x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Obama and the Middle East: Why the US is disengaging

Fawaz Gerges asserts that US influence in the region is declining rapidly, a trend he attributes to the rise of pluralism and a shift in strategic emphasis to the Pacific.

In a landmark speech at Cairo University in June 2009, US president Barack Obama sought a new beginning by offering respect and seeking broader engagement with the Arab world. Ben Curtis / AP Photo
In a landmark speech at Cairo University in June 2009, US president Barack Obama sought a new beginning by offering respect and seeking broader engagement with the Arab world. Ben Curtis / AP Photo

January 9 was no banner day for the US in the Middle East. In Baghdad, a series of bombs killed at least a dozen people and wounded more than 50, underscoring America's failure to establish security prior to the departure of its troops from Iraq.

In a speech in Damascus, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad refused to step down despite months of increasing violence and international condemnation. "When I leave office it will be by the will of the people," he said.

Finally, Iran sentenced the former US marine Amir Mirzaei Hekmati to death for spying for the Central Intelligence Agency - the first time since the 1979 Revolution that Iran had ordered the execution of an American.

It would be hard to more clearly state the central thesis of Fawaz Gerges' forthcoming book, Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment, than with the events of January 9, 2012. "America's ability to act unilaterally and hegemonically, unconstrained by the local context, has come to an end," he said during an interview at Chicago's InterContinental Hotel last month.

Gerges, a US citizen born to a Christian family in Beirut, holds the Emirates Chair of the Contemporary Middle East at the London School of Economics. After focusing on terrorism in recent books - including 2005's bestselling Journey of the Jihadist and last year's The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda - his new work, out in May, returns him to a subject he has been writing about for decades.

"Obama is correct not to take ownership of the Arab uprisings, because we're seeing changes from within the region," Gerges adds. "You might say Obama is the Gorbachev of America's foreign policy in the Middle East."

The book begins shortly after the Second World War, when the US treated Arab countries dismissively, its eye towards Soviet containment. American support for the creation of Israel, the 1953 coup in Iran, the oil embargo of 1973, the Iranian hostage crisis, the US intervention in the Gulf War and George W Bush's policies in the wake of 9/11, all played their part.

"The US is seen as a supporter and sustainer of the autocratic order in the Middle East," Gerges says. "This culminated in the Iraq War, and reinforced the perception that the US cannot be trusted, that it was neocolonialist."

This is the legacy inherited by Obama, who sought a new beginning by offering respect and seeking broader engagement in his landmark June 2009 speech in Cairo. "No system of government can or should be imposed on any nation by any other," he said. "That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people."

Obama tends to hedge in this way, approaching contradiction. He denounced Bush's ideological promotion of democracy and hawkish international stance but has since backed intervention in Libya, expanded drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal areas and sent 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan.

Similarly, the Obama team hoped his outreach in Cairo would allow the US to "cut the umbilical cord to the Middle East", says Gerges. "From day one, they believed that America's future was in the Pacific, and believed the US was on a very costly detour in the Middle East."

At the time, national security adviser Thomas Donilon saw Washington's influence as too strong in the Middle East and too weak in Asia, according to Ryan Lizza. In his lengthy, widely read Obama profile in The New Yorker in May, Lizza argued that "the Arab Spring remade Obama's foreign policy".

Gerges would argue that it helped bring Obama's initial policy objectives to the fore. At first, the uprisings seemed to paralyse Washington. Obama sought to be on the right side of history, with the protesters, but also wanted to keep his allies. "They were caught napping," said Gerges.

After five days of uncertainty while protests raged in Tahrir Square, the US called for Mubarak to step down. Since his departure, Washington has supported the generals, backed parliamentary elections and mostly maintained its distance.

Yet the Obama administration has broken with decades of US policy to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood. In high-level meetings, officials at the State Department have received reassurances of the brotherhood's respect for human rights and interest in maintaining peaceful relations with Israel.

The shift is an acceptance of Egypt's new political reality, with the Brotherhood and the Salafist parties winning more than 70 per cent of parliamentary seats in the recent elections, and of Washington's reduced influence in the region. Even while continuing to hand over more than $1.3bn (Dh13.9bn) in annual military aid, Obama can make no demands on Egypt's leadership.

