The Obama Legacy: A View from the Middle East

May 2, 2016

It was a few months before the 2008 US Presidential election. I was talking to my American colleague at UNESCO. I said to her that since American presidents’ decisions have global implications, democratic countries should also have the opportunity vote in those elections within a reasonable quota to be shared among them. She responded, “an interesting idea…”. We both laughed. It was a joke but the premise was not entirely without logic.

Now that we are only months away from the end of President Obama’s second term in office, pundits have started to express opinions regarding his legacy. I feel that without voices from the Middle East the portrayal President Obama’s legacy would be incomplete.

To start with, one needs to remember what the broad Middle East looked like when he took office. The war in Afghanistan wasn’t leading anywhere. But the invasion of Iraq undertaken on distorted evidence and carried out in total disregard of Iraq’s realities had been a failure with regional implications. It wasn’t “mission accomplished”. Furthermore, it had caused great damage to Washington’s claim to world’s moral leadership. Americans may have forgotten about Abu Ghraib but Iraqis haven’t.

West’s only hope for democratizing Middle East was Turkey’s moderately Islamic government which had engaged in political reform and had even launched accession negotiations with the EU. Thus, President Obama arrived in Turkey after attending a G20 summit in London, a NATO summit in Strasbourg and an EU summit in Prague. In other words, this was his first bilateral visit abroad.

The following paragraph from the speech he delivered before the Turkish Grand National Assembly on April 6, 2009 reflected the purpose of the visit:
“This morning I had the great privilege of visiting the tomb of your extraordinary founder of your republic. And I was deeply impressed by this beautiful memorial to a man who did so much to shape the course of history. But it is also clear that the greatest monument to Ataturk’s life is not something that can be cast in stone and marble. His greatest legacy is Turkey’s strong, vibrant, secular democracy, and that is the work this assembly carries on today…”

The message was clear: Turkey, with its secular democracy, has set an example for the Islamic world. Turkey should continue this path and others should follow.

Two months after his visit to Ankara, President Obama addressed the Islamic world from Cairo. He said: “The United States is not and will never be, at war with Islam… I have come to seek here a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world… I do so recognizing that change cannot happen overnight… There must be a sustained effort… I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible… America’s strong bonds with Israel are well known… the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland… the only solution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security…”

Then came the Arab Spring. Widespread discontent among the peoples of the region was known. Nonetheless, the pace of developments was a surprise for most. On 14 January 2011, following a month of protests against his rule, Tunisian President Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia. Revelations about his close relations caused embarrassment to some European politicians. When protests started to threaten Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Washington vacillated but eventually gave protestors cautious support. There was no other option. On February 11, 2011 Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

Expecting other dominoes to fall, President Sarkozy and PM Cameron then led the military intervention in Libya which the US joined, again after some hesitation. Country’s dictator Qaddafi whom European leaders had not failed on occasion to pamper went to his tragic end. President Obama eventually admitted that without adequate preparation for the “day after”, the intervention became a failure. Nobody else has shown the courage to say that.

With three leaders gone, some of America’s NATO and Middle East allies and partners started calling for a US military intervention to oust President Assad but President Obama resisted them.

Domestic critics of his last-minute decision not to bomb Syria have focused on the question of “credibility”, particularly the sort of credibility purchased with force.

His Middle East critics were unhappy because they believed that a military intervention, no matter its scope, would accelerate Assad’s fall. The prospect of another front with Russia was the least of their concerns. All they wanted was and remains Assad’s ouster. But that was as far as their interests overlapped. The moment Assad was gone, they would have engaged, in all likelihood, in another round of struggle, this time to determine his successor. And if they were unhappy with post-Assad developments they would not have hesitated to blame “foreign powers from outside the region” for meddling. Washington is already confronted with a web of conflicting Middle East interests for which its allies are as much to blame as Russia and Iran. “Boots on the ground” would have made the challenge even more complicated, frustrating and costly.

The “redline” President Obama chose not to enforce, despite a huge setback in US-Russia relations over Ukraine, created a window of opportunity for “focused cooperation” with Moscow and led to the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons. Under the circumstances that was a substantial achievement.

Some members of the “Sunni bloc” have been as critical of the Iran nuclear deal as Israel. Yet, none of the deal’s critics, including those in the US, have been able to put forward a viable alternative. Some of those critics may have entertained dreams of bombing Iran into submission. Had this been the case, those dreams would have turned into a nightmare of violence and war to last for decades and decades. One only needs to remember the scar PM Mohammed Mosaddeq’s overthrow has left on the Iranian psyche. The nuclear deal has been a remarkable achievement in Iran’s relations with the West. Moreover, it represents a multilateral effort which enjoys international legitimacy.

