particularly supportive of our closest regional ally, Obama pressured Israel for concessions. Where Bush reached out to the Iranian people in solidarity against the regime that was our chief antagonist, Obama rebuffed ordinary Iranians and offered an “open hand” to the regime itself.

Between the two poles of Israel and Iran, Obama made clear to other Middle East leaders that his main concern was staying out of their affairs. As he told the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news station soon after taking office: “Too often the United States starts by dictating.” Unlike Bush, Obama implied, he would stand back and “listen.” And he has made good on his word to shrink American influence and undo the disruptive excesses of the Bush years.

What have we gotten in return for our more humble posture in the Middle East? The answer, as a case-by-case examination of the most important examples reveals, is this: a new age of great peril. Under Barack Obama’s leadership, in almost every square inch of the Middle East, the strategic position of the United States has decayed. And the region itself is far worse off than it was when he took office.

II. The Egypt Reversals

Barack Obama chose Egypt as the site of his opening gesture to the Muslim world. The address he delivered on June 4, 2009, at Cairo University is known as the Cairo speech, but its actual title, “A New Beginning,” offers a better sense of his ambition. The president filled the hour-long speech with blandishments aimed at easing tensions between the United States and the world’s Muslims. Among his noteworthy comments was his stated approval of observant women who choose to cover their heads—a signal to those he considered moderate Islamists that the United States would treat them as political equals. Although the address was broad in scope, Obama’s words about democracy would prove to be directly relevant to Egypt itself. He expressed a commitment “to governments that reflect the will of the people” and vowed that the United States “will welcome all elected, peaceful governments—provided they govern with respect for all their people…because there are some who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others.”

Less than two years later, a quarter-million Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square to end the 30-year reign of autocratic president Hosni Mubarak. Despite Obama’s earlier focus on “the will of the people,” the White House was initially supportive of Mubarak. Vice President Joseph Biden denied that Mubarak was a dictator and recommended he not step down. Similarly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described him as a close family friend. Days later, Obama praised Mubarak as a valued American ally who should begin the process of democratic reform rather than leave office. But as protests grew, it became clear that there was no sense in fighting Egyptian popular will. Within days of his initial vote of confidence in Mubarak, Obama declared that it was time for the Egyptian leader to go and that “an orderly transition must begin now.” By this time, however, protesters in Cairo were carrying signs that read, “Shame on you, Obama.” If there had been a window of opportunity for the administration to back up the freedom rhetoric of the Cairo speech, it had passed. The White House zigzag alienated Egyptians who were trying to steer their country’s politics in the wake of Mubarak’s departure.

The administration had good reason to support Mubarak. He was a secular leader who honored his peace treaties with Israel, supported the United States in opposing Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, and provided what stability the region had enjoyed. But the United States misread the state of affairs inside Egypt and looked flummoxed responding to real-time events. Diplomatic cables made public by the group WikiLeaks reveal that the Obama administration had earlier assessed Mubarak as a “tried and true realist” whose record of survival boded well for his staying in power. On the matter of human rights, the State Department had ceased the Bush-era practice of calling out Mubarak for his abuses, and the administration decreased funding for civil-society programs in Egypt. In other words, Obama was cozying up to the dictator just as the legitimacy of his three-decade reign was falling apart.

Obama’s habit of misreading Egypt was only getting started. When the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president, the United States wasted no time in pronouncing him a legitimate democrat. Morsi, for his part, turned at once to theocratic authoritarianism. He bypassed the judiciary, wrote up an oppressive Islamist constitution, and prayed publicly for the destruction of the Jews. If anyone fit Obama’s Cairo-speech description of the elected anti-democrat, it was the fanatical Egyptian president. This was not lost on Egyptians, who, within a year, were once again out on the streets calling for the ouster of an incompetent oppressor. And once again, the oppressor was supported by the Obama administration. Behind the scenes, Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to convince Morsi to call for elections, while other administration officials attempted to prevent the Egyptian military from launching a coup.


May 24, 2014 | Comments »

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