Gerges sees Egypt's Islamists emulating Turkey's moderate, highly successful AKP, and is less concerned about their religiosity or foreign policy than their ability to govern - a concern underscored by the chaos of Egypt's first parliamentary session this week. "I'm more worried that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood have no blueprints to resolve the major problems facing Egyptian society," he said, referring to a moribund economy, a lack of capable institutions and oppressed minorities. "In the next election, if Islamists don't deliver the goods - and most probably they won't, because the challenges are horrendous - I think they're going to do much, much worse."

In other countries facing uprisings, Washington had a hard time keeping up with events and constantly tweaked its position. In Libya, after leading the intervention "from behind", according to the received wisdom, since the killing of Muammar Qaddafi the US has generally disengaged. These days, Washington mostly equivocates: supporting regime change in Syria and Yemen, while maintaining friendships with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco.

It's a policy of do-very-little, and may be the best option available. Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco appear, for the moment, on solid ground. Violence in Syria has been on the rise, whatever the US policy, and Al Assad seems to be gaining confidence once more after the recent failed Arab League mission.

Washington's two great ventures in the region remain on the brink of failure. Iraq seems increasingly unstable since the departure of American troops and, in Afghanistan, attacks on US and coalition forces by supposed Afghan allies have peaked.

To suggest that stable, pluralistic political systems will emerge anytime soon in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria and other countries is simplistic if not downright ignorant. Right now may be the ideal time for the US to disengage from the Middle East, just as Arab countries, led by the people, become less predictable.

Gerges envisions a lengthy transition from authoritarianism to political pluralism, with bumps and detours lasting decades. "The Arab world has taken the first step in a million-mile journey," he said. "There's no regime that's immune to this new mood of empowerment, despite all the nonsense of the uniqueness of the Gulf states. Regimes in the Middle East will ignore this changed psychology at their own peril."

The theories in Gerges' new book are not revolutionary. Other observers have noted American decline, particularly Fareed Zakaria in his book, The Post-American World. And some of Gerges' ideas seem lifted directly from Lizza's Obama profile. But few have looked at these issues - American decline, shifting of priorities, Obama's equivocation - so expansively in light of the Arab revolutions.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, respected foreign-policy hand and national security adviser under Jimmy Carter, writes of the coming multipolar era and a likely vacuum of international leadership in his new book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power. He warns of a less stable world, with a more aggressive China and a potentially chaotic Middle East. "It is imperative that the United States pursue a new, timely strategic vision for its foreign policy," he recently wrote, "or start bracing itself for a dangerous slide into global turmoil."

As Gerges expected, the new American vision looks eastward. In November, on a visit to Canberra, Obama announced a deployment of 2,500 marines to Australia, fortifying American influence in East Asia with an eye towards China's rise. The US has also been beefing up its forces in Guam, a Pacific island territory. In January, Washington renewed diplomatic ties with strategically important Myanmar and released a strategy statement that said "we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region".

This disengagement from the Middle East should result in less regional resentment about US influence. What's more, with the death of Osama bin Laden and the rise of the Arab voice, the era of the late Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb and jihadist terrorism may be coming to a close. For the most part, Islamists today - from Morocco to Jordan, from Egypt to Tunisia and beyond - seem less inclined to violence and, like the general populace, more appreciative of the pull of pluralism. "It's the first time in 600 years that Arab people have an opportunity to determine their own affairs," says Gerges. "The world is being born before our eyes."

All of which may alter the East-West dynamic that's part of the international landscape at least since 9/11. "There's always been this whole conspiratorial notion about the US being behind the Middle East," says Gerges. "Now we might finally see some healing and normalisation of America's relations with the Muslim world, and the Arab world in particular."

That healing is unlikely to be complete without a resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, countries facing new regimes are sure to have a hard time achieving stability without a degree of external assistance. Gerges hopes to see mini-Marshall Plans for Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, coming from Europe or Turkey, Iran or wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.

One key international player is noticeably absent from this list. "What can the US achieve without the influence, without the resources?" Gerges wonders. "The Arab uprisings have starkly exposed the beginning of the end of America's moment there."

David Lepeska is a freelance writer who contributes to The New York Times, Financial Times and Monocle, and previously served as The National's Qatar correspondent. He lives in Chicago.