U.S. President Barack Obama came into the Oval office with one fundamental principle in mind pertaining to the Middle East: He would not be like George W. Bush. This meant that he would be responsible for rebuilding America's soft power and avoiding any kind of military engagement in the region. Obama simply believed that "It is not the job of the president of the U.S. to solve every problem in the Middle East," while keeping in mind all the while that his anti-Bush rhetoric had won him the presidency eight years ago and holding tightly to his ideals, even when the facts on the ground required at least some trite amount of flexibility. He remained loyal to the bedrock of his Middle Eastern policy, which was basically to stay aloof no matter how grave the consequences of his indifference became. He was not a belligerent leader and it was apparent that he would never be one for he was simply not built that way. Indeed, his peaceful and mild rhetoric was praise-worthy at the onset and endearing to many.
One major indication of this came in the first year of Obama's inauguration, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, honored as the first U.S. president to ever be granted the award within a year of taking office despite having failed to make any major breakthrough in that short amount of time. At the time, Obama said, "The U.S. is a country that is responsible for ending a war and working in another theater to confront a ruthless adversary which directly threatens the American people and her allies." Obama highlighted the crucial importance of peace between Israel and Palestinians, the elimination of nuclear threats and American contributions to ending bloodshed worldwide, not least the Middle East. As the region presents high stakes for U.S policy makers, these contributions also served U.S. national interests. However, Obama did little to achieve those ends. To the contrary, the U.S. president adopted a hands-off approach to the developments across the Atlantic, in a display of isolationist policy which brought severe consequences which now appear to be non-reversible.
Nearly half a million people are dead in Syria. The civil war in that country has spawned a serious refugee crisis that placed a massive burden on long-standing ally Turkey while bringing the EU to the verge of total collapse. Worse still, the unabated violence emanating from the region penetrated the European continent at an alarming level, paving the way for the escalation of far-right politics, amplifying xenophobia and breeding racism in the West. Thus, Obama, who was extolled publicly by mainstream U.S media outlets for his speeches promoting peace and tolerance among beliefs and ethnicities, remained apathetic in the face of these global problems. He chose not to act, even when the red-line he enunciated was crossed, with Assad using chemical weapons against his own people and killing more than a thousand civilians.
Now as his departure from the White House draws near, a slew of highbrows worldwide are immersed in wrapping up his eight-year-term, raising serious questions about what the president has done during his term in office to bring stability to the Middle East -- namely Syria -- taking a hard look at the way in which President Obama served U.S. national interests and casting doubt on his ability to sustain the U.S.'s longstanding role as a global power in this domain. The conclusion of their analyses is more or less akin and can be summed up in one word: Failure.
According to professor Philip Carl Salzman who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, the policies of Barack Obama included pursuits to turn friends into enemies and enemies into friends which ultimately, at the end of the day, backfired. Salzman said, "Obama's policy of 'leading from behind' ended up being 'a complete lack of leadership' in Syria. Obama was clearly trying to avoid doing in Syria what former President Bush had done in Iraq (the achievements of which Obama ruined by pulling out of Iraq against the advice of all of his generals)."
"Obama's foreign policy, which adhered to his objectives [in the Middle East], emphasized yielding punishments on America's allies; namely, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia while rewarding America's enemy: Iran. Partly, he wanted to make amends for America's past misdeeds, as he saw them, by being nice to the nation's enemies. He was also looking to his "legacy," hoping for great achievements, such as an Israel-Palestine peace agreement (an Obama failure), and reconciliation with Iran (a bad deal that will be regarded as a failure)."
Salzman also noted that one reason that the U.S. refused to take action in Syria was because the U.S. did not want to upset what Salzman calls America's "new best friend" -- Iran -- who has shown overwhelming support for the Assad regime. This contradicts the Obama administration's most stringent stance which did not change over the course of the war in Syria which was that "Assad must go."
"There was no great political opinion in the U.S. to come to the aid of our friends because there are no friends of the U.S., except perhaps the Kurds," Salzman further asserted.
