‘Walking us on a Rickety Bridge’: assessing President Obama’s legacy in the Muslim world.

At the 2010 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, President Barack Obama engaged in a classic piece of repartee with his audience. The President announced that ‘the Jonas Brothers are here. They’re out there somewhere’, and went on to notify the band that his daughters ‘Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but boys, don’t get any ideas. I have two words for you: ‘Predator drones’. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking?’ Between his rosy 2009 Cairo Speech, his enthusiasm for drones, and his professed love for the TV series Homeland, Obama espoused a confusing set of instincts in relations between the US and the Muslim world. In this essay, I will present a brief analysis of Obama’s foreign policy legacy – focussing in particular on the politics of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. Considering Obama’s initial promises, his policy in Iraq and Syria, and his continued prosecution of President Bush’s ignominious War on Terror, I argue that history will come to see the period of his presidency as one of continuity rather than transformation. However, I go on to suggest that many of the shortcomings in Obama’s policy in the Muslim world were outside of the President’s own control – being rather a product of both the entrenched institutionalisation of past foreign policy, combined with Washington’s declining power to influence regional events.

Obama entered the White House in 2009 with a forceful promise to radicalise relations between the US and the Muslim world. Obama’s initial urge was towards reconciliation, as per his inaugural address of 21st January: in which he instructed his audience to ‘recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please’. Such rhetoric marked a notable shift from that deployed by George Bush – such as in his 2002 State of the Union proclaiming the existence of ‘an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of world… I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as perils draw closer and closer… Our War on Terror is well begun, but it is only begun’. Obama’s bid to reconstruct the US’ relationship with the Muslim world extended to his very first interview as President – which was offered to pan-Arab news channel Al Arabiya. Hisham Melhem, the journalist who gave their interview recalled that it ‘seemed to symbolise Obama’s good intentions to improve America’s relations with the Islamic world’. During their conversation, Obama emphasised his desire to resolve the Palestinian question; and announced the deployment of Senator George Mitchell (much-accredited for his role in brokering the 1998 Good Friday Agreement) as the United States’ ‘Special Envoy for Middle East Peace’. This honeymoon period reached its climax with Obama’s landmark Cairo speech in June 2009. Obama’s message on that occasion was clear: Islam was not America’s enemy. In fact, the West and the Muslim world shared a common set of values: ‘I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings’. Once more, this was a far cry from the crusading, evangelical tone offered by President Bush in 2002: ‘we’ve come to know truths that we will never question: evil is real, and it must be opposed… And many have discovered again that even in tragedy – especially in tragedy – God is near’.

As such a divergence portends, Obama imagined himself as something of an anti-Bush. He was, in his own reckoning, the antidote to eight years of misgovernment at home and abroad. With regards to foreign policy, this vision was about as close as the Obama administration got to an overarching doctrine, encapsulated in Obama’s own mantra: ‘don’t do stupid stuff’. This reality emerged most prominently in President Obama’s reluctance to deploy troops on Muslim soil. With regards to the decision not to take a proactive role in Syria, Fawaz Gerges reflects that ‘of all the explanations offered… the most persuasive [were] the lessons that he learned from Iraq. The United States should not entangle itself militarily in distant lands, especially in the Middle East, unless its strategic interests are at stake, and unless there is a relative consensus in the international arena’. Many critics have characterised Obama’s reticence about deploying troops, or even financial assistance, in Syria as the moment that he handed the initiative to nefarious rivals like Putin, Iran, or ISIS. Regardless, Obama’s conviction to do something by doing nothing may well pass favourably in the eyes of future historians. Not least, because of uncertainties with regards to which side America should fight on. In 2012 Obama rebuffed a plan developed by CIA Director David Petraeus (and supported by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, the Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, and the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton) to arm and train the Syrian opposition, because of his fear that ‘we have seen extremist elements [al-Qaeda/Jabhat al-Nusra] insinuate themselves into the opposition, and you know, one of things that we have to be on guard about – particularly when we start talking about arming opposition figures – is that we are not indirectly putting arms in the hands of folks that would do Americans harm’. Certainly, the figure of 70,000 moderates offered by John McCain was bogus. Moreover, the US could not afford another misstep on the scale of its decision to finance the 1979 Afghan jihad – through which it ‘participated in creating a monster’, according to Algerian sociologist Mahfoud Bennoune. Whilst it is indeed tragic that the war in Syria continues to rage, it is nonetheless fair to suggest that deep military commitments on the part of the Americans would only have poured further fuel on the fire.

