The Obama administration and its mixed-up strategies

Mr Obama has projected an image of someone in total control of his foreign policy agenda, even as he rarely seems to immerse himself beyond the generalities, says Michael Young

In his book Figures de Proue, written in 1949, the French historian René Grousset drew portraits of great historical figures. One of his principal themes was how several of these individuals went against what seemed to be their historical destiny and the momentum of their times.

For instance, Frederick II Hohenstaufen, the Holy Roman emperor, opted not to pursue a German-centric policy in the northern part of his empire, preferring to indulge in the southern part, Sicily, with its opening on Arab North Africa and the Levant. Both culturally and politically, the emperor was always drawn more towards the Mediterranean than to northern Europe.

Though historical posterity may not be for Barack Obama, the president repeatedly misjudged the possibilities of his time. When Mr Obama came to office, the prevailing view in his administration was that the United States had wasted enough effort on a Middle Eastern region that generated only violence, authoritarianism and underdevelopment.

The so-called “pivot to Asia” was a reaction to this. It was as much a political and psychological pivot away from six years of military involvement in the broader Middle East, including Afghanistan, as it was a pivot towards a region that seemed to represent the future, economic growth, and progress.

In other words, the Obama administration saw its disengagement from the Middle East as an effort to go with the times and break free from a foreign policy albatross that had endured more out of habit than anything else. But that assessment proved rigid, especially as the Asia pivot came after the outbreak of the uprisings in the Middle East in early 2011.

At the very moment when the Middle East seemed on the cusp of change, the United States failed to see the potential advantages in the new situation. Rather than grasp that the Arab upheavals could benefit American long-term interests if properly managed, the Obama administration addressed them with a combination of improvisation and disregard.

Above all, the administration displayed a remarkably short attention span, failing to adequately complete what it had begun. This was particularly true in Libya and Egypt.

In Egypt, the administration initially showed considerable boldness in pushing its old ally Hosni Mubarak out of office in January 2011, when it realised that his regime was no longer tenable.However, in the aftermath of Mr Mubarak’s removal Washington seemed to distance itself from Egyptian affairs, playing a limited role in stabilising the country. Egyptian-American relations deteriorated after the authorities in Cairo arrested members of foreign, including American, NGOs, and after the American embassy was stormed by protesters.

In Libya, the Obama administration intervened militarily with European states, to overthrow the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

Yet again there was much ambiguity, with the administration agreeing to participate only because the Europeans were in the lead, and to prevent a massacre of civilians in Benghazi by the Libyan regime.

Once the war ended, the United States swiftly withdrew and did not do much to shape the aftermath in Libya. As in Egypt there was little follow-through in American policy, facilitating the country's subsequent descent into chaos.

A similar situation happened in Iraq, where Mr Obama pulled his troops out early, failing to consolidate the political stability that thousands of American soldiers had died to restore. For instance, when administration officials were told by Nouri Al Maliki that a senior Sunni politician would be arrested, the administration did nothing to prevent a reckless move bound to exacerbate sectarian tensions.

In Syria, the situation has been even more disheartening. Given an opportunity to be rid of Bashar Al Assad and contain Iran and Hizbollah, Mr Obama instead declared he would not get involved in someone else’s civil war. This negligence has created a vacuum that was, predictably, exploited by jihadists, so that FBI director James Comey is now openly saying that extremists fighting in Syria may pose a threat to the United States.

The Obama administration’s behaviour in the Middle East has been paradoxical. Rather than simply refusing to get involved, it has acted haphazardly, getting involved here, refusing to do so there. There has been no sense since 2011 that the United States has systematically thought through regional developments, or that it has considered ways of strengthening itself and its allies.

Regional politics are, understandably, a slippery proposition. In defending a democratically elected president in Egypt in 2013, the Americans angered the Egyptian armed forces and a large number of Egyptians opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. But Mr Obama claims to be a realist. He could have adapted to Mohammed Morsi’s removal, as he did to Viktor Yanukovich’s downfall in Ukraine, to better defend American stakes.

In Syria, the Obama administration is under the illusion that Mr Al Assad can be brought to the negotiating table. It still does not view the conflict there as a struggle over the future of the Middle East. Yet that is precisely what Iran and even Russia have known since the beginning, and why they have invested so heavily in saving the Syrian regime.

Mr Obama has projected an image of someone in total control of his foreign policy agenda, even as he rarely seems to immerse himself beyond the generalities. Nowhere has this been truer than in a Middle East undergoing radical transformation. America needed a leader with the imagination to exploit this situation. Instead it has one who takes pride in refusing to do so.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.

On Twitter @BeirutCalling