By mulishly supporting the PKK's Syrian offshoot the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the U.S. has driven a wedge between itself and another so-called U.S. ally: Turkey. Amid Ankara's concerns regarding the PYD's ties to the PKK, it has relentlessly asked its NATO ally to stop arming and supporting the PYD, warning that arms and ammunition allegedly provided by the U.S. are being passed into the wrong hands, handed over to the PKK which has intensified its terrorist campaign with more attacks in Turkey. The support shown to the PYD in the form of cold, hard weapons - coupled with U.S. contentions that the PYD is fighting Daesh in Syria -- has self-emboldened the PKK in Turkey. However, unremitted warnings from Ankara have gone largely ignored by the U.S. administration. Turkey, a member of a U.S-led coalition against Daesh, had, at a time when the issue was applicable, stressed the crucial need for a safe zone to be established in Syria along its border with Turkey in hopes that the refugee influx in Turkey would be slowed and Turkey would be able to secure its borders. That call too, was not heeded.
In a similar vein, the controversial policies of the Obama administration put U.S.-Israeli ties under dire threat, as the U.S.'s decades-old "special" friend in the Middle East and the U.S. has seen its relationship decline to its lowest levels under the leadership of President Obama. Namely, the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran was the first major blow to U.S.-Israeli ties. While Obama apparently intended to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even-handedly, his ultimate resolution was once again "passivity." Now, as his presidency winds down, Obama has become subject of yet another accusation from Tel Aviv, following the recent U.N. resolution scandal in which the U.S. abstained from voting for a U.N. resolution to end Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The problem was, the issue came up before, and US always vetoed. Now Israel is looking to Trump to take the helm to fix the issues.
Obama's apparent wrong policies on the Middle East cannot be boiled down to merely losing friends in the region. To the contrary, the U.S. absence in the region has turned the levelled balance of powers in the Middle East over on its head. As U.S. influence in the region continued to wane, the vacuum became filled with Tehran's growing influence in Syria and Russia's regaining of power as a serious player in the Middle East. Putin obviously intends to play the leading role in his bid to broker a settlement -- with Turkey and Iran in the first place.
Now with the initiative of Russia and Turkey, the first step of a push towards a three-way reconciliation has been taken and a ceasefire agreement was reached between the opposition and the Syrian government. Newly launched peace talks between the pair will initially exclude the U.S., sources say, which of course is a clear sign that U.S. will not have a strong hand on the table, if calm can somehow be established in Syria.
"One fundamental mistake of the Obama administration has been their acceleration of Iran's drive to regional hegemony at the cost of offending friends like Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. By propping up Iran in Syria and Iraq, Obama has paved the path for Iran in its disruption of the Sunni-Shia balance," said foreign policy researcher Can Acun. He added that all these misdeeds could lead to catastrophic results in the region, asserting that Obama crossed "many red lines that he himself had established."
The political repercussions of Obama's foreign policy are among the least grave of the "legacy" he leaves behind. What is irretrievable appears to be the human tragedy in the region that killed millions while leaving millions more homeless who now try to carve out lives in lands foreign to them.
Why President Obama balked in the face of action against such atrocities is a question which still looms over the issue. His democratic and an apparent leftist line might have kept him from what would seem like imperialistic ambitions. Plus, he probably kept in mind the public opinion of Americans who were mostly against their troops going into war."Here is a growing fear among U.S. presidents, especially in the Democratic Party, of public backlash against the prolonged use of troops in any situation. Journalists are very quick to focus on the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) of soldiers, not to mention the suffering of those related to a soldier who dies. It is easier to portray the pain of individuals than the complexities of Middle Eastern politics," said history professor Daniel Gordon.
Now it is a matter of immense curiosity how U.S. foreign policy will be shaped when Trump enters the Oval office. With Obama leaving him so much to fix, time has yet to tell whether Trump's ascendancy will bring the coult back that the U.S. lost in the international arena or if the U.S. will reestablish its leading role as a global actor in the Middle East.