The Middle East region looks at President Barack Obama from the perspective of his relations with three "I's", namely: Islamists, Iran and Israel. For some, the US President seems to adopt an overt policy based on isolationism and on avoiding engagement beyond the borders of the United States, and a covert interventionist policy through other players in proxy wars and under the rules of secrecy. In fact, it is nearly impossible to find anyone from the Middle East who views the events of the region as being devoid of any interference, influence or design on the part of the United States. It is the opposite with Americans, the majority of whom believe that the United States has had nothing to do with the events in the Arab region, especially over the past two years during which Islamists have risen to power in the countries of the "Arab Spring" - specifically Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Indeed, most Americans believe that the United States plays no direct or even an indirect role in these countries, or in Yemen, or in the war in Syria. This is because they have nearly forgotten the Iraq war, which they have applied themselves to erasing from their memory, as they do not wish for the United States to get implicated again in the wars of others. Barack Obama has contained the American people's fear of direct intervention through overt American wars that have a high financial cost. He has done this through the extensive use drones, and by reviving the traditional policy and role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He liked the idea of being able to wage nearly illusory wars, for example in Yemen, where President Obama has a government partner facilitating drone strikes against strongholds of al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. These are nearly illusory wars which are not broadcast on television and in which no media delves very deep, thus making the margin of accountability very narrow, in addition to the fact that American public opinion is intentionally oblivious of them.
To be sure, as long as there are no direct American casualties in the wars of others, there is no need for American public opinion to know what is happening in these wars and why it is happening. The role played by the United States in Yemen, then, is off the radar of US public opinion, and this is useful for what President Obama seeks to achieve. Moreover, if the details of this war were ever to come out to this public opinion, the second Obama administration could say that it was waged for the sake of America's higher interest, which is to combat Islamic extremism, violence or terrorism. For regardless of the terminology used, the "enemy" remains the same under Obama as it had been under his predecessor, George W. Bush. The difference lies in the means and the terms being used. President Barack Obama has not been able to completely channel his wars under "secrecy" or under the banner of covert intervention in parallel with overt isolationism. He has at times hidden behind slogans such as "leading from behind" or the "light footprint," but has not always been successful in his attempts to avoid clarity or give ambiguous clarifications.
At the level of the first "I", i.e. the rise of Islamists to power in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as well as Yemen, Barack Obama is no longer able to hide behind elections as the standard for democracy in order to drive the Islamists to power with suspicious haste. The first Obama administration had been perfectly well aware of the consequences of rushing to hold elections without giving secular and modernist forces the chance to organize as political parties and for electoral purposes. This administration knew perfectly well what the repercussions would be of it passionately embracing the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporting it in hasty elections instead of reaching an understanding over the country's constitution. It purposely chose to ally itself with the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of civil, modernist and secular forces, as well as at the expense of constitutions.
Some believe that the justification for these stances that were adopted by the first Obama administration is that they were "practical" - that the administration sought to align itself with the "victors" and thus dispensed, as is the American habit, with the allies of yesterday in its eagerness to win over those of tomorrow. Those who are of this opinion say that Barack Obama "the President" is not Barack Obama "the Promise," who pledged to uphold civil rights and achieve a qualitative shift in international relations. Others considered the stances of the first Obama administration to spring from its belief - or its promotion of the notion - that it was standing with "Islamist moderation," as represented in its opinion by the Muslim Brotherhood, and supporting it in its battle against "Islamist extremism", as represented by Salafist and Jihadist forces.
The leaders of the first administration, as well as the intellectual and media institution aligned with them, purposely forgot about those very civil rights, which are at odds with the core, ideology and ambitions of the Islamists in power. The first administration invested in arousing panic among minorities, from Egypt to Lebanon. It aroused panic among Christians, for example, as well as the anger and disappointment of secularists and modernists, who suffered the curse of America's instant abandonment, as there loomed on the horizon what could be more preferable for the interests of the United States. The repercussions of this policy in Egypt differ from those in Tunisia, for example. What they have in common is that suspicions about the United States have worsened, and that questions surround this man who entered the White House amid international anticipation for what Barack Hussein Obama would have to offer.
Obama has become in the minds of the majority of the Arab youth a partner of the Islamists in power, who rushed to monopolize power and exclude others, to impose Sharia on the constitution and to reject the separation of religion and state. The second administration is thus now in a position inspiring fear and distrust, after the first administration proved that it was no friend of the modernists, who seek after a civil state and equal rights for all. Contrary to what was portrayed and promoted by the first administration, extremist Islamists entered as partners of one kind or another with the moderate Islamists, in order to contain the secularists, who did not submit but in fact persevered in challenging the monopoly and the exclusivism of the Islamists in power. This is why the battle is still raging in Egypt, and this is why modernists in Tunisia insist on refusing to yield and submit to the Islamists. The battle is a fateful one, regardless of the contribution of the United States at the expense of the secularists and in favor of the Islamists.
