We can learn a great deal about President Barack Obama’s approach to the Middle East from the contentious way that he handled the recent debt ceiling dispute with the U.S. Congress.
Earlier this year the administration warned Congress that the debt ceiling would be breached by August. Some weeks ago Obama entered into negotiations with congressional Republicans over a debt reduction package that would include raising taxes and slashing spending. Republicans rejected a tax increase and broke off talks, leaving Obama in limbo. The president then stood back and watched as Congress tried to devise a solution, reinserting himself into the process when this failed, fearing that a default would harm his re-election prospects. Ultimately, he brokered a deal that conceded quite a bit to the Republicans, angering many among his Democratic base.
Transpose those lessons to Obama’s actions today on a variety of Middle Eastern issues, and a pattern emerges. What we have is a president with undeniable intelligence, but without particularly strong convictions, whose preference for standing away from the fray often allows his political rivals to outmaneuver him, and who will raise expectations then come up short in carrying through on them. Obama is an opportunist ill adept at creating opportunities.
For instance, the president made many promises on the Palestinian-Israeli track during his election campaign and afterward, but never worked hard to finalize a solution. Maybe one was impossible, but it is remarkable how little Obama immersed himself personally in an undertaking that he accused his predecessor, President George W. Bush, of ignoring at his own peril. One person who promptly got the president’s measure was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He recently forced Obama onto his hind legs by mobilizing Congress against the president’s conditions for a final settlement between Israelis and Palestinians – conditions that merely reflected United Nations resolutions and the outcome of negotiations past.
Obama has been even worse at developing a broader strategy for the region. Some blame can be placed at the door of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but it is up to the White House to provide strategic guidance. There has been none, only management, usually inconsistent and tardy, of proliferating crises. What are the American priorities in the Middle East? No one knows. If it is containing Iran, then Obama’s accelerated drawdown in Iraq makes little sense; if it is protecting America’s access to oil, then the president has done a terrible job of managing the relationship with Saudi Arabia; if it is fighting terrorism, then why did Obama pursue a nation-building project in Afghanistan, which he then abandoned a year later after Osama bin Laden was assassinated? And if it is realizing Arab-Israeli peace, Obama has done far less than Bush, who could have done far more.
There is disarray in Washington on the Middle East because the president has repeatedly shown that, deep down, he just doesn’t want the region to draw his energies away from addressing America’s domestic priorities. That may be defensible in a narrow, parochial way, but it also has been catastrophic at a moment of far-reaching transformations in the Arab world and beyond.
Bush was often accused of being insular. By way of contrast, many have pointed to the current president’s cosmopolitan upbringing. When the Nobel Committee awarded Obama the peace prize in 2009, it was, partly, a sigh of relief that “someone like us” was back in the White House. In retrospect, Bush was the truer globalist, with a better grasp of the intricate relationship between American power and international commitment. There was much to criticize in Bush, but he never allowed a lack of ambition to dictate his agenda. Obama, in turn, has become a hostage to America’s financial constraints by failing to devise an integrated foreign policy plan to ensure that the country’s limited resources could be used to maximal advantage overseas.
The most troubling aspect of Obama’s performance has been his frigidness, exacerbated by indecision, when it comes to human freedom – the major issue of the day, and of the post-Cold War world. For a man supposed to embody the triumph of an African-American community long denied its freedom at home, Obama has been unusually reluctant to employ American power – military, ideological, and diplomatic – to assist those abroad denied their freedom. Whether it was his response to the demonstrations in Iran against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen Syria, or even Libya, where the U.S. is involved in the NATO campaign, the president has been evasive and hypocritical, incapable of transcending his innate analytical detachment to seize the high emotions of the moment and shape them to his benefit.
Morally, Obama’s behavior in the Middle East is objectionable; diplomatically, the president has been without inspiration, a leader who has prompted few genuinely profitable foreign policy openings. His three major speeches on the region – those in Ankara and Cairo, and his more recent effort at the State Department, in which he vowed that the United States would “promote reform across the region, and … support transitions to democracy” – have become embarrassing reminders of how little the president has achieved. Even Obama’s urge to engage in a dialogue with the Muslim world was vacant, the whim of a college professor, a meaningless exercise in self-flagellation – for who but the U.S. alone, the president plainly implied, was responsible for the misunderstanding with the Muslim world?
For a long time, the benchmark of foreign policy mediocrity was President Jimmy Carter’s administration. But Carter did manage some significant achievements, such as the Camp David treaty, the Panama Canal treaties, and SALT II. Three years into Barack Obama’s term, what legacy has he left, especially in the Middle East? He’s missed every major regional turning point, disappointing even ardent partisans. Obama may win re-election next year, but his is hardly a memorable presidency. It’s just that no one wants to admit it yet.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster). He tweets @BeirutCalling.