The Obama disappointment
Q: Are you disappointed with Barack Obama?
A: I have been disappointed by Obama in a number of respects. First of all I think it’s worth saying that Obama is still a significant improvement over [George] Bush. There’s been a very notable improvement in presidential rhetoric but a failure to apply that rhetoric in many cases. Obama has given a series of quite inspiring speeches but then has not built a policy around those speeches. In Accra, for example, he distinguished himself from [Bill] Clinton’s policy of embracing the so-called new generation of African leaders that turned out to be authoritarian dictators: Paul Kagame [in Rwanda] or Meles Zenawi [in Ethiopia]. Obama said Africa doesn’t need strong leaders, it needs strong institutions and spoke about the rule of law, free press, independent civil society and the like. That was an excellent message, well-tailored to the audience. But the Obama administration has put very little pressure on Meles or Kagame to reverse their authoritarian trends. Similarly, in Cairo, he talked about the importance of democracy and made clear that, unlike Bush, who promoted democracy until the wrong person won, until Hamas won in the Palestinian territories or until the Muslim Brotherhood did better than expected in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, Obama was going to respect whoever was the victor. It was suggested that he would even respect the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. A very important message but he then did not follow up by pressing [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to democratise. Mubarak visited the White House and there was no public mention of democracy. There’s been no pressure on the Saudi royal family, no pressure on other autocratic U.S. allies in the Middle East to democratise.
For someone who made a new approach to the Middle East such an integral part of his foreign policy platform, the outcome of a year in power is strikingly meagre. If anything, President Obama's first year has been marked by a surprising lack of leadership on the Middle East. The expectations Obama created about a "new beginning" for America in the region are fast dissipating. While the frustration of the peoples of the Middle East could be of little political significance for the American president, the policy ramifications of missing leadership are not.
On the crown jewel of the region's problems, the protracted Arab- Israeli conflict, Obama's administration failed to come up with a meaningful policy. Unable or unwilling to spend political capital on a showdown with the Israeli rightist government, the administration adopted a hackneyed, stopgap policy. The sterility of its stated goal -- getting Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table -- is plain for all to see. Palestinians and Israelis have been sitting at that table for years; we are all familiar with their endless arguments, complaining and manipulations. Everyone knows that returning them to that table is not going to bring peace or security to either of them, or to the region. But it is a goal that the administration thought attainable and serving to its image at an affordable political price. To add insult to injury, a year has passed without achieving this modest, useless goal. The sense of historic mission of the Cairo speech about reconciling Arab and Jewish narratives has faded, leaving behind a real life-sized political president admitting his earlier miscalculation.
Is this but another complaint by a disappointed Middle Easterner who hoped that Obama would be fair to his region? Not in the least. I don't think that the peoples of the Middle East are politically relevant in this story. They don't vote or fundraise in American elections, they don't take initiative or even help when asked, and they always complain about US policies anyway. What is politically relevant, though, is the consequence of Obama's Middle Eastern choices on the region and on the US standing in it. Inaction and lack of leadership are not a recommended policy for the indispensable superpower. It means passing the initiative to local actors who either advance their own interests regardless of regional stability as a whole, or create crises in order to draw the US back in. In either case, the US administration would be setting itself up for ad hoc reactions. Presidents who choose not to invest in the Middle Eastern quagmire were eventually sucked into it unprepared. This could take the form of another "unexpected" eruption in the Arab-Israeli saga, a "surprise" collapse of a friendly regime, or a major terrorist attack. In a nutshell, every American president who gave the Middle East low priority lived to regret it.
Here I partly disagree, or would go further. The US has an opportunity to redeem itself and re-adjust its involvement in the region by encouraging the emergence of a stable regional order that does not need US initiative to prevent or solve crises. In the long term, this would be the best thing for the region and for the US (in terms of its heavier than necessary footprint in the region and the economic, political and security costs that brings) while still guaranteeing key interests (which should include stable flow of oil and safety of sea traffic, not supporting Israeli expansionism). Obama could have been the president to start this, but instead we see him be half-Carter, half-Bush. What a disappointment.