Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment?

Fawaz A. Gerges
Palgrave, Macmillan
ISBN: 0230113818
A Review by Susan Froetschel

The Middle East is fragmented and unstable. Repeated US interventions, from Mossadegh in 1953 to the 1991 and 2003 Iraq invasions, did little to improve the region’s prospects.

Fawaz A. Gerges succinctly relays a disturbing history in Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? and lays out a case that the US has concocted a toxic stew of conflicting interests. The deeply polarized US is viewed as flighty, selfish and unreliable by allies and opponents alike.

For Gerges, Barack Obama is one in a long line of US presidents who for more than half a century have misunderstood and mishandled the Middle East. The professor of international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, also director of its Middle East Centre, does not hold back expressing keen disappointment with the Obama administration: “Washington has changed Obama far more than he has changed Washington.”

After eight years of hubris and two fumbled wars from the Bush administration, Obama began his presidency with enthusiastic outreach toward the Muslin World – television interviews, sensible analysis and the stirring speech in Cairo. Obama dangled the possibility of “new beginnings,” and Muslims had great expectations. In ensuing months, the Obama administration proceeded with winding down the wars, first in Iraq and then Afghanistan, yet he has failed miserably in pushing firmly for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Sensible recommendations are woven through every chapter of the book for the next US administration:  A Cold War redux is not suitable for the terrorism threat. Don’t attempt preemptive wars without sufficient evidence or international consensus. Take time to distinguish the many diverse Muslim groups – the Muslim Brotherhood is not Al Qaeda  – and speak out firmly  to correct ignorance about Muslims. End the massive arms buildup in the Middle East, sending weapons to places where they might be used someday against US troops – although in 2011, the US signed more than $100 billion in arms deals with Saudi Arabia, Israel and others in the region.

In general, a government bureaucracy, paralyzed by growing US polarization, must stop regarding simple questions as attacks. “There is an inherent flaw in the system that rewards conformity and groupthink and penalizes diversity of thought,” Gerges writes.

With every move, policymakers must take the entire region into account, and yet decisions driven by ideology and globalist blinders cannot overshadow warnings from regional experts. “American foreign policy and political culture are often consumed by exaggeration, overreaction, and a crusading impulse,” Gerges notes, and as a result leaders get caught up in what he calls institutionalized narratives – the Cold War, the War on Terror – for political purposes. Fearing political backlash, US presidents resisted adjusting tactics, when they should instead confront their critics, using evidence to make a case for reforms to citizens.

Al Qaeda thrives on the polarization and fear in the US, and the threats waste tremendous US resources, by Gerges’ estimates, up to $5 trillion, not to mention the loss of life. The head of foreign operations for Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula admitted he did not mind if US operatives intercepted their plots as long as the US invests billions, losing its values and sense of purpose along the way.

Among the book’s most insightful sections is “The New Turkey,” describing its increasing assertiveness in charting a foreign policy course that’s not subservient to western interests. “With the revolutionary turmoil sweeping its neighborhood, Turkey’s role, weight, and influence are bound to expand and increase.” Among the most distressing reading is the chapter on “Israeli-Palestinian Peace.” Gerges outlines the declining relations and Israel’s stubborn prioritizing of provocative new settlements over peace negotiations. The US Congress lends strong bipartisan support for Israel, but that body’s public-approval rating hovers around 10 percent. The chapter could have benefited from strict adherence to chronological order and more detailed analysis on why Israel – labeled “the West’s spoiled child” by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – can expect the US to be an increasingly less dependable partner.  Of course, that topic warrants a separate book.

One reason is that a year of turmoil and uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria are uprooting old alliances. Unilateral action against Iraq motivated nations in the region to act likewise in protecting their own interests. The US also announced a shift in national security at the start of 2012 – promising to assist in global security but with “of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” Shrill calls to reduce the nation’s debt will affect defense spending, and the Middle East suddenly became just another trouble spot. 

Oddly, dysfunctional politics in the US has made presidents from different parties seem very much alike. Obama’s approach, putting the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on pause, could reflect the frustrations of Americans. Americans, focused on their own aging population and economic troubles, are weary of foreign policy, let alone war. They expect the two sides, after years of conflict, to yearn for peace and compromise. Americans are not about to blame Obama, Bush or any other individual president for the quagmire.

Obama’s offense is that he’s been more ordinary than extraordinary. He has clung to middle ground time and time again, shoving aside loftier, worthy goals and giving up too quickly. “While Obama has used hard and soft power to undo the damage caused by his predecessor, he has not tapped in the presidency’s extraordinary power to bring about change and stir hope, nor has he fully engaged the current extraordinary events in the Middle East,” concludes Gerges.      

Gerges refrains from supporting Obama’s opponent in the November election, and points out that with balanced, forward-looking policies, the US could have more positive influence in the Middle East: “the test of this president will be whether or not he can realign US foreign policy with progressive and democratic voices in the region.”

For the time being, perhaps doing nothing is the better course than more of the same.  Events in the Middle East have not yet gained traction as a dividing issue in the presidential campaign, and that’s probably fortunate for the region. US leaders, policymakers and citizens can regroup, learn more about the region, assess US failures and develop new strategies for a fast-changing and uncertain landscape.

His book analyzing the US role in the Middle East in recent years is must reading for anyone who cares about the region.