The Middle East occupied a large part of President Obama’s remarkable interview and rightly so. Middle Eastern issues loomed large on Barack Obama’s foreign policy agenda, and his foreign policy legacy will be to a large extent determined by his successes and failures in that part of the world.
Early in his term and as a candidate prior to that, Obama laid out an ambitious vision for America in the Middle East: put an end to the military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, put an end to America’s real and perceived conflict with the Muslim and Arab worlds, help negotiate an Israeli Palestinian conflict, promote democracy in the Arab world through persuasion, find a political diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, and, more broadly, come to terms with Iran.
Ten months before the end of his tenure, Obama’s record in the Middle East seems mixed. America’s involvement in the Afghan and Iraqi wars is over, but particularly in Iraq the United States left behind a broken country. The nuclear deal with Iran seems preferable to the alternative of an Israeli military attack, but the larger issues of Iranian subversion and disruption in the region are certainly not resolved. An Israeli Palestinian deal has not been made, and Washington’s position in the Middle East is diminished. This has to some extent happened by choice (the pivot), and to some extent due to the decline in the importance of the region’s oil, but it has mostly been the outcome of the Arab Spring and its sequels: the deterioration of Washington’s relationship with the conservative Sunni states and the failure of its policy in the Syrian crisis.
When President Obama went to Cairo early in his first term to portray the vision of a new democratic Middle East, neither he nor anyone else foresaw the shock waves that would emanate from Tunisia in 2010. Obama and his Administration were supportive of the Arab Spring (“the right side of history”) and impatient with autocrats like Mubarak who refused to go or the Saudi royal house, which fought back. The Administration’s relations with the conservative Arabs were poisoned, and then poisoned further, by the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear deal. Obama was seen as indecisive (the “red line crisis” in Syria), and as a U.S. President who was mild towards Iran, failed to obtain a better deal with the cards he held, and willing to ignore Iran’s continued misbehavior in the region. To boot, Russia’s military intervention in Syria in October 2015 and its surprising partial ceasefire in March 2016 clearly portrayed Putin as master of the scene.
President Obama dealt with the controversial aspects of his Middle Eastern policy in the interview. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, held by Obama as the chief (though not only) obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian deal, was curtly dismissed by the President. The Saudis were criticized and told to go get along with their Iranian rivals. The longest portion of Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece dealt with the Syrian issue. That section is fascinating but not persuasive. One can understand the reluctance to be bogged down in another hopeless Middle Eastern morass, but between that and the policy actually pursued there was and there is a broad spectrum of options.
Of the different reactions in the region to the interview, one merits special mention. The Saudi Prince Turki al Faisal, former Ambassador to both the United States and the United Kingdom, defended his country’s record in the region and in its relations with Washington. “You accuse us of fomenting sectarian strife in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq…. You add insult to injury by telling us to share our world with Iran, a country that you describe as a supporter of terrorism.”
We are now told that President Obama is seriously considering a radical step in the Israeli Palestinian arena that will define his legacy in this dimension of the region’s policy. Time will tell.