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Ten Year Challenge: US Foreign Policy Towards Middle East – OpEd


The hashtag#10YearChallenge has got us thinking how the world of politics has changed in last ten years. From Obama’s vision of “Smart Diplomacy”, of upholding American ideals, of resuscitating Multilateralism, to Trumpism that is grounded in “Impulsive diplomacy”, railing against American tradition and mooring impetuous suspicion of International bodies, the last decade has seen stark changes in global political arena. Amongst the wide array of issues where U.S. foreign policy has undergone transformation, Obama’s view of Middle East was latest to be censured.

On the heels of uncertainty that surrounded Trumps’ decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Mike Pompeo sought to draw a vision for America’s foreign policy towards the Middle East. The speech was delivered in Cairo, the same city where Obama spoke ten years ago. The blistering rebuke of Obama’s Middle East policy inspired a mix of delight and fear- delight for them who threaten peace and fear among those who seek stability. It also unravels a discrepancy that scholars believe exists between administration’s rhetoric to reassert lost American influence in the region and its willingness to commit resources to pursue a strategic shift.

In his address, Obama attempted to reconcile Islamic values with Western democracy. He defied the logic- situated in hatred and exclusion that drove American foreign policy since 9/11. Obama’s bid to atone for the past troubles, U.S. policies has inflicted upon Middle Eastern region, sent a positive message to the Muslims across the world. He quoted that Islam and American polity are not in a competition and acknowledged how both remain in close connections since the birth of American polity. Obama warned of the consequences if differences weren’t bridged. He said, “So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation”.  Following this, Obama administration embarked on seeking peace and stability in the region by means of cooperation. For this, he embraced multilateral diplomacy to mend ties with Iran and made significant overtures in this regard- offers of unconditional talks and writing letter to Iranian Supreme leader are cases in point.

Furthermore, Obama’s speech addressed the question of Palestinian struggle and the project of promotion of democracy in the region. He noted that “Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop”. It clearly demonstrated the then administration’s commitment to the two-state solution and to oppose unbridled Israeli advancements to withhold provision of fundamental rights of the Palestinian population. Besides this, while averting direct criticism over Middle Eastern autocracies, Obama carefully managed to raise the question of inalienable rights of citizens, with particular mention of women’s rights. In sum, Obama’s vision to redress America’s relations with Middle East was based on the notion of co-existence, pluralism and multilateralism.

Contrary to this, Pompeo exhibits a new facet of American foreign policy towards the region that draws its logic from the precedents that bred turmoil in the region. Excessive American intervention in the region has never done any good to the region. In the past, efforts to bring regime change through external support befell misery and turbulence. Be it Mosaddeq’s regime in Iran, or Saddam Hussain’s government in Iraq, attempts to disrupt the natural course of events has hurt peace and security of the region. While berating Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq, one must not forget Bush’s policy of conquering Middle East to reshape its larger political context that engendered chaos and weakened the political order. Undermining whatever progressed Obama administration has made to retrieve American image as the protector of Rule-based order, Pompeo outlined the U.S. strategy which envisaged squeezing Iran from within and supporting Israel and other autocratic regimes at the expense of American tradition. The Palestinian question, central to the region’s security, and Khashoggi’s killing, pivotal to American comportment abroad, couldn’t receive the attention of U.S. Secretary of the State.

In practice, Obama’s foreign policy agenda offered a delicate balance between gestures of Idealism and carefully veiled Realist face of policy. Amidst this struggle, he was keen to revive the multilateral essence of global order. He adamantly rejected the language of hatred, abuse, threat and coercion. All this radically differs how trump views the Middle East. Chastising Ayatollah of Iran, reversing Obama’s bid to reshape American perception of Muslim world and eroding the foundations of two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict reflects how Trump has changed U.S Middle East policy.

*Younis Chughtai, Research Affiliate, Strategic Vision Institute, Islamabad

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