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Middle East Lost

The Arab Spring gave Barack Obama the perfect opening to reorient U.S. policy in the Middle East. Too bad he blew it.


One of the great mysteries of the past four years is how Barack Obama — who rose to the presidency, in part, on his promises to fundamentally re-think and re-orient U.S. policy in the Middle East — has instead spent his term running away from the region.

It is difficult to remember it now, but the prospect of an Obama presidency was initially greeted in the Arab world with a mixture of relief and guarded optimism. His name and Muslim origins certainly helped. But there was something else: For the first time, here was an American president who seemed to have an intuitive grasp of Arab grievances. This grasp extended, perhaps most importantly, to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israelis may have been victims, but so too were the Palestinians. In short, Obama seemed to "get" the Middle East. This didn’t sound like someone who wanted to spend three years "pivoting" to China.

To look back at Obama’s various statements before becoming president is somewhat jarring. At a 2003 farewell party for the scholar Rashid Khalidi, a fierce advocate for Palestinian rights, Obama told the audience that his conversations with Khalidi had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases … It’s for that reason that I’m hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation." Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah recounted Obama telling him in 2004: "I’m sorry I haven’t said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I’m hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." (The campaign denied that Obama made such remarks.)

It is easy to make too much of these comments, as many already have. But there is little doubt that Obama stood apart from past presidents in the way he thought and spoke about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Moreover, he understood the conflict’s centrality in the broader Arab narrative. As he told the Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg in 2008, "this constant wound…this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy." Even after becoming president, Obama would go out of his way to acknowledge America’s checkered and sometimes tragic history in the region. In his 2009 Cairo address, he noted that tension between the West and the Muslim world "has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations."

The question isn’t whether such sentiments are good or bad. Whatever his prescriptions, Obama evidently believed in restoring American leadership in the Middle East and, by extension, that U.S. leadership mattered and could be used for good. In the subsequent years, however, Obama seems to have gradually lost faith in America’s ability to impact the course of events.

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, senior U.S. officials insisted both privately and publicly that this was "not about America." Too much U.S. involvement went against the very spirit of this moment of self-determination, they said. This was wishful thinking: Of the five Arab revolutions and the one near-revolution in Bahrain, external actors have played a decisive role in at least four. Yet, in the absence of anything resembling a grand strategy, the Obama administration seemed, and still seems, primarily animated by a desire to reduce its footprint in the Middle East.

It is in Syria that the puzzling absence of American leadership has served to confirm just how important the United States still is. Without U.S. leadership — at this point, many Syrians would gladly take "leading from behind" — the 19-month conflict has spiraled out of control. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have argued for doing more to back the Syrian rebels, but they will not do it without American cover and support. The Obama administration has even actively discouraged its allies from giving rebels the very weapons they say they need to defeat President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As a member of one town’s revolutionary council said: "We read in the media that we are receiving things. But we haven’t seen it. We only received speeches from the West."

The record elsewhere is not much better, and Arabs have taken note. Remarkably, U.S. favorability ratings in several Arab countries are lower under Obama than they were in the final years of the George W. Bush administration.

Instead of offering clear, consistent support for the Arab uprisings, the Obama administration’s response has been characterized by what I call "aggressive hedging." As a result, the United States has somehow managed to alienate both sides of the Arab cold war: Dictators think we’re naively pro-revolution, and Arab protesters and rebels worry we’re still siding with the dictators.

To be sure, this particular problem predates the past four years. Candidate Obama, being the anti-Bush option, had never been a proponent of a more aggressive pro-democracy posture in the region. But, even as the uprisings unfolded, capturing the imagination of millions of Americans, the Obama administration remained unwilling to come to terms with new realities. In the third presidential debate in Boca Raton, Obama said that the United States stood with the Tunisian people "earlier than just about any other country." This is not quite true: As late as January 12, two days before Tunisian strongman Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali fell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted — twice — that the United States was "not taking sides."

It would be nearly impossible, considering the debacle of the Iraq war, to argue that Obama’s record on the Middle East is worse than that of his predecessor. But it is just as clear that the transformational presidency that Obama hinted at as a candidate — and in his Cairo speech — has barely made an appearance. The Arab Spring presented just that transformational moment, offering the United States a second chance to align its interests and values with the aspirations of ordinary Arabs. Just as the 9/11 attacks seemed to jolt Bush, giving him a greater sense of purpose (for better or worse), one could have imagined the Arab revolts moving Obama in a similar way. But it doesn’t seem like the remarkable events of the past two years have had any profound impact on the president’s worldview.

For these reasons and many more, a second Obama term is unlikely to diverge considerably from the cautious and deliberate blueprint of the first. And in the Middle East, the basic thrust will likely continue — engage where we must, disengage when we can.

And what of the Arab-Israeli conflict? If there’s one area that Obama appeared particularly passionate about, it was this. On his third day in office, the president appointed former Senator George Mitchell as special envoy — a decision that was hailed as a sign of the administration’s seriousness in making a breakthrough. If the conflict poisoned everything, as Obama said, then the only way to truly forge a "new beginning" with the Arab world was through a just peace. But the administration’s approach soon ran aground: Its single-minded focus on halting settlement construction backfired, arousing the ire of the Israeli government while distracting from the core Palestinian concerns of borders, right of return, and the status of Jerusalem.

Once again, the Obama administration somehow managed to alienate the Israelis and Palestinians in almost equal measure. Even after Obama pulled back and increased security cooperation with Israel to unprecedented levels, the damage had already been done. Too many Israelis simply couldn’t bring themselves to trust Obama; they suspected that he, in his heart of hearts, was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. Oddly enough, this was also what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas thought — leading to a feeling of betrayal. In a revealing Newsweek interview, he seemed to be asking the same question on the minds of many Arabs: What exactly had happened to Obama? "We knew him before he became president. We knew him and he was very receptive," Abbas said.

In a second term, there is little reason to think that Obama would have any greater success on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The two sides are as far apart as ever. It is difficult to imagine the new alliance between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the far-right Avigdor Lieberman ever making the kinds of concessions that the Palestinians would require to seal a final status agreement. Focused more on his legacy than on re-election, might Obama be willing to put more pressure on the Israelis in a second term? Probably. But, by now, neither side has much interest in a repeat of 2009 and 2010. The trust has already been lost, the political capital squandered.

As unpopular as Obama is in the Arab world, Mitt Romney is even more unpopular. The preference, however, is usually for neither. Deep within all of this apparent anti-Americanism, however, there remains a slight glimmer of hope. There is still a hunger for U.S. leadership in the Arab world, some of it out of a lingering belief in America’s better angels, some of it because there is no one else to turn to. In their time of need, Egyptians, Bahrainis, Libyans and now Syrians have asked — sometimes pleaded — for America to do more to support their struggles. But they will not wait forever.

The rise and fall of Obama, and what he seemed to stand for, has a tinge of sadness about it. Perhaps the job transformed him, rather than the other way around. As the Atlantic‘s Garance Franke-Ruta put it: "Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans."

Whatever the reasons, the conclusion is largely the same. An opportunity was lost. There is room, as there always is, to tinker around the margins, to adopt "incrementalism" as the best of a set of bad options in a complex, messy world. But that’s not what we needed four years ago. And it’s not what we need now.

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.

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