By Riad Kahwaji
The U.S. Administration of President Barak Obama is about to complete its first term in office and is hoping to win another term in the upcoming elections on November 6. In previous debates, Obama and his team have spoken with great pride of their foreign policy accomplishments over the past four years of rule. They specifically pointed out as a major triumph three landmark events: The withdrawal from Iraq; The killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ousama bin Laden; and assisting the Libyan revolution in overthrowing the late leader Moammar Qaddafi. The main point in common in all these “accomplishments” is that they are all located geographically within the Greater Middle East region. However, if one is to review the foreign policy performance of the Obama administration from the perspective of America’s Middle Eastern allies one will find little if any achievements to brag about.
In order to appreciate the regional perspective it is important to identify the foreign policy priorities of America’s allies in the region. The current U.S. main allies in the region are Jordan, Morocco and the Arab Gulf States better known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and they include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. For these states, the main concerns or sources of threat are as follows: Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood that was empowered by the so-called Arab Spring and terrorism. Working efficiently with allies requires seeing eye-to-eye with them on matters of mutual concern. However, being the stronger party in this partnership the U.S. often gets to lead in initiating and implementing policies in the region that ultimately affects its allies one way or another. So how did the Obama Administration pursue its policies in the above matters of concern to its regional allies?
From a Middle Eastern perspective, Iran has grown stronger over the past four years. Very few Arab leaders believed Western economic sanctions and diplomacy would be enough to sway Tehran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, and the latest facts indicate that Iran’s nuclear program continues to make progress unabated by toughened sanctions by Washington and the EU. Furthermore, Tehran’s influence in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan has increased considerably which undermines Arab-Western interests in these countries. The revolution in Syria, which is seen by most America’s allies in the region as a golden opportunity to destroy the Iranian axis by helping the rebels topple the Syrian regime – Tehran’s main ally in the region – has not received serious tangible Western assistance. Arab officials have watched with a great deal of anger and disappointment as the U.S. stood helpless as the United Nations Security Council was unable to pass any resolutions against the Syrian regime and also refused to provide the rebels with any weapons at a time Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizbullah have provided the Syrian regime with men and weapons to counter the insurgency. Most GCC States have rejected the U.S. reasons for not providing military aid to the insurgents out of fear they could fall in hands of Islamist terrorists, and have started their own arms supplies network to help the rebels. The GCC have accused Iran of interfering in the internal affairs of Bahrain and Yemen and pursued their own policies there independent of Washington due to concern that the U.S. was chasing what one Gulf official described as “counter-productive policies.”
The Arab Spring and the Brotherhood
The spate of public uprisings that have swept the Arab world for two years now and toppled dictatorships in countries like Tunis, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and forced reforms in places like Morocco and Jordan, have come to be known as the Arab Spring. With the exception of Libya, the other countries affected by these revolutions were all regarded as strong U.S. allies. Rising regimes there have been mostly led by Islamic parties associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that denounces monarchy and promotes a democracy-style political system under Sharia Law. The sudden strong rise of the Muslim Brotherhood after decades of suppression led by regimes in Egypt and Syria has sent shockwaves throughout the Arab world. The GCC, Jordan and Morocco have gone on the defensive trying to squeeze back against the Muslim Brotherhood. The sight of the U.S. Administration opening channels of communication with the new governments in Tunis and Cairo have caused concern amongst GCC leaders who worry that Washington would turn its eye away from what the Arab monarchies perceive as an imminent serious threat to their rule posed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Officials in UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have voiced public concerns of the Muslim Brotherhood and the chief of Police in Dubai General Dhahi Khalfan has even considered the movement to be a bigger threat to GCC than Iran.
Even though Bin Laden was dead, terrorist attacks continued and areas of Al-Qaeda operations have widened and become entrenched on the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Yemen and the Horne of Africa. Groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda continue to be active in places like Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Somalia and most recently in the Sahara area in Africa. U.S. allies in the Middle East believe the war on terrorism has many loop holes, especially its inability to deal with issues related to the causes of terrorism. They believe the pure military approach by carrying out drone strikes on targets throughout the Greater Middle East without engaging issues like the Palestinian-Israeli struggle and acute socio-economic conditions in many parts of the region will only exasperate the problem, and will have short term tactical gains without substantial strategic impact in the war on terrorism. With the Arab Spring causing instability and failed states in various parts of the Middle East, many U.S. allies in the region fear there will be a rise and wider spread in terrorism despite the killing of top leaders of Al-Qaeda.
Election-Centric Foreign Policy
Regardless of the causes of all the problems in the Middle East and who is right or wrong, the fact remains that most U.S. allies in the region believe Washington’s foreign policy is failing on many fronts. Even matters that were traditionally a high priority in U.S. foreign policy like the Middle East peace process, has not seen any tangible activity under the Obama Administration, especially over the past two years. The main criticism to the U.S. foreign policy in general and to the Obama Administration in particular has been that it is too election-centric. It has been all about playing it safe in order to keep the voters contempt regardless of the possible long-term negative strategic impact the current policies could have on the interests of the U.S. and/or its allies in the region. The situation becomes worse when the U.S. allies in the region find themselves locked in a fierce cold war against a formidable cunning adversary like Iran that pursues long-term strategic objectives with an aggressive expansionist approach that has managed to spread its influence to various parts of the region and wants to assert itself as a global power.
The U.S. is increasingly being perceived as an unreliable ally. Its regional allies remained close to it simply because they have no viable alternative to Washington at the moment. Moreover, the U.S. has been lucky thus far in managing to maintain many of its regional interests. But with its recent passive policies and short-term-based policies aimed at making enough safe gains until the next primaries or next presidential elections, risks are increasing to US regional interests more than ever due to the fast changes in the Greater Middle East. New realities are emerging in a highly dynamic political scene in the Arab world making most of yesterday’s policies redundant. Hence a more solid long-term foreign policy that takes into consideration America’s mutual interests with its regional allies is required to ensure the U.S. role as a world super power – that is if Washington still wants to play this role. The US did not become the super power it is today by short-term election-centric policies taken by former presidents. America’s foreign allies long for leaders like Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Carter and Reagan who based their decisions on long-term strategic objectives. Time does not pause for leaders to allow them better their electoral chances for history is made every day and the late ones are left behind.
Riad Kahwaji, CEO, INEGMA