The Downfall of Obama’s Middle East Doctrine

Hard-nosed geopolitical thinkers such as George Friedman—CEO of Stratfor, the US private intelligence and forecasting company—argue that Al Qaeda’s furtive attack on September 11, 2001, demonstrated, not its strength relative to the United States but rather its impotence. Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century, which I reviewed in the October 2009 edition of Quadrant, presumed Uncle Sam’s uncontested geopolitical supremacy ruled out any genuine threat to the Pax Americana in the twenty-first century, apart from the slow-burning fuse of Mexifornia. Nevertheless, the ground has shifted in the five years of the Obama presidency, and old certainties are no longer assured.

As the shock of 9/11 recedes further into the past, there is a temptation on the part of some to downgrade its significance. Noting, for instance, that fewer people were the victims of Al Qaeda on 9/11 than the number of Americans who die each year from food poisoning or the number of teenagers killed in car accidents. What kind of existentialist threat to the United States does global jihad represent if an American remains a thousand times likelier to die in a standard aeroplane accident than as the result of a terrorist plot involving an aeroplane? The inference, often enough, is that the Bush administration’s 2001–08 War on Terror was at best an hysterical over-reaction to 9/11 or, more sinisterly, the ruthless manipulation of a national tragedy for nefarious political purposes.

Bush’s foreign policy did dramatically change in the aftermath of 9/11. Back in February 1993, Omar Abdel Rahman, a member of the underground wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, co-ordinated a terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The jihadists planned to murder up to 250,000 New Yorkers, but circumstances conspired against them and the Blind Sheik had to settle for a mere six victims. A serious plan to avert Islamic terrorism on American soil did not become an imperative for US politicians, Republican and Democratic alike, until eight years later. When George W. Bush spoke about national security during the 2000 presidential race, he was referring to the USA’s defence missile system. The prospect of asymmetrical war being waged in America went under Bush’s radar during the campaign. Then again, the same would have to be said for the Democratic Party’s candidate, Al Gore.

The media carried stories about terrorism in the weeks and months before 9/11, but all concerned the Second Intifada (2000–05), which resulted in Palestinian terrorists (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Fatah and others) murdering 1137 Israeli civilians and wounding another 5676. The Mitchell Report (May 2001) blamed Yasser Arafat for initiating the Second Intifada with the intention of “provoking and incurring Palestinian casualties as a means of regaining the diplomatic initiative” after the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations. Bush, once in office, took a hard line on Arafat. His Democratic Party opponents were somewhat muted in their rebukes because Bill Clinton held Arafat personally responsible for scuttling a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Few Americans, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, equated terrorism with food poisoning or inexperienced teenage drivers crashing into trees. It was an astonishing moment in contemporary history and, understandably, a transformative moment for Bush’s presidency. The notion of national security abruptly transformed into thwarting Islamic terrorism. Cue the Bush Doctrine. In conjunction with the Patriot Act (October 2001) and the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, Bush ordered the United States Armed Forces into Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). All of these initiatives—and many others besides—were carried out with the ostensible purpose of pre-empting future attacks on the American homeland. Often overlooked is that 9/11 also marked the genesis of the Obama Doctrine, even if Barack Obama at the time was an obscure state legislator in Illinois.

Obama, no less than Bush, defined Osama bin Laden as US Enemy Number One and, on entering the Oval Office in 2009, ordered a team of CIA officers and Navy SEALs to track down the elusive “prince” and terminate him with extreme prejudice. May 2011—mission accomplished. Where the Bush and Obama doctrines diverge is on the meaning of 9/11. Bin Laden and his co-conspirators, in the opinion of Obama, crossed the proverbial red line on 9/11 and had to pay the price. In spite of this, Barack Obama—a man seemingly infused with every latter-day leftist delusion—had a more nuanced response to 9/11 than simply wanting to hunt down Al Qaeda operatives.

September 11 has turned out to be a crucible in American civilisation, and the difference in foreign policy between Bush and Obama runs deeper than narrow political partisanship. Whatever setbacks accrued during George W. Bush’s incumbency (2001–09), his overseas initiatives were based on the presumption that America’s influence in the world constituted a force for good and that anti-Americanism, of whatever ideological hue, was likely to be erroneous. Everything we know about the intellectual and philosophical influences on Barack Obama explains why his arrival in the Oval Office signalled a radical departure from his predecessors on the subject of American power. This was a turn of events that had the Norwegian Nobel Committee rushing to celebrate twelve days after Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.

