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Obama and the Middle East: Rhetoric Versus Reality

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President Barack Obama's actions in the Muslim world have failed to live up to the principles espoused in his soaring speeches, according to Fawaz Gerges in his new book, Obama and the Middle East. Although afforded an opportunity to transform America's standing in the region, as Gerges illustrates, Obama has been hamstrung by domestic politics, special interests and the same insipid foreign policy paradigms that have entrapped every U.S. president since the dawn of the Cold War. Instead of ushering in forward-looking, progressive strategies, Obama has alienated democracy-seeking Arabs, escalated the war on terror, intensified the confrontation with Iran and neglected the aspirations of the Palestinian people.

Gerges relays an absorbing account of the origins of Muslim discontent. He highlights a foreboding episode in 1945 when George Wadsworth, U.S. minister to Syria and Lebanon, informed President Truman that the United States could play a leading role in the Middle East, telling him that, "Our moral leadership is recognized today." Wadsworth then warned the president if the U.S. failed to recognize vital Arab interests, these countries would align themselves with Communist Russia.

Not only was Wadsworth's admonition ignored, but the U.S. set out on a clandestine and overt course to undermine democracy throughout the Middle East in the name of containment and in an effort to preserve Western access to two-thirds of the world's known petro reserves. In 1949 the U.S. helped to overthrow the Syrian government because the Soviet Union had "shown an interest in the country." In 1953 the Eisenhower administration felt compelled to overthrow a democratic regime in Iran because it dared to nationalize its own oil industry.

The U.S. even perceived the Israel-Palestine imbroglio through a Cold War prism. The U.S. ultimately bet on the U.S.-Israeli partnership being central to defeating pro-Communist Arab nationalism. Ironically, it would be a Cold War byproduct called al Qaeda that would replace the Soviet Union as the region's bogeyman. Today the U.S. considers Israel a pro-Western bulwark against Islamic radicalism, although many, including General David Petraeus, argue that the Palestinian question lies at the heart of said extremism.

Throughout this period there was a clash between "globalists" and "regionalists" with the latter holding a more nuanced position, hypothesizing that indigenous aspirations and legitimate national grievances of local populations must be addressed to promote stability, while the globalists were merely concerned with "power vacuums" and "external causes." In fact, the Obama administration suffers from this legacy considering it doesn't have a true Middle East specialist on its staff outside of its experts on Israel.

To be sure, Obama inherited a disaster in the Middle East due to George W. Bush's moral crusading and social engineering experiment in Iraq. Truth be told, Obama actually wanted to disengage from the Middle East and "pivot" towards China and the East, where the U.S. had real interests at stake.

To his credit, Obama seems to grasp that America's days of unilateral hegemonic action are in the past. He is less inclined than his ideologically-driven predecessor, Gerges asserts, to use force to advance "causes." Obama, by and large, has employed force to strictly serve the national interest. Libya diverged from Obama's realist bent, although the president insisted that an Arab face be put on the military operation. Obama was ready to defend himself from charges of hypocrisy in light of America's apparent insouciance towards Syria. According to Obama, decisions were based on "how unified the international community was... "

Unfortunately for millions living in the Middle East there has been a noticeable disconnect between Obama's professed ideals and his centrist policies. The globalists' reductionist view has won out in the United States due to their ability to shape American public opinion. This, combined with Obama's desire to "preempt critics on the right," has led to policies that have divaricated dramatically from the lofty rhetoric of his 2009 Cairo speech to the Arab World.

For instance, the Obama administration continued to bolster autocrats until the eleventh hour during the Arab uprisings. Obama finally distanced his administration from Egypt's Mubarak but it was, as Gerges puts it: "... a decision driven more by a realist assessment of national interests than an idealist desire to promote democracy. Democracy was an afterthought."

Gerges puts forth a novel solution to the Arab Spring problem. Because of the American and EU crash crunch, Gerges recommends that the U.S. press its rich Gulf allies -- including Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE -- to prudently invest in reconstructing these newly-freed societies.

Gerges seems most distraught with Obama's lack of political will in supporting Palestinian statehood. Obama was ultimately defeated by the Israel lobby because the political costs of standing up to Netanyahu outweighed long-term strategic advantages. Despite the fact Obama once said resolving the Israel-Arab conundrum was critical to regional stability, in the end, Obama the politician prevailed over Obama the statesman.

After reading his book I asked Mr. Gerges if he thought Obama could right the course. He told me he doubted Obama would change in any meaningful way, though he seemed to hold out some hope:

"My instincts tell me that as a pragmatic president, a realist, Obama will not take radical steps that challenge the foreign policy consensus in Washington. Contrary to what his critics and detractors on the right in the U.S. say, Obama's foreign policy vision is anchored within America's dominant tradition and style. In this sense, I doubt it if Obama will break away from this tradition and institute a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East. However, I am optimistic that Obama could establish America's progressive leadership in the New Middle East, especially if he's willing to push harder to broker an Israeli-Palestinian settlement that takes into account Israel's security and Palestinian nationhood and assist transitioning Arab societies from authoritarianism to pluralism."

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