The US could be regretting Obama's vision for the Middle East

Washington's regional allies are pursuing an independent foreign policy that he advocated as president

Then US president Barack Obama with King Salman of Saudi Arabia in Washington in September 2015. Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

In April 2016, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed former US president Barack Obama on his foreign policy legacy for The Atlantic. Mr Obama touched far and wide on global affairs, but it was his remarks on the Middle East that raised eyebrows in the region.

“The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians – which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen – requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood and institute some sort of cold peace,” Mr Obama said. Not only did the former president place an ally and an enemy on the same footing, he implied that it was up to regional states to impose a balance of power so that the Americans could concentrate on other parts of the world.

Mr Obama’s critics saw in his phrase an abandonment of the US’s Arab allies. However, there was also something else involved, namely a traditional, realist political worldview that implicitly accepted that both Iran and Saudi Arabia were entitled to seek power to fulfil their interests, as all states do. To ensure that this impulse would not lead to conflict, Mr Obama suggested, the different parties had to find a modus vivendi among themselves.

In many regards, the region has come around to the vision Mr Obama outlined in his interview. And the Americans are discovering they don’t like it. Two prime examples of this situation, chosen at random, have been Turkey’s attempts to snuff out de facto Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, against US wishes. And more recently, the decision in October of the Opec+ group to cut oil production, which was reaffirmed in December.

America's former allies have found it more advisable to hedge their bets

Turkey, under the dominant Justice and Development Party, began taking a more independent line with regard to Washington almost two decades ago, when it refused to allow US forces to invade Iraq from its territory. Since then, Turkey’s then prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has systematically favoured Turkish national interests, regardless of whether they clashed with American preferences.

Lately, his threat to mount a new military intervention against Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Syria, amid signs that Turkey might normalise relations with the Assad regime, has worried Washington. For the US, the Kurds are the main force preventing a revival of ISIS. Yet, Turkey sees the consolidation of Kurdish autonomy in Syria as an existential threat, which could inspire Turkey’s own Kurds to follow a similar path.

The Saudi decision to push for an oil production cut in October also angered the Americans. At a time of rising inflation, a conflict with Russia over Ukraine, and the onset of congressional elections, the Biden administration wanted to lower global oil prices. However, Saudi Arabia – which must finance development plans of its own to transition away from oil, and which has refused to break with its Opec+ partner Russia – ignored Washington.

While the decision led to an angry backlash in the US, it underlined that the region was changing inexorably. The Pax Americana that had shaped the Middle East since the end of the Cold War was over. With the Americans "pivoting" away from the region, the Saudis had to find other means to enhance their security and diversify their oil buyers. This included maintaining ties with Russia and expanding the relationship with China.

Such steps have not pleased Washington. Yet, to many regional states, the US wants to have its cake and eat it too. The Americans don’t want to protect their allies, but they somehow want these same allies to embrace American foreign policy priorities as their own. Understandably, that’s not an attitude that can go far in today’s Middle East.

Indeed, it has become a norm for major regional states to maintain good relations with all the great powers, rather than choosing sides. This applies as much to Turkey and Saudi Arabia as to the UAE and Egypt, all of which have realised that the US is of two minds on its regional sway. Amid persistent uncertainty and ambiguity about what the Americans really want, former allies have found it more advisable to hedge their bets.

Accepting the consequences of this situation will take time for policymakers in Washington. But it’s also true that the Americans may have surrendered much power for little real gain. If the regional balance is disrupted to Washington’s disadvantage, for instance, the US might opt to intervene militarily again. In other words, wanting to disengage from the region does not necessarily mean the Americans will be liberated from its troubles down the road.

That is why Mr Obama’s abstract vision of the region was so problematic. As president, he viewed the region largely in cold, theoretical terms. That the countries of the Middle East are now taking the implications of his message to heart could mean that his advisers who are in the current administration may regret what their former boss wished for.

Published: January 03, 2023, 2:00 PM