Obama never used the term “blowback” to rationalise the events of 9/11, let alone “the chickens coming home to roost” catchphrase of leftist academic Ward Churchill, but Obama shares the prejudices of progressives in the USA: that is to say, the Islamic terrorism of 9/11 was a response to American hegemony. Despite categorising the 9/11 victims as “little Eichmanns”, Ward Churchill insisted he was not a defender of Al Qaeda’s tactics. Still, the carnage needed to be understood in the context of decade-long sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the displacement of Arab Palestinians after the 1948 War of Independence, and so on. A distinguishing feature of modern-day leftist commentary holds that America (and the West in general) is the “root cause” of what is wrong with the world. Ward Churchill merely articulated what progressives say privately.

Obama ran for the top job in 2008 as the anti-George W. Bush candidate. Bush’s lack of sophistication and strident jingoism, or so the narrative goes, showed that he had failed to grasp that 9/11 was less a self-determining action than an emblematic reaction to US global influence. Predictably (the narrative went on) the War on Terror had made America less safe and needed to be mothballed forthwith. Time to put the clueless cowboy out to pasture before he caused any further damage and allow The One to heal international wounds. During the election campaign against John McCain, the political strategist David Axelrod sold Obama to America as a kind of messiah who, as the perfect blend of a white mother and African father, could unify a divided land. A similar ruse was employed when the newly elected President addressed the people of the Middle East on Al Arabiya, a popular Arab-language satellite channel: “I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.”

Identity politics worked a treat for Obama’s domestic audience, helping him to win the presidential race in 2008 and re-election in 2012. Maybe it was inevitable that once in power he would try out his successful formula on the world stage. In the Cairo Speech, delivered on June 4, 2009, Obama vowed to bring “a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world”. Much was made of Obama’s insistence that prominent members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood be given front-row seats for his public dissertation at Cairo University; his most extreme critics at home suggested the forty-fourth president of the United States of America was not only a Muslim but a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, President Obama’s skewed judgment came not as a consequence of him being the Manchurian Candidate, but as a result of his American-style leftism.

Obama has never been alone in claiming—as he did in the Cairo Speech—that “Islam is not a part of the problem in combating violent extremism” but “an important part of promoting peace”. Obama wagered on the Muslim Brotherhood because he believed its ascendancy in Egypt would inhibit the evolution of a new generation of Osama bin Ladens and pre-empt another 9/11. He cold-shouldered Hosni Mubarak’s secular (and undoubtedly corrupt) administration in 2011, and then shored up Mohamed Morsi’s theocratic-fascist outfit at every opportunity because Obama’s progressive creed precluded him from seeing the truth of the movement’s totalitarian impulse. After enduring Morsi’s increasingly despotic rule for twelve months, 80 per cent of Egypt’s population were not so blind. On Christmas Day 2013, Egypt’s interim government made the widely approved decision to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

The response of “mild” Islamists to the terrorist outrages in Egypt during the second half of 2013, including the bombing of a police headquarters in the Nile Delta region by Ansar Bait al-Madis on December 24, tells us much of what we need to know about a link between the Muslim Brotherhood and violent jihadism. Spokesmen for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, according to a commentary by Dina Khayat in the Australian, dissociated the organisation from the perpetrators “but did not condemn them”. Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood’s desire to protect people has less to do with safeguarding ordinary citizens from indiscriminate murder than with imposing a Mafia-style version of protection—we can do this the easy way or the hard way, the choice is yours. On January 14 the Egyptian people endorsed their government’s decision to tie the Muslim Brotherhood to terrorism by overwhelmingly ratifying the new constitution, one that promises security for the Christian minority and gender equality for all Egyptians.

In the aftermath of Egypt’s July 3, 2013, Popularly Legitimate Coup, Obama apologists in America’s mainstream media have continually denigrated General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, a man considered by the vast majority of his compatriots to be the saviour of the nation. Much of the US commentariat, including regular op-ed columns in the New York Times, are sympathetic to the current plight of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even if their silence on the persecution of Coptic Christians during Morsi’s time was deafening, General al-Sisi’s detractors are within their remit to draw attention to any indiscretions on the part of his government. What the critics cannot deny, however, is that the Obama Doctrine has spelt disaster for US-Egyptian relations, this fiasco foreshadowed in the 2009 Cairo Speech with its politically-correct gibberish, flat-out historical ignorance and unchecked hubris.