Self-evidently, Obama ought to be considered immune to criticisms of Bush-style belligerence. That lesson was well and truly learned. Indeed, if anything, the criticism to be levelled at the Obama administration is that it learned the lessons of the past a little too eagerly. It is often said of 1930s British appeasement that its disciples were guilty of taking the horrors of WWI on board over-earnestly. To an extent, the same can be said of Obama’s response to the Iraq War. Obama was fundamentally opposed to Bush’s exercise in ‘sowing the seeds of Jeffersonian democracy’ – an enterprise as costly as it was quixotic. As such, he sought to demobilise US troops in Iraq as a matter of urgency. By December 2011, Obama had successfully withdrawn all uniformed American soldiers from Iraqi soil – despite their numbering over 110,000 when he assumed office. The initiative was commendable, except for its failure to leave Iraq with stable governing structures upon the troops’ departure. It is widely held that the speed of the American retreat from Iraq, combined with the rabid anti-Sunni sectarianism of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, paved the way for groups like ISIS to infiltrate the fragile body politic. As early as 2005, al-Qaeda’s leadership had targeted the moment of US troops’ withdrawal as an opportunity to establish a presence in Sunni Arab areas. Hence, Ayman al-Zawahiri had written to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, calling on him to ‘establish an Islamic authority, then develop it until it achieves the level of caliphate – over as much territory as you can spread its power in Sunni Arab areas, in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans’. Whilst Obama was right to perceive that American military deployment on Arab soil was unconstructive, therefore, he was nonetheless mistaken in his belief that the earlier that deployment was terminated the better. Having completely destroyed Iraqi political institutions, the US government had a responsibility to engage in the rebuilding process. Obama’s failure to do so, fixed as he was on a short-termist response to the blunders of his predecessor, may well go down as his most damaging shortcoming.

Obama also appeared to have learned the lessons of the past in his commitment to closing detention facilities at Guantánamo Bay. So forceful was Obama’s conviction in this respect, in fact, that his first executive action as President was to issue Order 13492 requiring the facility’s closure. Nearly two years later, however, Amnesty International reported that 171 men were still being held at the base – with several of these having been convicted by presidential order. Since January 2015, when the inmate population stood at 122, the administration has made some headway in transferring prisoners to other sites. But at the time of writing there remain 80 inmates at Guantánamo, with the cost of the facilities now running at $445 million per annum. In all likelihood, Guantánamo Bay will remain open to Obama’s successor – eight years after the President promised its closure. In that time, there have been ongoing accusations of human rights violations at the prison – most damningly, the US government’s 2013 decision to force-feed inmates throughout Ramadan. Moreover, whilst Obama has publicly denounced torture as a ‘barbaric practice’, it is becoming increasingly evident that the administration continued the tradition of renditioning suspects to secret locations for interrogation. According to Middle East Monitor, ‘top intelligence officials – including John Brennan, Obama’s senior advisor on counterterrorism at the time [of Osama bin Laden’s killing] and then head of the CIA Leon Panetta – said that waterboarding and other torture methods were utilised in the bid to discover bin Laden’s whereabouts’. Clearly, then, some of the excesses of Bush’s War on Terror have permeated into the Obama presidency. Indeed, as argued by Maryam Khalid in 2014, ‘although the Obama administration publicly rested the term ‘War on Terror’, the basic logics of ‘War on Terror’ discourse are identifiable in this administration’s policies towards Afghanistan, Pakistan, drone attacks, Guantánamo Bay and torture’.