Weakening the economy and increasing poverty has become part of the instruments of American and local influence and domination. Placing disorderly accountability in the hands of local groups and militias has become part of the culture of intimidation and monopoly adopted by the new authorities. But in spite of this, there are exceptions deserving of pause that challenge the false notion that the modernists and secularists represent failed elitism that deserves to be marginalized. Indeed, today in Tunisia a group of young people (of an average age of 26) are striking terror into the hearts of those in power, and gathering popular support for their action of holding the latter accountable. They do this not by raising weapons or slogans, but by gathering information and diligently monitoring Members of Parliament and members of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), and then disclosing everything to the people.
"Al-Bawsala" (the compass) has become synonymous with accountability and answerability, and "Al-Marsad" (the observatory) now forces decision-makers to think carefully before making their decisions. That is because, for the first time, the Parliament is being held to account for its spending and the MPs for attending or failing to attend ordinary and extraordinary parliament sessions. According to Amira Yahyaoui (28 years old), founder and president of Al-Bawsala, "the continued absence of the modernists will lead to a vote in favor of an Islamist constitution." That is because "the Ennahda Movement is the one attending the NCA most often, and modernist MPs are the ones most often absent." Yet after Al-Bawsala started monitoring their movements, opposition MPs began to attend and to fulfill their duty, mostly out of fear of being reprimanded by the people, in a development Tunisians are witnessing for the first time.
It is therefore too early to rush to bury civil society and the modernists, and to conclude that the victors are Islamists of all sorts. For one thing, the Muslim Brotherhood was quick to reveal its true face, as it considered winning the elections to have given it the right to dictate upon others, which includes dictating the kind of constitution the country should have. The Brotherhood wants the constitution to be an Islamist one, and in pursuing this there is no difference between moderate Islam, as the West calls the Muslim Brotherhood, and extremist Islam, in reference to the Salafists. As for the Neo-Jihadists, they are a creation of Russia and the United States, specifically in Syria, where the violence and pride of Russian nationalist patriotism have been coupled with the secrecy and covert nature of "Obamist" policies, which waver to the tune of indecision. They have both "Afghanized" Syria with regional and local contributions, and they will both regret having created these Neo-Jihadists, regardless of whether one or both of them had in mind to draw the latter to the Syrian arena so that they may perish at the hands of the Syrian regime and its allies.
Iran, the second "I", seems above being held to account in Syria, according to the West's lexicon. The priority for the European Union resides in ensuring the success of the diplomacy led by Catherine Ashton for successful nuclear talks with the Islamic Republic of Iran. And it has become clear that this is one of the main reasons why Tehran has been allowed to violate a binding Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which bans it from exporting weapons, equipment, and fighters.
The Iranians are at ease, as they trust that Barack Obama will not hold Iran to account militarily, neither for its nuclear ambitions, nor as a result of the practices it engages in and the role it plays at the regional level. Iran's leadership is wagering on a certain weakness at Obama's core and on the West's willingness to provide it with advanced technology in exchange for "suspending" uranium enrichment at 20 percent. Iran considers itself able to do the Obama administration favors in Iraq and in Lebanon, where it holds broad influence with the Maliki government and Hezbollah. The Iranian leadership thus rests at ease, believing that it now holds new and valuable instruments of negotiation and concession, namely that of reaching an understanding or a confrontation in the Syrian arena. In other words, the Iranians feel that they have been able to contain Barack Obama's threats and warnings while sitting in the driver's seat.
The third "I" is connected to the second, yet not necessarily under the category of confrontation, as the relationship between Iran and Israel remains so far historically one of truce. Indeed, no matter the extent to which Tehran escalates its political discourse against Israel, it is at the end of the day well aware of the benefits of maintaining a "pull-and-tug" dynamic with Israel as a priority for any resistance it might call for through others. Israel is turn is perfectly well at ease because it fears no real American or European pressure on it to end the occupation and reach a "two-state solution." It has besieged such a solution and the use of the term "occupation" has become absent from political and Islamist discourse, particularly when it comes to the United States.
The second Obama administration has not been able to provide the Palestinians with what they seek, having failed to put a stop to Israeli settlement-building which is in effect doing away with the two-state solution, and it is unwilling to risk failure a second time. This is why attention will be turning to preventing the Palestinian Authority from making use of the new means at its disposal, having become a observer state at the United Nations, which gives it the right to head to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to hold Israel accountable for its occupation and settlement-building as war crimes.
It is therefore most likely that the second administration will end up crushing the hopes raised by the first administration, when Barack Obama had headed to Istanbul and Cairo, either naïvely or completely in denial of what he was doing there.