President Obama’s toadying to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood echoed his approach to Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s post-Kemalist Islamism, as delineated by Obama in Ankara’s Grand National Assembly on April 6, 2009, is a win-win, a stake in the heart of Islamic terrorism and advancement for the Turkish population:

In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical not just in rolling back the violent ideologies that people of all faiths reject, but also to strengthen opportunity for all its people.

But far from increasing “opportunity for all its people”, Erdogan is now at war with the large segment of the population who oppose the way his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is undermining the nation’s secularist heritage. This has included purging non-Islamist army leaders, crushing the independence of the police and challenging judicial autonomy over the issue of the AKP’s endemic corruption. Today more journalists are incarcerated in Turkey than in China or even Iran. Does Obama still believe AKP’s brand of Islamism is a positive development in Turkey? Has he never heard of Erdogan’s infamous 1990s axiom: “Democracy is but a train to our ultimate destination; we shall disembark once we’re there.”

In June 2013, Erdogan cracked down on liberty-loving protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and Gezi Park, killing four civilians and wounding another 5000. These victims, presumably, must suffer so that the Obama Doctrine might continue to promote harmony between America and the Muslim world and safeguard the United States from another 9/11. In the aftermath of Egypt’s June 30 Revolution, Prime Minister Erdogan has re-positioned Turkey as not only the provisional headquarters of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood but also as the rallying point for the movement as a whole. Obama praised Ataturk’s secular legacy in his 2009 Ankara address, and yet everything the founder of the Turkish Republic stood for is being trashed by the AKP.

The last leg of President Obama’s initial outreach involved Saudi Arabia. Obama, on April Fools’ Day 2009, bowed so low to King Abdullah that reporters were shocked. The White House later denied anything of the kind occurred, despite the numerous photographs recording for posterity Obama’s obeisance. A commentator for a Saudi newspaper confirmed the presidential bob and contextualised the gesture as long-overdue recognition for King Abdullah’s “call for interfaith and intercultural dialogue to defuse the hatred, conflict and wars”, as if Wahhabis were advocates of religious liberalism. On a less comical note, Obama’s outreach (or stooping) can only be described as a debacle. His rapprochement with the Shiite theocracy (or kleptocracy) in Tehran, along with his enthusiasm for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, mean that America is now reviled in both Cairo and Riyadh. Barack Obama turns out to be a reverse King Midas, not the least reason being his delusion that a unified and cohesive Muslim world ever existed for him to embrace.

Events undermined the first pillar of the Obama Doctrine as they have the second. The essence of this aspect of Obama’s strategy is that the lighter the US military footprint in the Middle East, the better for America’s reputation on the Arab street. Underlying the second pillar, no less than the first, is the politically-correct premise that Islamic terrorism is a response to American interests—economic, academic, religious, political and military—riding roughshod over a culture Westerners are not able to comprehend. Operation Iraqi Freedom, for that reason, was unlikely to improve the lot of the Iraqi people, let alone halt Islamic terrorism. By 2008, when Barack Obama was competing with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, a majority of American voters concurred.

Contrariwise, champions of the Bush Doctrine contend that America’s long-term national security was best served by the establishment of an anti-Taliban regime in Afghanistan followed by the demise of Saddam Hussein (along with his bloodthirsty sons) in Iraq and his replacement by a modern, more-or-less democratic, non-sectarian state. Americans of very different political persuasions, from right-wing paleocons to left-wing Chomskyites, rejected this thesis out of hand. Obama has been more equivocal. In early 2014, for instance, the White House was still trying to reach an understanding with Kabul that would allow enough long-term US military presence in Afghanistan to impede the Al Qaeda-allied Taliban recapturing national power. Such negotiations, whatever the failings or excesses of the Bush Doctrine, are Obama’s tacit recognition that Bush was not entirely wrong about Afghanistan. The same cannot be said for Obama’s attitude to Bush’s Iraq legacy.

