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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Obama’s Middle East Foreign Policy Report Card

President Obama’s Middle East policy record in his first six years in office was mixed and lacked significant achievements. Overall, Obama’s approach was cautious, as the United States reacted to fast-moving events. U.S. strategy predominantly focused on degrading terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP) to prevent a major attack on the United States and avoiding making the same strategic blunders as his predecessor. Attempts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace fell short twice, and efforts to broker a peaceful settlement to Syria’s vicious civil war have not succeeded. Furthermore, America’s response to the ongoing political shifts of the Arab uprisings has been uneven.

Obama’s strategic approach has placed the United States in a bystander role in some of the biggest shifts and dynamics in the region, including the 2011 Arab uprisings and their aftermath. The administration’s overall framework – of reducing America’s commitments in the region in order to rebalance or pivot to other regions of the world – was partially overtaken by events in 2014, including the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS).

Looking ahead to his final two years in office, Obama faces a challenging regional landscape. At the start of 2015, the two top priorities are addressing the threats posed by terrorist networks, such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS) and Al Qaeda in the Arabia Peninsula (AQAP), and dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. Reaching a deal with Iran on its nuclear program is still possible. But with or without a deal, the repercussions of Iran’s influence and role in the region will be a major issue for President Obama and his successor for years to come. The campaign against ISIS will face significant challenges in both Iraq and Syria in Obama’s last two years. How this campaign and the efforts to engage Iran are managed together will have a major, long-lasting impact on the trajectory of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Looking Back on Obama’s Middle East Record: Hesitant Responses to Surprising Transformations

President Obama entered office promising a new style of engagement with the Middle East. He set a new tone in a series of speeches and media appearances in his first year in office and vowed to fulfill his campaign promise of ending America’s involvement in the war in Iraq.

Obama signaled early on a strong focus on Middle East peace by appointing a prominent envoy in former Senator George Mitchell, and he extended an offer of engagement with Iran. The administration’s engagement on Iran yielded more fruit than the efforts on the peace process front. The international framework for engaging and containing Iran on the nuclear front opened the door to renewed negotiations in Obama’s second term that may yield some significant results. By contrast, two separate efforts to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – one led by former Senator George Mitchell at the start of Obama’s first term and a second spearheaded by Secretary of State John Kerry at the start of Obama’s second term – collapsed in the face of difference between the two parties and divisions within both camps.

The regional social and political upheaval that began in Tunisia at the end of 2010 forced the administration to re-prioritize the Middle East and North Africa.  The power shifts that toppled leaders in four countries – Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen – had significant reverberations not only in those countries but across the region. In each country, the United States struggled to adapt its forms of engagement to meet the new social, economic, and political challenges. For all of the talk about “smart power” and the need to use other components of U.S. power in foreign policy, the United States was slow to respond with a meaningful set of policy tools that were relevant to the challenges facing each of these countries. For example, the Obama administration made public announcements about new types of assistance to smooth the economic and political transitions in key countries in efforts such as the Deauville Partnership announced with other G8 countries in 2011. However, not much of this promised aid was delivered, and it was ultimately dwarfed by the massive infusions of aid Gulf countries in the region delivered to countries like Egypt.

Furthermore, the new regional competition for power and influence that emerged in this period from 2011 to 2014 among different power centers in the region complicated Obama’s engagement on the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey were all adopting more assertive stances on the political transitions in other countries. After a few months of being more vocal and active in response to changes in the region – including America’s direct military intervention in Libya in 2011 – the Obama administration became more cautious and tentative by 2012.

At the same time, the Obama administration was continuing its efforts to end America’s combat role in Iraq. U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, but until the summer of 2014, the administration was disinclined to use diplomatic leverage to shape Iraq’s internal politics. The growing authoritarianism of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and the increased sectarianism in Iraq contributed to the reemergence of violent extremism and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. By early 2014, the situation had spiraled out of control inside of Iraq, and the dynamics started to mix with the combustible violence in Syria’s civil war next door.

