Obama’s foreign policy legacy is all over the map

Michael Young reviews what Barack Obama's adminstration did for the Middle East

Barack Obama has created an explosive new regional context that makes America’s allies much more wary of taking risks, even as its adversaries feel emboldened. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo
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President Barack Obama’s support for a United Nations Security Council resolution opposing the construction of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory was typical of his approach to the Middle East. It was another case of the Mr Obama’s publicly supporting a policy that he, otherwise, did little to advance during his years in office.

In 2010, Mr Obama supported an Israeli settlement freeze as a way of allowing negotiations to take place. However, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to extend the freeze unless the Palestinians recognised Israel as a Jewish state.

Talks were renewed in 2013 and 2014, though the main protagonist on the United States side was secretary of state John Kerry, with Mr Obama playing much less of a direct role. In fact, relations between the president and Mr Netanyahu greatly deteriorated after that, due to Israel’s opposing Washington’s efforts to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran. As disagreements over Iran drove US-Israeli tensions, the Palestinian issue fell by the wayside. That is why the UN resolution adopted last week seemed too little too late.

Though Israel’s building of settlements merits full condemnation, Mr Obama’s approach reflected a wider problem he has had in the region. In his efforts to disengage from the Middle East, the president has pursued policies leading to far more volatility than he would have liked.

The centrepiece of the American approach has been the nuclear deal with Iran and relative realignment away from Washington’s allies in the region. Though Mr Obama denied the latter intention, in a much-publicised interview with Jeffrey Goldberg the president made it clear that he had a very different vision from those of his predecessors.

He told Goldberg: “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.”

In other words, after decades during which the United States focused on containing Iranian ambitions in the Middle East, Mr Obama was now effectively recognising them, against the interests of his own allies. This unleashed political and sectarian dynamics that have engulfed the region and only bolstered a terrorist threat that has forced Mr Obama to deploy troops to Iraq and Syria.

It appears that Mr Obama believed that only a regional balance of power could pave the way for US disengagement from the Middle East. As in Europe after 1815, when the Napoleonic wars came to an end, a Saudi-Iranian “sharing of the neighbourhood” would bring with it decades of stability. This would allow the United States to reduce its balancing role in the region, which it had played for over half a century.

Theoretically, this scheme sounded convincing, if only reality hadn’t intervened. By willingly reversing decades of US constancy, all Mr Obama did was create a political vacuum and appear hypocritical. America’s allies felt abandoned, Iran saw that it could gain considerable regional influence without any pushback, and America’s stated goals were shown to be empty as Iran and Russia quickly sensed that Mr Obama was pursuing an agenda that contradicted what he was saying in public.

Syria was the perfect example. Mr Obama was never keen to overthrow Bashar Al Assad’s regime. The most he did was to declare that the Syrian president would eventually step down, without making this inevitable. Washington neutralised the regime’s vulnerable southern front by supporting a closing of the border with Jordan. It never gave the opposition the means to tilt the military balance its way. And for a long time it opposed a Turkish effort to create a security zone inside Syria.

Some have argued that Mr Obama did not want to jeopardise the nuclear negotiations with Iran by challenging Tehran in Syria. Perhaps, but it went beyond that to implicitly accepting that Iran had legitimate stakes in Syria (and, by extension, in Lebanon). This ensured that America’s approach to Syria was surrounded by subterfuge.

The president’s Palestine policy has been equally ambiguous. Preventing the building of settlements is a priority, and Mr Netanyahu does not appear to be committed to peace with the Palestinians.

However, an Israeli government that has watched Mr Obama’s duplicity in Syria will inevitably react by calculating its own concessions to the Palestinians in light of Mr Obama’s vision for a balance of power in the region.

In other words Mr Obama has created an explosive new regional context that makes America’s allies much more wary of taking risks, even as its adversaries feel emboldened. That is why so many allies are awaiting the arrival of Donald Trump, even if everything about him suggests he may be a far more dangerously-revisionist president than Mr Obama.

Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling


Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut. On twitter @BeirutCalling.