We do not have to read former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (2013) to know that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama opposed the 2007 Petraeus-led surge in Iraq for political advantage. Given that he was not a member of Congress until the November 2004 election, Obama could argue—unlike Senators Kerry and Clinton—that he was not for US intervention in Iraq before he was against it. Indeed, Obama does not have to take responsibility for the miscalculations and setbacks that occurred on Bush’s watch, and which necessitated the surge in the first place. The notorious events at Abu Ghraib prison (2004) are no stain on Obama’s reputation. Moreover, the lives lost by the two costly battles to retake Fallujah (both in 2004) from an alliance of Al Qaeda-linked terrorists and other sundry anti-American militias need not weigh on Obama’s conscience. Nor does Obama have to acknowledge any advantage in the 40,000 Al Qaeda combatants killed (and another 200,000 wounded) in the three years preceding the surge. If not for George W. Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom, the anti-war brigade argues, all those foreign jihadists would have stayed at home and pursued lives of quietist piety instead of killing under the black flag.

What Obama cannot deny, however, is that in the first week of January 2014 the Iraqi cities of Fallujah and Ramada fell to the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Baghdad possibly awaits the same fate. It is also a fact that President Obama, in the Cairo Speech, promised his Muslim Brotherhood-laced audience “to remove all our troops from Iraq by 2012”, a promise he duly kept. At the same time, Obama acknowledged the fact that “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein”. On the occasion of the final leave-taking of all American forces, December 14, 2011, Obama went even further: “We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” During the 2012 presidential election race, Mitt Romney was eviscerated by the Democrat campaign for suggesting that Obama’s failure to maintain a military force of some 20,000 to 30,000 troops in Iraq after 2011 was a matter of “naked political calculation or sheer ineptitude”. But what did this tiresome and fusty plutocrat know about foreign policy compared to the charismatic Healer-in-Chief who had thrown out the old rulebook and declared peace on the world? “Four years ago,” Obama explained at the 2012 Democratic Convention, “I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did.”

Counterfactuals can be tricky. What if America had not intervened in Iraq? Maybe it would have all worked out fine without 4400 Americans losing their lives. Saddam might have had an epiphany and changed his wicked ways. Who knows? What we can say is that in neighbouring Syria, also ruled by Baathist thugs, America did not intervene and things have not turned out well. Obama’s hands-off approach has hardly encouraged Bashar al-Assad to mend his nefarious ways, which have included industrial-scale slaughter and even the use of chemical weapons against the population a la Saddam against the Kurds. The death toll in the Syrian civil war is now above 120,000, so America’s no-show has not exactly been a boon to regional peace.

The lighter the US military footprint, declares the Obama Doctrine, the better for America’s reputation and the less opportunity for Islamic terrorism to flourish. In truth, Obama’s “leading from behind” strategy has resulted in the Free Syrian Army being squeezed by the homicidal Syrian regime on the one side and Sunni Islamic terrorists on the other. Al Qaeda-aligned fanatics swarming all over the Syrian countryside and deep in western Iraq, smiting off the heads of infidels as they go, are no testament to the merits of Obama Doctrine. The case for some kind of genuine American involvement grows by the day.

The third pillar of the Obama Doctrine is rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran in conjunction with a negotiated end to Tehran’s nuclear weapons project. As America’s foreign policy began to unravel in 2013, President Obama turned to the despots in Tehran to help snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. One of the great conceits of contemporary Western political leadership, but not one shared by the Texas Cowboy, is that a deal can always be negotiated, even if your antagonists are theocratic-fascists. Bernard Lewis’s What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (2001) and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2002) tell us that Islamic fanaticism is in many ways a radical new chapter in the Muslim world even if its propagators are touting a return to the eighth century as a response to modernity. The current rulers of the Islamic Republic, virtually all of them propelled to power by the 1979 Revolution, loathe America, Israel and the West with a fervour only matched by their enmity for Sunni Muslims (plus Kurds, Azeris, Arabs, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, apostates, secularists, and so on).

At the start of 2014, in the lead-up to endorsing the P5+1 deal, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei referred in a public address to the United States as “Satan”. A regime-friendly crowd, according to a Middle East Media Research Institute translation, responded by chanting, “Death to America!” Khamenei is the very same fellow Barack Obama now depends upon to rescue his flailing foreign policy. Having promised throughout his first term that he would terminate—by force if necessary—Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Obama now only seeks a “freeze”. In other words, by putting their quest for nuclear weapons on hold for six months, the Iranian mullahs obtain access to $5 billion in blocked funds to fend off bankruptcy and a restive population. Achieving nuclear weapons capability (barring Israeli intervention) remains an option for Tehran in its own good time. The White House chose to mollify its domestic audience with a spate of 1960s-style sloganeering—“Give peace and diplomacy a chance!”—but the Iran deal could mark the moment in time when the harm inflicted on the world by the Obama Doctrine became irreparable. As the smarmy President Hassan Rouhani recently boasted to a Farsi-speaking audience, the 2013 Geneva deal represents “the superpowers’ surrender to the great Iranian nation”.

