There’s always Tunisia. Amid the smoking ruins of the Middle East, there is that one encouraging success story. But unfortunately for the Obama narratives, the president had about as much as to do with Tunisia’s turn toward democracy as he did with the World Cup rankings. Where administration policy has had an impact, the story is one of failure and danger.
The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained.
How did it happen? Begin with hubris: The new president told the world, in his Cairo speech in June 2009, that he had special expertise in understanding the entire world of Islam, knowledge “rooted in my own experience” because “I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed.” But President Obama wasn’t speaking that day in an imaginary location called “the world of Islam;” he was in Cairo, in the Arab Middle East, in a place where nothing counted more than power. “As a boy,” Obama told his listeners, “I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the Azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk.” Nice touch, but Arab rulers were more interested in knowing whether as a man he heard the approaching sound of gunfire, saw the growing threat of al Qaeda from the Maghreb to the Arabian Peninsula, and understood the ambitions of the ayatollahs as Iran moved closer and closer to a bomb.
Obama began with the view that there was no issue in the Middle East more central than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Five years later he has lost the confidence of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and watched his second secretary of state squander endless efforts in a doomed quest for a comprehensive peace. Obama embittered relations with America’s closest ally in the region and achieved nothing whatsoever in the “peace process.” The end result in the summer of 2014 is to see the Palestinian Authority turn to a deal with Hamas for new elections that—if they are held, which admittedly is unlikely—would usher the terrorist group into a power-sharing deal. This is not progress.
The most populous Arab country is Egypt, where Obama stuck too long with Hosni Mubarak as the Arab Spring arrived, and then with the Army, and then the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, and now is embracing the Army again. Minor failings like the persecution of newspaper editors and leaders of American-backed NGOs, or the jailing of anyone critical of the powers-that-be at a given moment, were glossed over. When the Army removed an elected president that was not really a “coup”—remember? And as the worm turned, we managed to offend every actor on Egypt’s political stage, from the military to the Islamists to the secular democratic activists. Who trusts us now on the Egyptian political scene? No one.
But these errors are minor when compared to those in Iraq and Syria. When the peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad was brutally crushed, Obama said Assad must go; when Assad used Sarin gas, Obama said this was intolerable and crossed a red line. But behind these words there was no American power, and speeches are cheap in the Middle East. Despite the urgings of all his top advisers (using the term loosely; he seems to ignore their advice)—Panetta at CIA and then Defense, Clinton at State, Petraeus at CIA, even Dempsey at the Pentagon—the president refused to give meaningful assistance to the Syrian nationalist rebels. Assistance was announced in June 2013 and then again in June 2014 (in the president’s West Point speech) but it is a minimal effort, far too small to match the presence of Hezbollah and Iranian Quds Force fighters in Syria. Arabs see this as a proxy war with Iran, but in the White House the key desire is to put all those nasty Middle Eastern wars behind us. So in the Middle East American power became a mirage, something no one could find—something enemies did not fear and allies could not count on.
The humanitarian result has been tragic: At least 160,000 killed in Syria, perhaps eight million displaced. More than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon (a country of four million people, before Obama added those Syrians), about a million and a quarter Syrian refugees in Jordan (population six million before Obama). Poison gas back on the world scene as a tolerated weapon, with Assad using chlorine gas systematically in “barrel bombs” this year and paying no price whatsoever for this and for his repeated attacks on civilian targets. Both of the key officials handling Syria for Obama—State Department special envoy Fred Hof and Ambassador Robert Ford—resigned in disgust when they could no longer defend Obama’s hands-off policy. Can Samantha Power be far behind, watching the mass killings and seeing her president respond to them with rhetoric?
The result in security terms is even worse: the largest gathering of jihadis we have ever seen, 12,000 now and expanding. They come from all over the world, a jihadi Arab League, a jihadi EU, a jihadi U.N. Two or three thousand are from Europe, and an estimated 70 from the United States. When they go home, some no doubt disillusioned but many committed, experienced and well trained, “home” will be Milwaukee and Manchester and Marseille—and, as we see now on the front pages, to Mosul. When Obama took office there was no such phenomenon; it is his creation, the result of his passivity in Syria while Sunnis were being slaughtered by the Assad regime.
Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. He served as a deputy national security adviser in the administration of George W. Bush.