By Stanly Johny*
Seven an a half years ago, while addressing a crowd of 3,000 people in the general hall of the Cairo University, President Barack Obama offered a ‘new beginning” to the Islamic world, sought to overcome “years of mistrust” and threw his weight behind the Israel-Palestine peace process. Though he didn’t lay out any policy paradigm, hopes were high that the new President would correct the mistakes of his predecessors and open a new chapter in America’s relations with West Asia and North Africa, a region of historic significance in U.S. foreign policy. Now, with only months left for Mr. Obama to leave the White House, it’s time to look into his legacy in the region. Has he radically altered the U.S. foreign policy? Those who believe he did, including both his critics and defenders, have several reasons to list out. Mr. Obama made peace with Iran, a country whose leaders still call America “the Great Satan”; his administration went beyond the traditional equations of America’s alliance in the region by being critical of Israel and ignoring Saudi Arabia’s concerns over the Iran deal; he drew down troops from Iraq as he had promised during the campaign; and refused to attack the Syrian regime despite enormous pressure both from his domestic critics and regional allies. This has given rise to both bricks and roses. Some call Mr. Obama an ideological liberal committed to peace, while others say the U.S. retreated from West Asia under his watch.
Compared to the administration of George W. Bush, Mr. Obama’s approach was certainly different. Mr. Bush was a more aggressive (and less strategic) player who did not have to deal with any major regional challenges other than the ones he helped set off. On the other side, Mr. Obama inherited a war in Iraq, a dangerous stalemate in Iran and growing threat of jihadism from several countries in the region. And during the course of his presidency, he came across his greatest challenge—the Arab protests and its aftermath crises. In the larger scheme of foreign policy, the Obama administration also had to deal with a rising, ambitious China and a resurgent, revengeful Russia. So a new policy paradigm was inevitable.
Take the case of Iraq. The war had turned unpopular in America during Mr. Bush’s presidency itself. It was Mr. Bush who signed the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement with Baghdad that set a December 2011 deadline to withdraw “all U.S. forces” from “all Iraqi territory”. Mr. Obama stuck to the plan—he drew down the troops, but retained the leverage over Iraqi politics by other means—because winding down a disastrous, unpopular war in West Asia fit into his foreign policy narrative of regaining the trust of the Islamic world and giving greater attention to other challenges. The U.S. withdrawal from Iraq came under major criticisms only after the Islamic State (IS) took over Iraqi cities in early 2014. Mr. Obama’s critics say the withdrawal was too early that put Iraqi security at risk. But such arguments overlook the fact that Iraq witnessed sectarian civil war and massive bloodshed in 2006-07 at the peak of the American invasion. So the presence of U.S. troops per se doesn’t deter jihadist violence in the country. On the other side, there are several reasons, such as the sectarianism of the Iraqi government and the chaos in Syria that led to the rise of IS.
Dealing with Iran
Regarding Iran, Mr. Obama learnt his lessons from his predecessor’s Iraq adventure. Even Iraq was attacked after a decade of U.S. sanctions that had weakened Saddam Hussein’s power within the country. The Americans had also cultivated strong ties with the Iraqi Kurds and dissent politicians. But Iran, compared to Saddam’s ruptured republic, was a stronger military power and a more cohesive nation. Moreover, America’s Iraq war and the rise of Shias to power in Baghdad had made Iran’s regional presence stronger. Therefore, even as administration officials said all options were on the table in tackling the Iranian nuclear crisis, the only viable option Mr. Obama had was diplomacy. So he employed a carrot-and-stick approach—imposed stringent sanctions while simultaneously offered an olive branch to the Iranian rulers. It worked as the Iranians, already strained by economic pains and fears of a public unrest, responded positively. Here the key criticism is that the deal makes Iran, which is at odds with America’s two greatest allies in the region—Israel and Saudi Arabia—stronger, and by facilitating that Mr. Obama has compromised America’s traditional interests. Though the Saudis warily welcomed the deal, Israeli did not only reject it but its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to the U.S. campaigning against it.
But Mr. Obama did not fundamentally alter America’s traditional alliances in the region with the Iran deal. True, the agreement and the subsequent removal of sanctions make Iran a stronger power. But it has delayed Iran becoming a nuclear country at least by 10 years, leaving Israel the only nuclear-armed state in the region. And to mollify Israel’s concerns, the administration tactically turned a blind eye towards Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians. There were harsh occasional criticisms by administration officials against Israel’s continuing settlement activities in the West Bank and atrocities in Gaza, but in policy, President Obama offered unprecedented diplomatic protection to Israel. Since 1967, this is the first administration that hasn’t let even a single resolution critical of Israel pass the UN Security Council. Even George W. Bush had let six resolutions go through. Besides, Washington recently announced a $38 billion military aid package to Israel for 10 years, the largest of its kind. Mr. Obama did the same with the Saudis. While Riyadh was upset with the U.S.’s Iran approach and angry with the Syria policy, Washington offered Saudi Arabia a $60 billion arms deal at a time when Riyadh was bombing Yemen. Even now, when the Saudis face serious allegations such as war crimes and killing children in Yemen, Washington, which otherwise is vocal on human rights violations, keeps its tactical silence.
A balancing act
This offshore balancing was evident in Mr. Obama’s Syria policy as well. His critics would say his reluctance to interfere in Syria has deepened the country’s crisis. But that argument is ahistorical. Mr. Obama is not a president ideologically opposed to military interventions. He used force in Libya, and is partly responsible for the chaos that country is now going through. Mr. Obama’s dictum is to use force if the risks are minimal. Moammer Qadhafi was not a challenge to the U.S. forces. Nor did he have great regional and global powers. So attacking Libya was a relatively less risky business and therefore, like his predecessor went to Iraq, Mr. Obama went to Libya. But Syria is different. It’s located at the heart of West Asia, an ally of Russia and closer partner of Iran. Any direct attack on Syria will escalate the crisis to dangerous proportions. On the other side, the picture on a post-Assad Syria has never been clear as opponents of Mr. Assad still remains a divided lot and comprises deadly jihadists as well. But this doesn’t mean that Mr. Obama gave up on Syria or agreed to play along America’s rivals in the country. He avoided only a direct confrontation. Instead, the U.S. has been actively present in the Syrian crisis from the very beginning through its proxies. Still, the key reason the U.S. and Russia were negotiating a ceasefire was that sections of the anti-Assad rebels were supported and controlled by the Americans, like the Assad regime is backed by the Russians.
So if one pieces together these bits into a larger picture, it would show Mr. Obama as a President who used direct force when it’s less risky, championed diplomacy when no other options were available, resorted to proxy wars when American interests were at stake and continued to defend the aggressions and human rights violations of U.S. allies in the region. This is hardly idealism. Nor does it reflect any new beginning to the people in the region. America is not retreating from West Asia either. What Mr. Obama has done is to restore the ruthless realism of Cold War politics in America’s West Asia policy, taking the reckless aggressor back to a multifaceted hegemon.
*Stanly Johny, International Affairs Editor, The Hindu, Chennai
This article is a reproduction of the presentation done by the author at the International Conference on US Presidential Election 2016 organised by CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies. Views expressed by the author is personal and does not represent that of Centre for Public Policy Research.