President Obama began his presidency just over a year ago with a stated, strong intent to ameliorate America's relations with the Islamic world and, in particular, its Arab sector.
The United States has had an active presence in the Middle East for more than two centuries. President Jefferson dispatched Marines to eradicate the Barbary pirates in Tripoli and elsewhere in North Africa. As a result, the first country with which the United States had diplomatic relations was Morocco. American citizens, especially those with religious concerns about the Holy Land, developed strong commitment to education and welfare institutions in the region long before the US government had become permanently involved in diplomacy and military engagement. We have had a long time to create history and to learn its lessons.
The modern narrative begins with President Woodrow Wilson, whose adoption of the principle of self-determination for the peoples emerging from imperial rule created great hopes among Arab peoples in the detritus of the Ottoman Empire. He generated the belief that the United States would emerge as a new kind of great power, more altruistic than imperialistic, and ready to reverse the history of British and French self-interested imperialism. However, Wilson's idealism foundered on the rocks of American partisan politics, creating a legacy of Arab disappointment and embitterment about the United States' failure to deliver on its promises to them.
America has done precious little to reverse that legacy. As the twentieth century wore on, America, rather than fostering new freedoms and self-determination of the Arab peoples, actually became the imperial successor to Britain and France, even though its expressed ideology remained anti-imperialist under most presidents. In fact, America became the foremost supporter of non-democratic regimes in many countries, as well as the sponsor of the new state of Israel, which Arabs considered the greatest wound to their dignity that the West had ever imposed.
Over the century, the United States did develop strong bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia and very good relations with other petroleum-exporting nations such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and, more recently, Libya. Countries like Yemen, which had little of the resource most important to America, remained on the periphery of American national interest.
Yemen first became important to the United States in the days of President Kennedy, when he decided that, contrary to President Eisenhower, he would develop positive relationships with both Egypt and Israel. However, Egyptian President Nasser chose to support Yemen's war against Saudi Arabia and thus made it impossible for President Kennedy to improve relations with Egypt. Nasser's support continued until he redeployed his forces from Yemen in order to prepare for war with Israel. Yemen never fully repaired its relations with Saudi Arabia.
Yemen next became interesting to America when it became known after 9/11 that the originally Yemeni Bin Laden family's rogue son Osama was the leader of Al-Qaeda. That linked Yemen to the worst act of terrorism ever perpetrated against the United States, as well as to the earlier bombing of American embassies in East Africa and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen's port of Aden. In retaliation for 9/11, George W. Bush led the United States to major attacks against Afghanistan and the Al-Qaeda training camps, and their leadership, on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The presence of Al-Qaeda in Yemen receded in importance, especially when Bush and Cheney moved their war efforts to Iraq.
Only when President Obama took office did the focus return to trying to destroy Al-Qaeda on the Afghan-Pakistan border and to the presence of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. The attempted terrorist attack against an American airliner on Christmas Day 2009 by a Yemeni-trained would-be terrorist reminded Americans that the cleanup job of Al-Qaeda's bases and training areas would have to include Yemen before it could be declared complete.
These and many other American problems in the Middle East are made more complicated by the long memories of the Arab intelligentsia about the continual history of America's opposition to Arab national aspirations and the movements that have espoused Arab nationalism in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen.
Obama engendered great hope among the Arab nations with his speech in Cairo last June when he promised to bridge the gap between them and America and to work assiduously to bring about an independent Palestinian state in the first years of his first term. He has not been able to fulfill his promise. And the Arabs have once again been faced with an America unwilling or unable to delver.
Will Obama be Wilson redux in the Middle East, or will he learn the lessons of failed American approaches to that important region that started with Wilson?
Stephen P. Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, is the author of Beyond America's Grasp: A Century of Failed Diplomacy in the Middle East.