POMED Notes: “Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment”
On Monday, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars hosted a discussion titled “Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment”. The event featured Fawaz Gerges, professor, Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations, at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, who introduced his book ‘Obama and the Middle East: The End Of America’s Moment?’ In his book, Gerges dissects how President Obama’s Middle East strategy has veered off course from the optimistic plan he originally built up, and details the changes that must now be made to steer the administration toward real progress at this crucial juncture. Gerges delivers a full picture of U.S. relations with the Middle East, the legacy of bitterness and mistrust that began decades ago, and the issues that have posed the most significant challenges for the Obama administration. Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East Program at WWC, moderated the discussion.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for PDF version.
Fawaz Gerges addressed the context that President Barack Obama’s administration faced in the Middle East when he came to power in 2008. There was an important legacy including, U.S.S.R./U.S. rivalry of influence in the region, the 9/11 attacks and the wars following them in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and the counter-terrorism policy developed by the former government. Gerges insisted that when the President George W. Bush left office, “the United States reached its lowest point of relationship with the Great Middle East.” The Obama administration also faces skepticism from external observers on U.S. power. U.S. values were tarnished because of reports of the use of torture outside of its borders, and also in the country. U.S.’s allies expressed concerns on the capacity of the U.S. to act “rationally” to maintain stability in the region. The credibility of the U.S. as a power was tackled as its post 9/11 wars were handled in a way which led some to assume that the U.S. and its allies could be defeated. Moreover, the U.S. was facing economic trouble and the cost of the mentioned wars interfered with the geostrategic ambitions of the U.S. in the Middle East region.
When Obama come to power, he was aware of the U.S. decline in its geostrategic policy. The president knew that the country had to reassess its priorities and focus on them. Georges said that Obama adopted an approach regarding foreign affairs based on consensus. Since he engaged in the Presidential campaign in 2006, he pledged that he would not implement ‘a transformation policy” but he would be a realist. Obama does not believe in promoting values diplomacy but would search for security and mutual interest for the U.S. and its partners. Obama stated that he would “not preach for other nations.” Gerges translated Obama’s agenda as a return to a more traditional U.S. foreign policy that has been hijacked by neo-conservatives. In any case, the Middle East, was not a priority for Obama.
Gerges addressed the new narrative that Obama developed about the Middle East, focusing on establishing a dialogue. The current administration also tied the Arab-Israel peace process to U.S. interests, seeking stability. Obama also looked to engaging with Muslim communities in the world, which was demonstrated by speeches in Turkey and in Egypt.
Obama also observed a great shift in the region with the claim for dignity. The shift was linked to the debate on the presence of the U.S. in the region. The possibility that the U.S. would “reduce its ‘almighty’ on the region would not be bad.”
Gerges believed that the Obama administration has failed on the Palestine-Israel issue. The president was genuine and willing to engage with the peace process, but he remained aligned and did not challenge the consensus. Gerges asserted that U.S. foreign policy is structural, which is what gives little room for changes.
Obama administration has caused so much damage against al Qaeda that the organization no longer exists as a central structure. However, Gerges questioned the use of drones, out of a legal frame, in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and in Yemen.
Gerges concluded that if Obama was reelected, he would rise up and promote a policy that would challenge the U.S. structure on foreign affairs.
The first question of the Question and Answer session addressed the conflict in Syria. Gerges advanced the idea that the situation was complex for several reasons. President Bashar al Assad still has some support among the Syrians, including the Kurds and the Alawis. The military and diplomatic apparatus is faithful to the regime. The opposition is split. Finally, the Security Council is divided. Gerges added that the conflict in Syria was a “war by other means” not only through violence. but also through economic and psychological pressure (fear and repression). Gerges predicted that the conflict could last for several years. Gerges expressed concerns that the conflict in Syria would spill over in the region, driving Lebanon into sectarian conflicts if Syria was falls into a civil war.
Another question addressed the Islamist parties and their willingness to engage with a democratic transition. Gerges replied that the main and wrong question so far was “if the Islamists were liberals.” He believed that the most important shift for the Islamist parties is to engage in an “institutionalized political process.” Gerges pointed out that the Islamist parties were more and more constituent driven rather than ideology driven. Islamists would certainly be voted out, as they were voted in, if they do not deliver. Gerges criticized the seculars for not engaging enough with the populations and for having poor campaign strategies.
The last question addressed Iran as a model for the Arab world. Gerges stated that Iran was not considered as a failure in the region for the Islamist groups. Islamist parties are looking at Turkey as an inspiring model; the country is a democracy and an economic success, and it also has an Islamic identity.