The fourth pillar of the Obama Doctrine in the Middle East is a peace treaty between the Palestinian Authority and the State of Israel. Hammering out an accord of this historic magnitude—which mostly involves hammering Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu—would be proof positive that the USA is a trusty advocate for the Arab cause. Edward Said’s prejudice was that Westerners are incapable of understanding what makes the Orient tick, and I am tempted to agree with him, at least when it comes to the Obama administration. Secretary of State John Kerry made ten visits to Israel and the Territories in 2013 alone, but a two-state solution to the problem cannot happen until the Palestinian leadership accepts the permanency of a Jewish state in their midst, something Mahmoud Abbas—like Yasser Arafat before him—cannot do if he wishes to remain alive.

Even if some kind of new compact replaces the current makeshift arrangement it will be provisional in the minds of Palestinian rejectionists. Kerry allegedly assured Israeli negotiators that the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state would render their country’s eastern border more secure than the US-Canada border. The folly of such a sentiment is borne out by the fact that not even the Arab Kingdom of Jordan wants to share a border with any future Palestinian state. Jordan, according to a range of reports, is surreptitiously encouraging Israel to retain control of the Jordan Valley because it does not want rocket-firing jihadists on its western frontier the way that the Egyptians must endure Hamas. Apart from the Obama administration, nobody is keen on a two-state solution right now, not even the majority of Arabs who are citizens of Israel. Most of the anti-Zionists in the West, if their polemics are to be taken seriously, actually envisage a one-state or bi-national state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Kerry has already given the prospect of a Third Intifada a kick-along by pressuring the Israelis to release seventy-eight terrorists as an act of good faith.

The Obama Doctrine has taken “Bad America” out of the volatile Middle East mix and replaced it with “Good America”. This willing abdication of American power has not ushered in a golden era of peace, love and understanding—far from it. Barack Obama, the apotheosis of modern-day leftist delusion, declares an end to old alliances and ancient enmities but the result is not concord but the emergence of strange new alliances and alternative versions of ancient enmities. The Middle East is a Hobbesian universe in which fractious entities strike up impermanent partnerships that satisfy the short-term objective of survival without sacrificing the longer-term goal of total victory. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States now work together with Israel to counteract a nuclear Iran. Meanwhile, John Kerry fails to attend the funeral of former Israeli PM Ariel Sharon though Egyptian officials turn up in Jerusalem to pay their respects. This is the reality of establishing and re-establishing cordial relations in the Middle East. By contrast, the Obama Doctrine’s attempt to impose American-style “closure” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict amounts to a dangerous fallacy.

With friends like the Obama administration, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Saudis, the Gulf States and the Israelis have all discovered that they do not need enemies. The reverse also holds true. The regimes in Iran and Syria could do worse than having Obama’s America for an enemy.

The status and influence of America’s old superpower rival grow with every misstep made by the Obama administration. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and a growing list of other countries in the Greater Middle East now turn to Russia for support. Putin may have spent his early adult years as a KGB brute, but in terms of geopolitical awareness he is an eternity ahead of his Harvard-educated counterpart. It is as if President Obama is attempting to rewrite the ending of the Cold War, only this time with the United States on the losing side.

It is hard to believe that in the 2012 election Barack Obama touted foreign policy as his greatest asset. Still, the Western commentariat has always promoted him as America’s redeemer and will doubtless go on covering for him and his anointed successor, Hillary Clinton, until all is lost. The Obama Doctrine pledged to safeguard the American people from another 9/11 by addressing the root causes of Islamic terrorism. When a new 9/11 did eventuate—Benghazi, September 11, 2012—Obama’s apologists blamed a film made by an Egyptian Christian living in America. More blowback. More root causes. More outreach required. Trust Obama because he had a Marxist mother and a Muslim father. The One will save the world and there will be peace in his time.

Daryl McCann wrote on the First World War in the January-February issue. He has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au


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