“In its last two years, the administration will have two major priorities when it comes to the Middle East: the campaign against ISIS and Iran’s nuclear program.”

Syria will perhaps be viewed by historians as the most negative aspect of Obama’s Middle East policy. President Obama’s reluctance to intervene in the conflict, especially early on, was reasonable and understandable. In retrospect, however, dynamics spiraled out of control and spread across Syria’s borders. The September 2013 non-strike event – when the Obama administration did not follow through on exacting a cost on the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons – created confusion in the region about America’s overall role. It also produced incentives for regional actors to become deeply involved in Syria’s civil war. By the start of 2015, the conflict in Syria had taken an estimated 200,000 lives and uprooted nearly a third of the country.[i]

Heading into the last two years in office, President Obama has closed down three embassies in Syria, Libya, and Yemen due to security threats. Similarly, America is slowly increasing its military footprint in Iraq to deal with the ISIS threat.

Looking Ahead to Obama’s Last Two Years: Investing in Regional Stability

In its last two years, the administration will have two major priorities when it comes to the Middle East: the campaign against ISIS and Iran’s nuclear program. Without a change of government in Israel and a major shift in Palestinian dynamics, it is unlikely that the administration will invest significant time or energy in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Political change has stalled out in Egypt, and chaos in Syria is likely to make the region as a whole more resistant to challenges to current rulers.

The campaign against ISIS will be a major focus, even in the absence of an overall strategy for Syria. The Obama administration must maintain coalition unity in this campaign, though ISIS’s recent atrocities have made this task less difficult. Moreover, the administration has greater clarity on the Iraq side of this strategy than on the Syria side. Its plan to train a Syrian opposition force to fight ISIS lacks urgency, and it is far from clear whether the size of the proposed force – 5,000 fighters trained a year – will be sufficient to hold territory seized from ISIS.

Iran and the P5+1 appear closer to a deal over Tehran’s nuclear program than at any point in recent memory. However, this appearance could prove deceiving, and even if a deal is struck, the regional reverberations will be difficult for the United States to manage. Israel and Gulf Arab countries have expressed their extreme reservations about a possible deal with Iran. Offering reassurances and enduring support to those partners will be important for any possible deal with Iran to have staying power. Furthermore, the Obama administration should be clear-eyed and realistic about the possibilities and limits of U.S.-Iran cooperation in the region, particularly on the anti-ISIS campaign. For example, in the campaign to degrade ISIS, the United States has already found limits to how much the forces in Iraq and Syria backed by Iran are willing to actively cooperate with the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. This was witnessed in March 2015 in the efforts to retake Tikrit. Furthermore, the active support Iran provides to Hezbollah in Lebanon, a terrorist group that has actively threatened the United States and its allies, is deeply problematic.

It is unlikely that the anti-ISIS campaign or Iran diplomacy will produce complete results by the end of Obama’s time in office, but tangible steps forward on these two top priorities could strengthen overall stability in the region. Indeed, mishandling policy on these two fronts could lead to a wider conflagration and tensions. For example, if a nuclear deal with Iran moves forward, this will likely heighten the sense of insecurity and feelings of abandonment already expressed by Gulf countries and Israel after an interim deal in the Joint Program of Action (JPOA) was announced in November 2013. The United States will need to offer reassurances to key Gulf partners that will continue to remain vigilant about the problematic role Iran plays in the region.

In addition to these central challenges of Iran and ISIS, there is a structural challenge that the United States and other outside actors face in the Middle East: how to respond more effectively to the ongoing political, social, and economic shifts in the region. The 2011 popular uprisings and their aftermath were the symptoms of longer-term challenges that do not appear to be going away anytime soon. Nevertheless, U.S. engagement with the region remains heavily weighted towards the work of its military and intelligence agencies. For the United States to have a more effective policy towards the Middle East, it will need to revisit the aspirations of smart power and make more significant investments in the diplomatic, economic, and political engagement tools that can have a meaningful impact on a wider range of countries in the Middle East for years to come.

[i]“Syria death toll now exceeds 210,000: rights group,” Reuters, 7 February 2015.