Most curious in this respect has been Obama’s use of drone technology in prosecuting ‘enemies’ of the American state. As indicated in my introduction, the Obama administration not only acquiesced to the proliferation of warfare by drone strikes – it actively pursued it. Indeed, as characterised by Akbar Ahmed, under Obama’s watch ‘the drone became a symbol of America’s War on Terror’. During the period of Obama’s presidency, fifteen times as many drone operations were cleared for strikes as under George Bush. By 2012, America had commissioned 20,000 drones, about half of which were in constant use: raining down bombs on towns and villages from Somalia to Waziristan. Contrary to popular opinion, drone strikes were neither discriminate nor clinical in hitting targets. Between Obama’s inauguration and February 2015, as many as 2,464 people were killed by US drone strikes outside officially declared war zones. As a result, the Obama administration is responsible for more than double the number of civilian deaths by extra-judicial murder – hardly a ringing endorsement for a president who promised so radical a turn away from the mouldy old ways of the Bush era. In one attack in December 2011, labelled the Uludere massacre, US Predator drones killed thirty-four Kurdish civilians, many of whom children under the age of twelve. In September of the same year, a strike against Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen earned the latter the ignoble title of becoming the first American citizen to be killed by his own government, without criminal charges or a trial. Two weeks later, a second strike killed al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son – who was not suspected of terrorist activity. As put by Amnesty International, ‘these killings appeared to have amounted to extrajudicial executions’.

On a moral level, then, the Obama administration has much to answer for in its use of drone attacks. So, too, on a strategic level. Obama’s presidency saw the aggressive expansion of the War on Terror into Muslim tribal societies. Hence, in March 2009, Obama outlined a policy focussing on action in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s tribal areas – which he declared ‘the most dangerous place in the world’. As described by Ahmed, ‘These communities – some of the most impoverished and isolated in the world, with identities that are centuries old – had become the targets of the twenty-first century’s most advanced kill technology [that is, drone technology]… In the newly minted war on terror, all Muslim tribal societies were now viewed as either infested with terrorists or offering a potential safe haven for them’. The Obama administration’s systematic assault on tribal Islam created as much insecurity as it resolved: causing peripheral societies to mutate, and allowing for the proliferation of further violence. Again, Ahmed describes the explosion of ‘bloody and frenzied suicide bombings by young Muslim males and females of schools, bazaars, mosques, and symbols of central authority. Such incidents occur at random almost daily across regions in which tribal communities live’. For example, on 19th August 2011 – when a suicide bomber in the Khyber Agency attacked a mosque during Friday prayers, in the month of Ramadan. The bomber killed 56 people, and wounded over 120. Such attacks are symptoms of a society under extreme stress – the murder of Muslims by other Muslims in a sacred space during a sacred month is a powerful violation of tribal and Islamic norms. The source of the stress is the War on Terror that creates the very chaos it seeks to preclude in areas like Waziristan, or southern Somalia.

Beyond these points, the growth of drone technology in the past seven years is evidence of a disturbing new culture of warfare. Not unlike immensely popular gaming platforms that simulate death and violence on a mass scale, the drone exemplifies the ‘game-ification’ of brutality. One US drone operator based in New Mexico described the adrenaline rush derived from attacks. Besides targeted assaults, he retold the perversity of reconnaissance processes whereby ‘we watch people for months… We see them playing with their dogs or doing their laundry. We know their patterns like we know our neighbours’ patterns. We even go to their funerals’. Another operator claimed to have watched couples having sex through infrared cameras – a feature which, as noted by Akbar Ahmed, ‘has to be read keeping in mind the importance Muslim tribal peoples give to notions of modesty and privacy’. Finally, drone warfare has given rise to new and disquieting military jargon. Successful operations are labelled ‘bug splats’ – likening victims to insects in the eye of an almighty beholder. Such language is not new to the Western experience – where ‘others’ have historically been dehumanised as part of a process in defence of the Self. Needless to say, that process never ends pleasantly. As such, its re-emergence under Obama’s watch ought to be viewed as a cause for concern.

So far, I have presented a fairly damning indictment of Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Whilst acknowledging that Obama had clearly learned the lessons of the Bush era, I have nonetheless pointed to the continuities of Obama’s policy behaviour, within the debilitating paradigm of the War on Terror. An examination of Obama’s activity on the Palestinian question further demonstrates the continuity of his approach. At first, Obama claimed to offer new perspectives for the Israeli-Palestinian logjam. Once more, one of his first actions upon becoming President was to call Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and pledge his commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state. The commitment was reiterated in Obama’s Cairo speech. But by the time of Abbas’ petition for the recognition of Palestinian statehood at the 2011 UN General Assembly, Obama had reverted to the dominant ‘Israel first’ mindset: ‘America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable. Our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day’. Fawaz Gerges has rightly questioned ‘why the dramatic shift in Obama’s position?’ How could this major campaign pledge be dropped so lightly? The answer, as put by former National Security Advisor and Cold War strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, is that ‘domestic politics interceded’. In his criticisms of Israeli policy, Obama found himself at loggerheads with the Israel lobby in Congress – particularly after the 2010 midterms, which saw the biggest losses by a presidential party since the Great Depression. Facing a Republican majority in Congress, Obama’s power to effect change in the Middle East was severely curtailed. For, as put by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, ‘we in Congress stand by Israel. In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel’. Obama’s failure to make headway in resolving the Palestinian crisis, or even to halt the spread of West Bank settlements, testifies to the existence of a structural bias in the US policy establishment. Gerges concludes fairly that, ‘more than in any other region in the world, presidential policy in the Middle East is hampered by institutional bureaucratic and domestic politics… US politicians, including Obama, are trapped in a political culture that promotes conformity and groupthink about Israel and strongly discourages dissenting voices’.

