Why Obama Failed in the Middle East
From the Arab Spring, to Syria, to Iran, to the peace process, President Barack Obama's actions have yet to live up to his high-flying rhetoric.
It is the cruelest of ironies that President Barack Obama’s legacy in the Middle East — a signature issue for many U.S. presidents — now lies in the hands of two of his most intractable adversaries: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It also probably doesn’t make him sleep any easier that the third major player is a man with whom he has a famously dysfunctional relationship: Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
It’s cruel because saving Syria, resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, and achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace seem well beyond the president’s capacity — even if he boasted the support of willing and trusting partners. And it’s ironic because Obama set out not to preside over catastrophes in the Middle East but to transform the region for the better. He now risks being the president on whose watch it all became so much worse.
Is this unhappy tale primarily Obama’s fault? No. But on the four key issues that will likely define the president’s legacy in this region, his critics have already reached a very different conclusion — and history may too.
A regional order transformed
It was both Obama’s luck and misfortune to have been president during a historic, once-in-a-century transformation of the Middle East. You don’t get to be a doer of great deeds unless you’re confronted with great events and are then able to help shape them (see: Lincoln, FDR).
Obama was lucky enough to have the first, but he couldn’t — his critics allege — produce the second. Unlike the period from 1986 to 1992, when Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were perceived as proactive players in shaping events after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, Obama may be seen as more the bystander.
The comparisons to the end of the Cold War are perhaps a bit unfair. The president was indeed on the right side of history in the early acts of the Arab Spring: He recognized the inevitability of the end of America’s authoritarian friends in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen — and to his credit, he was proactive in helping get rid of Libyan autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi.
But subsequent inattention in Libya and the Benghazi debacle, Obama’s vacillation about how to deal with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, a hesitancy to speak out more forcefully against the Brothers’ exclusivist and arbitrary policies in Egypt, and acquiescence to Saudi-backed repression in Bahrain raised doubts about whether he had indeed moved to the right side of history.
Yet the "who lost the Middle East?" debate is really a silly one — the region was never Obama’s to lose. America cannot dictate the course of events there, even if it wanted to. It was, after all, Arabs’ ownership of their own politics that gave the Arab Spring its authenticity and legitimacy.
But the strange marriage of neocons and liberal interventionists has hammered home the theme that the president has lacked vision, leadership, and strength in responding to these historic transformations. Where was the appointment of the "super envoy" to oversee America’s strategy toward the Arab Spring, the task forces to monitor regional developments around the clock, and the strategic use of incentives and disincentives to reinforce positive change and lay down markers in the face of negative behavior? Or was it all just too much — too fast and furious to keep track of?
Had the Arab Spring moved in the right direction, Obama would have been hailed as a strategic genius for his smart, low-cost management from the sidelines. Sadly, it has moved the other way — toward instability, violence, and dashed hopes. As a result, what people saw — certainly those in the Middle East, where it’s easy to blame somebody else for your troubles — is a president who became strangely disconnected and who at best just seemed to have other things to do. At worst, he seemed to have simply stopped caring.
Syria: Exhibits A to Z
Nowhere is the charge of passivity and abandonment more likely to stick than in Syria.
I’ve supported the president’s risk-averse approach on Syria, largely because the endgame the United States wants — a liberal, secular, pro-Western Syria — is beyond America’s capacity to achieve from the outside and not worth the risk of a more muscular intervention that would require the United States to be on the inside. Splitting the difference by thinking America can get what it wants by arming this or that rebel group in a sea of competing rebel groups and external actors for which Syria is truly vital is, well, laughable.
History may prove much less sympathetic, however. Syria’s isn’t Obama’s Rwanda. But the killing — and the passive reaction of the entire international community — will raise inevitable questions about what more could have been done.
It won’t help the president’s case that key members of his national security team recommended doing more and he overruled them. It may not be remembered that "more" would barely have altered the military arc of the conflict.
It’s lonely at the top. And the president will be criticized on moral, humanitarian, and strategic grounds for not doing more. Plenty of circumstances could still bring America into Syria, particularly the use of chemical weapons on a large scale. But barring some heroic, improbable intervention that brings down the Assads and stabilizes the country, it’s hard to see how Obama could create a counternarrative to the judgment history is likely to bestow on him.