President Obama’s determination to refrain from another military intervention in the Middle East, his emphasis on multilateralism, diplomacy and international legitimacy constitute a principled stand and will be appreciated more and more by the peoples of the region in the years to come. Besides, interventionists tend to ignore the fact that Afghanistan and Iraq still remain decades away from stability. The President promised to withdraw forces from Afghanistan but the Taliban does not allow that. The beginnings of ISIL’s rise go back to the invasion Iraq. ISIL was able to emerge as force, but despite years of investment and training the Iraqi armed forces were only able to flee before its assault.

All of this unmistakably shows that while external military interventions can bring about regime change, their capacity for nation-building is strictly limited, let alone promoting democracy. This is just as true for supporting regimes which have lost popular support. Democratic change requires higher levels of enlightened education and energy from within. Sadly, the Middle East is yet to produce such energy and leaders who can channel it towards something positive. In the absence of both, the current turmoil will last for decades. Partitioning of Iraq and Syria is often mentioned as a possibility because of the regional inability to put the good the nation above sectarian, regional and personal interests. One may now add to that the barely camouflaged desires of some for territorial expansion. If that turns out to be the case, because of a history of interventions in the Middle East since the First World War, regional leaders will conveniently be absolved of all responsibility because the West, and only the West would be held accountable.

European countries have for some time been worried about what they call the “threat of radical Islam”. President Obama has taken a different approach. The interview he gave the Atlantic magazine reflects the essence of his outlook for and his frustration with Middle East. When Jeffrey Goldberg asked him what he had hoped to accomplish with his Cairo reset speech, he said that he had been trying—unsuccessfully, he acknowledged—to persuade Muslims to more closely examine the roots of their unhappiness. “My argument was this: Let’s all stop pretending that the cause of the Middle East’s problems is Israel,” he told Mr. Goldberg. “We want to work to help achieve statehood and dignity for the Palestinians, but I was hoping that my speech could trigger a discussion, could create space for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting—problems of governance, and the fact that some currents of Islam have not gone through a reformation that would help people adapt their religious doctrines to modernity. My thought was, I would communicate that the U.S. is not standing in the way of this progress, that we would help, in whatever way possible, to advance the goals of a practical, successful Arab agenda that provided a better life for ordinary people.”

President Obama also told Jeffrey Goldberg that he had demanded that Muslim leaders do more to eliminate the threat of violent fundamentalism. “It is very clear what I mean,” he said, “which is that there is a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction—a tiny faction—within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated… There is also the need for Islam as a whole to challenge that interpretation of Islam, to isolate it, and to undergo a vigorous discussion within their community about how Islam works as part of a peaceful, modern society.”

This is the right approach. In the absence of regional partners with progressive agendas it may be of little or no consequence for now, but it is a good US investment in the future. And, if European countries are unhappy with current Middle East developments and the influx of refugees, they would need to find new methods of engaging the region beyond conventional political, military or politico/military interventions reflecting their selfish interests. President Obama has made a genuine effort. The ideas he has put forward constitute a platform for Western countries to act upon for a more substantial dialogue among cultures.

President Obama says that the combat against ISIL is making progress and the terrorist organization is losing ground. I do hope so. But the price for this long-drawn-out struggle has been costly. ISIL’s gaining an aura of invincibility has expanded its reach and drawn more people to its ranks. In Turkey we have seen ISIL undertake acts of terror and we worry about reports on its sleeper cells. There, more could have been done. But again, I admit that ISIL is essentially the problem of Islamic countries.

In brief, if the Middle East is no better today than it was when he was elected to the White house in 2008, but this is not President Obama’s fault. This is the destiny of the broad Middle East with its polarized masses and bygone leaders. The contrast the President drew between the lethargy which characterizes the Middle East and the dynamism Southeast Asia is the sad truth. Unfortunately for the peoples of the Middle East, leaders like Ataturk are the exception.

As for Turkey, I am really sorry that we have been a great disappointment for President Obama, maybe his biggest in the Middle East. He probably gave us more credit than any of his predecessors in the White House; he praised our secular democracy as Ataturk’s legacy; perhaps, he even saw in us a nation to promote respect for human rights, freedom of expression and good governance in the region. All of this made me proud. Today, however, I feel disappointed and angry because of the ungrateful campaign waged to destroy that very legacy. Only recently, the current Speaker of the Parliament he addressed in 2009 said that secularism should be eliminated in the new constitution. This, however, like many others, is our problem and only for us to solve.

At the end of the day, as a Middle Easterner, I would not have hesitated to vote President Obama for a third term into office had it not been for the 22nd Amendment.

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