Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Perception of US policy in the Middle East

President Barack Obama meets Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz at King Khalid International Airport, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 27 January 2016. Photo AP/Carolyn Kaster

The relationship between the United States and Arabs and Islam began with the discovery of oil in the Gulf States, then grew progressively more complex with the Arab-Israeli conflict, the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the aftermath of the 2011 “Arab Spring.”

The Middle East, never a stable region to begin with, seems to be moving toward ever increasing levels of violence and chaos. The responsibility can be levied against a long stream of actors, from the Ottoman sultans and colonial powers to a succession of American presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Some frustrated Arabs lay the blame on Obama’s poorly defined and often contradictory foreign policy, which have led to a marked decline of American influence in the region and a growing unease about the reliability of the United States as a partner.

The core of America’s foreign policy in the Middle East has historically been based on two principles: first, to insure that the region’s oil flowed smoothly to the industrialized world and that no regional hegemony would emerge to disrupt the petroleum supply chain. Second, deescalate as much as possible the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, while maintaining firm support to the state of Israel.

Successive U.S. administrations have adhered to these dual goals, both in principle and in actions. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was successfully reversed by a coalition of nations under American leadership. Iranian attempts to project its military power into the Gulf, were repeatedly rebuffed by the American military presence there. In addition, American security guarantees and the availability of advanced American weaponry was the bedrock of Saudi and the Emirates’s security.

The conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which has sparked four wars between 1948 and 1973, was gradually but significantly deescalated. Under American sponsorship, Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and again in 1994. A de facto armistice, was also reached between Israel and Syria.

The United States historically has relied on two principal strategies to carry out its foreign policy objectives. The first was the maintenance of the U.S.-supported Cairo-Jerusalem-Amman axis that served to stabilize Israel’s eastern and western borders as well as to isolate Syria and preclude the resumption of another Mideast war.

The second principal strategy was the alliance with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. Initially, the alliance with the House of Saud was designed to protect the Gulf oil producers from Soviet threats or those of their proxies, such as Iraq. But since 2003, that strategy has shifted to focus on containing Iranian expansionism and its alleged attempts to destabilize its Arab neighbors in the Gulf.

Today, the credibility of America’s Middle East policy has been severely damaged by a White House whose Mideast strategy is regarded within the region as unclear, inconsistent and lacking follow-through.

For instance, in July 2013 Egypt’s military officers removed the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, from power, suspended the Constitution and installed an interim government presided over by a senior jurist. The military generals built their case for intervention in a carefully orchestrated series of maneuvers, calling their actions an effort at a “national reconciliation” and refusing to call their takeover a coup. Then, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi appeared in a televised news conference and said that the military had no interest in politics and was ousting Mr. Morsi because he had failed to fulfill “the hope for a national consensus.”

At the White House, President Obama urged the military to move quickly to return Egypt to a democratically elected government, saying, “We are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove President Morsi and suspend the Egyptian Constitution.” In October 2016, the Obama administration announced a suspension of significant military aid to Egypt over the bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. This came as a result of the U.S. calling for Egyptian military restraint, to which military leaders responded by further cracking down on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Obama subsequently canceled a joint military exercise and announced the review of all American aid to Egypt. The United States halted a $260 million cash transfer to Egypt and suspended large-scale military systems, like the F-16 aircraft, tank parts, anti-ship missiles and Apache helicopters.

Despite all that, in May 2014, Gen. el-Sisi became president through elections and began his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, youth activists and the civil society.

However, with the situation in Libya spiraling out of control and threatening to spillover violence into its neighbors, plus the rise of Islamic State affiliated groups in the Sinai, the U.S. has now moved to restore military aid and high-level contacts between American and Egyptian governments. Nevertheless, the eroding relationship with Egypt opened the door for Russia to try to exert more influence there. Not surprising, the Kremlin and Sisi have been quick to jump at the opportunity to strengthen their ties.

The Obama administration’s record in Syria was viewed in the Middle East to be equally inconsistent. Initially, the White House condemned the Assad government for its brutality and insisted Assad would have to go. The president was clear that if Damascus used chemical weapons against its own civilian population, that “would be a red line” and that there would be “repercussions.” But when Assad unleashed chemical weapons on his own countrymen, the Obama administration in the end did not act.

Later, with mounting evidence that the air campaign against the Islamic State in Syria was failing to contain and destroy it as Obama had promised, Secretary of State John Kerry began to drop hints that the White House might be able to live with Assad continuing in power. This sent alarms within Saudi Arabia, which is now trying to assume a leading role in the Arab world, hence uneasy sentiments are growing towards the Obama administration’s policy within the Sunni-majority camp headed by the kingdom.

That has promoted Russia to seize an opportunity to intervene in the Syrian civil war; Russia has deployed two squadrons of advanced Sukhoi fighter jets as well as naval warships to support the Syrian Army’s ground offensive against rebel groups backed by the U.S.. Russia and the regime forces moved on with their plans regaining several strategic towns or cities in addition to clearly tilting the balance in favor of the regime in its war with the rebel and radical groups giving Assad an upper hand in any political deal that might be brokered in the future.

For the Obama White House, the crowning achievement of its foreign policy was the diplomatic opening with Iran, which would end some 35 years of Iranian-American hostility. That led to a nuclear deal under which Iran suspended its assumed attempts to develop nuclear weapons in return for lifting economic sanctions against Tehran and the acceptance of the Iranian government by the international community.

However, Iran got much more than that out of the deal. It got virtually everything that it asked for in return for slowing down or deferring portions of its nuclear program for the next decade. Yet, in the Arab world, led by the Saudis, believes that the Iran deal poses a threat because the sanction-relief money has helped Iran intensify its ballistic missile program, continue its effort to illicitly procure nuclear materials, and expand its funding for sectarian militias such as Hezbollah and Hashd al-Shaabi across the Middle East.

On the other hand, in March 2015, the Saudis intervened in Yemen to stop Iran-backed Houthi rebels from taking control of the country. The Obama administration subsequently supported the effort, albeit reluctantly, by supplying intelligence and military equipment. The war continues and the civilian death toll is increasing, and the prospects for a political settlement appear dim.

Saudi Arabia and its allies faced mounting international pressure to halt the bombing campaign in Yemen, while countries (even Arab ones) not in favor of the Saudi war on Yemen started increasingly questioning the Obama administration over its military support of the air campaign.

The Obama administration’s effort to encourage its Arab allies to carry a bigger burden in promoting peace in the Middle East has not revitalized its alliances with a new sense of common purpose and cooperation. Rather, it has left traditional partners feeling abandoned. Obama’s isolationist policies might have been aimed at fostering a new regional equilibrium by forcing local actors to play larger roles in ensuring peace and stability. Instead, the policy has created a dangerous vacuum that’s been filled not only by Russia and Iran, but by frightened partners such as the Saudis, who increasingly may seek to remedy their security dilemma through acts of self-preservation.