The main point to take away from the failure of Obama’s behaviour with respects to Israel, in fact, is the insight that the real forces driving America’s Middle East policy are institutional. There exists, in truth, a systemic flaw in the American foreign policy establishment. It is a flaw that drives the ongoing process of militarisation underpinning the War on Terror; stalls constructive behaviour like the closure of detention facilities; and ties America’s hands in dealings with Israelis and Palestinians.

This systemic obstacle has led to the weakening of American power abroad. A Pew Research Centre poll of June 2015 found America’s credibility to be at an all-time low – as a result of the various deficiencies listed above. 8 out of 10 Palestinians and Jordanians reported having ‘no confidence in America to do the right thing in world affairs’. Meanwhile, 64% of Lebanese asserted having no confidence in Obama’s leadership. Popular distrust of American foreign policy reflects the US’ waning influence in the Muslim world. Within the region, America’s unipolar moment is long gone. As Gerges argues ‘the genie is out of the bottle. Increasing evidence shows that key regional powers, driven by awakened public opinion and civil society, no longer show deference to the Great Powers, particularly the United States’. Governments from Istanbul (with respect to its Kurdish population) to Tehran (with respect to Iraqi Shi’is) increasingly pursue their own autonomous interests and assert policies that clash with American interests. Benjamin Netanyahu is a case in point: having publicly defied Obama multiple times on the question of settlements, and having loudly dissented from American policy over the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Even more disconcerting is the increasing frigidity in US-Saudi relations. The Saudis have pursued a systematic policy of over-production of crude oil since 2010 in a bid to undermine the American natural gas industry, bringing crude oil prices to a record low of $33/barrel in January 2016. The Saudis have also defied America by escalating interventions in the Yemeni Civil War after 2015 – which has become, in essence, a proxy war between regional powers over which the US exercises no influence. Insofar as these two ventures heighten the risks of instability (as lower Saudi oil revenues create a dangerous current account deficit, and as regional strife continues ad infinitum), they remain a cause for concern. But one about which America can do very little. Thus, when Hisham Melhem lamented that ‘Obama will bequeath to his successor disintegrating political orders and smouldering societies stretching from North Africa to Yemen’, he spoke with a fair degree of accuracy. But we might begin to question the extent to which that is down to Obama. With his hands tied by Washington’s institutional defects described above, Obama was left with minimal agency to reverse America’s steady decline as a prime actor in the region.

To conclude, much ink has already been spilt regarding Obama’s failures in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. Marc Lynch, for example, wrote for Foreign Affairs that ‘his administration has consistently failed to deliver on the promises raised by his inspirational speeches’. Meanwhile, Brzezinski critiqued that ‘I greatly admire his insights and understanding. I don’t think he really has a policy that’s implementing those insights and understanding. He doesn’t strategise. He sermonises’. If that weren’t enough, Melhem asserted damningly that ‘Obama was never a transformational leader. In global affairs, his is a transitional presidency walking us on a rickety bridge’. As implied above, I have some sympathy with such comments. My analysis has pointed in particular to Obama’s failure to close down the poisonous narratives and praxis of the War on Terror. But I have also pointed to political currents outside of Obama’s control: the rapid decline of American hegemony, and (exacerbating the latter) the institutionalisation of a damaging Washington foreign policy consensus. Between these two forces, Obama has been little more than a cipher. As Obama’s presidency draws to the close the sad fact remains that America’s relationship with the Muslim world is as complex and fractious as ever. Given that neither of his potential successors appear as well apprised of post-Bush lessons as Obama was in 2008, the outlook seems sadly bleak.


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