Obama stands to be the U.S. president who either allows Iran to get a nuclear weapon, is the first to bomb the country, or becomes the guy who cuts an interim deal that keeps the mullahs a few years away from nuclear nirvana. That last scenario, by the way, comes with ready-made tensions with Netanyahu, with whom Obama just mended fences. The Israeli prime minister will wonder how a limited tactical deal on enrichment fixes Israel’s strategic problem with prospective Iranian nukes. It also offers no real guarantees that the Israelis — unhappy with a diplomatic outcome — don’t at some point resort to military action on their own. If he’s really lucky, he gets out of town before Iran gets the bomb, and then it’s the next president’s headache.
Not a terribly appetizing menu for the legacy buffet. A military strike could make Obama look strong, but there are those pesky, unpredictable repercussions, including plunging financial markets, skyrocketing oil prices, and escalating regional tensions. A grand bargain in which the mullahs gave up their nuclear weapons ambitions and began to work with the West toward a more stable Middle East would make the president look like a genius. But it’s an outcome he’s unlikely to see.
The reality is that Iran — followed by North Korea — is probably the most difficult puzzle in the international system today. There are no happy endings or comprehensive solutions. And for this president, who has publicly vowed not to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, the ironies abound. Think about this: His predecessor went to war against Iraq, a war Obama strongly opposed, because of imaginary weapons of mass destruction, only to strengthen and embolden an Iran that could cross some significant nuclear threshold on Obama’s watch.
Obama’s hopes for burnishing his legacy don’t improve when it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Will he become the president on whose watch the two-state solution finally expires?
Here, perhaps, there’s more time, leeway, and even some hope to improve the odds of leaving a meaningful legacy behind. Sure, the possibility of a big, conflict-ending acco
rd seems pretty remote, but in between doing nothing and the full monty, there’s much to be tried. And Secretary of State John Kerry — the new, very smart and savvy Energizer Bunny of U.S. diplomacy — is well suited to the task, if the president gives him the latitude.
Kerry has a lot of options as he attempts to kick-start the peace process. He can try to first define the borders of a provisional Palestinian state. He might try to focus on terms of reference to guide a negotiation. He could even sprinkle in some resonant confidence-builders for both sides and a kind of code of conduct during a negotiating period. And if he’s really ambitious, he can see where the gaps are on all the issues, including Jerusalem and refugees, and try for a framework agreement that would garner support in the Arab world by tying it to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
Given the uncertainties in the region and the gaps between the new Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, I think Obama has no illusions about Israeli-Palestinian peace. That’s why he has a Plan B in mind: the legacy initiative. And that’s the Obama parameters — laying out U.S. views on the big issues to define the negotiations. It’s not a perfect approach: Kerry, I’m told, wants an actual agreement. If all else fails, however, you can lay out these parameters, and who knows — with enough effort, maybe you can get one side to embrace them and then try to leverage the other.
But even if you can’t, Obama can use them to demonstrate his commitment to the desirability and importance of a two-state solution. This kind of exercise is vintage Obama — rhetorical, above the details, plenty of thematic altitude with no need for real follow-up. It’s not great for U.S. credibility if there are no takers and the Obama initiative is left hanging, but it beats the alternative: a big, fat goose egg from a president who initially set the bar so high.
Might Obama’s zero for three-and-a-half legacy be averted? Can’t the next several years offer up a different and happier set of endings? Isn’t it still possible for Obama to be the president he wanted to be: the transformer, the peacemaker, the visionary leader?
It’s hard to see how. The issues in this region are so complex, the mistrust between the parties so deep, the number of moving pieces so many, that it’s tough to imagine grand bargains and transformative change brokered by a risk-averse president.
The pull of doing great things that initially inspired Obama will continue to tug. At least when it comes to the Middle East, the president should do everything he can to mightily resist it. Big transformations require that the locals — in this case, the Iranians, Israelis, and Palestinians — share real urgency and ownership. Only then can a willful and skillful president exploit that urgency and ownership and turn crisis into opportunity.
Right now, the first isn’t evident and the second is a still a thought experiment. Obama ought to think transactions, not transformations: Try a serious effort to broker a deal with the mullahs before going to war, and do the same with Israelis and Palestinians to preserve the possibility of peace. Such interim accords aren’t sexy or the stuff of which legacies are made. They won’t get Obama into the presidential hall of fame. But they are both desirable and possible.
And if Obama is really lucky, he just might be able to do something that seems pretty consequential right now: leaving this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region a little better than he found it.