Being perceived as one of the most inept and incompetent American Presidents ever with regards to foreign policy- by both left and right alike- is not a badge that President Obama wears with honour. The 6 year long list of defeats on the international stage for the Obama administration is mammoth. Some examples of its failures include:
– A rise in the growth of Al-Qaeda, especially in the Arabian peninsula, to the extent that the Director of National Intelligence claimed before Congress that it was as big a threat now as it was in 2001.
-Saudi Arabia refusing a prestigious seat at the UN Security Council out of fury with the US policy on Syria and Iran.
-Being perceived as having been showed down by Russia in Syria in backing down on a promise of military intervention, meaning to a grand total of 150,000 people being butchered as well as millions being displaced.
The latter has, of course, recently led to further Russian belligerency in Ukraine with the annexation of Crimea and the probability of more aggression in Eastern Ukraine. The world is justifiably confused. It continues to wonder how the credibility of what was just years ago, the definitive hegemony in the world, swept away so fast.
Obama, despite the perception that listed failures may allude to, is neither ignorant nor naive. As such, he will be well aware of the shambolic state of his foreign policy. The current crisis in Ukraine has been a prime indicator of that, and has served as an epiphany to his pitfalls. It shows that America’s threats are not taken seriously and America’s power and influence is not believed in, leading inevitably to the recent Russian aggression which can yet develop into further flagrant violations of international law and sovereignity from Russia as well as other anti-American powers. And with that established, it is necessary that he understands the vital importance of reestablishing America’s preeminence and reputation on the world stage for the sake of America’s international future, as well as for his legacy. This will require taking some form of action to demonstrate that America is in fact not in a geopolitical coma. Such action will most likely be taken in the region of the world where there is always invariably a problem to be solved- the Middle East. In this theatre, the Obama Administration will probably attempt to rectify some of the numerous mistakes that it has made in the last 6 years, to try and demonstrate that it is still capable of being a world actor.
However, the Middle East is more of a crisis zone than ever, with no thanks to the administration. The relationship between Israel and America has continued to deteriorate existentially, with a stunningly naive and cock-sure strategy to solve the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict backfiring and straining America’s relationship with not only the Israelis, but the Palestinians as well. The Administration’s handling of the Arab Spring was regrettable at best, contemptible at worst, with indecisiveness causing an ‘Islamist Winter’ that is still struggling to thaw. Such an example can be found in America’s enabling of the political Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt through diplomatic and political support, and its ensuing feckless policy following the Brotherhood’s popular deposition by the military. This has been a disasterous blow to American relations with its most key Arab ally, and led almost immediately to Egypt sending its military buffs to Russia for a shopping spree. Tunisia and Libya continue their descent into terrorism and anarchy, with the Jordanian Ambassador being kidnapped in the former. Syria has already been mentioned, and the stalemate continues to be lethal with the Syrian President Assad using his chemical weapons yet again to devastating effect, despite a highly touted ‘80% disposal’.
Meanwhile in the non-Arab world, Turkey, a critical NATO and American ally, is spiralling into authoritarianism and moving closer to the Iranian sphere under Prime Minister Erdogan- all without a peep from the White House. And perhaps worst of all, Iran has been an unmitigated disaster in terms of policy. From the failure to react to the democratic Green Revolution in 2009, to the present naive attempt at détente with the fanatically anti-American Iranian regime, here the Administration has seemed at its most clueless to everyone. The recent release of frozen Iranian funds by the US has pumped over $20 billion into Iran’s economy, and sanctions relief has doubled the country’s oil and gas exports. This happens while the Ayatollah of Iran has recently denied the Holocaust again, as well as led several ‘Death to America’ chants at rallies. The Iranian issue has been handled so horribly, it has resulted in Saudi Arabia and Israel- otherwise categorical opposites and enemies- sharing intelligence. This is given the wide concern regarding Iranian aspirations of regional strategic and political hegemony, which are being manifested by the Iranian nuclear program. This concern, and lack of US reassurance has gone to the extent that Saudi Arabia is reportedly mulling the acquisition of nuclear capabilities, potentially setting the scene for further nuclear proliferation in the world’s wildest region.
Despite the damage done to American credibility and influence in the Middle East, there are opportunities there for the Obama Administration to restore it.
A first and probable move that will be taken within the coming months is the wider arming of the Syrian rebels. The US, in conjunction with Saudi Arabia, has already provided BGM-71 shoulder-fired anti-tank launchers to some Syrian rebel groups this year, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Syrian conflict has dragged on since 2011 and the extensive and continued loss of life affects both America’s credibility and relations with the pro-American Gulf States, who actively support the collapse of Assad. Moreover, given the considerable Russian interest that exists in Syria in the continuation of the Russia-friendly regime, this tactic also serves as an indirect way of undermining Russia’s foreign policy; something of a par to the events in Ukraine. Arming the rebels will likely be widened if the rebels can prove to be responsible with what they have currently received; this would consist in rebel acquisition of anti-air systems from Saudi Arabia with the blessing of the US. This would considerably strengthen the position of the rebels against the regime, improve relations with the Gulf as well as represent a strong and credible American presence in the critical conflict again.
Another facet of a possible American Middle East strategy is the healing of relations with Egypt. The United States was widely responsible for the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, having given it strong diplomatic and political backing. After the removal of the Brotherhood last July, the Administration withheld military aid and failed to give support to the popular military coup. This led to widespread anti-American sentiment arising in Egypt, with some Egyptian groups even calling Obama a ‘secret Muslim’- an accusation normally thrown out by the lunatic fringe of the Tea Party. Now that Egyptian elections are drawing near and the mandate of the former Defence Minister and Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi is essentially guaranteed, it seems that the US is making diplomatic overtures to the Government to try and prevent Marshal al-Sisi from continuing his affair with Russia. The Egyptian Foreign Minister stated in November last year that he wishes to return relations with Russia to a “Soviet Union level”, and recently it was tabled that Egypt would purchase 24 of Russia’s advanced MiG-35 fighter jets. After the latter announcement as well as the Ukraine Crisis, the previously passive American response to this has seemingly flipped. Late last month, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed his hopes to meet with al-Sisi. On Tuesday, he phoned the Egyptian Foreign Minister to say that he is “certifying to Congress that Egypt is sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States”. This follows a conversation between US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel and his Egyptian counterpart to confirm the delivery of 10 Apache helicopters. It is wise that America keeps Egypt as an ally, given its strategic location and status as the largest and most populous country in the Arab world.
As for the third power-play in the region, it is hoped that it will be that when the White House’s labour-of-love ‘peace talks’ fail, America will put the security of its closest ally before the falsely-contrived notion that the lack of a two-state solution is the source of all its Middle Eastern problems today. No- the cause for the majority of those problems is, in fact, poor decision-making that allows either tyrrany or anarchy to overrun countries, weak policy that fails to support allies and instead strengthens those who detest you, and weak leadership in cowering at the very thought of using force to protect your interests despite having more than enough of a case and a capacity to use it. This is the source of America’s issues in the Middle East and indeed, all around the world; yet in this region, the effects of a poorly crafted and poorly executed policy stand at their most pronounced, in the breadth of their repercussions.
By arming the Syrian rebels in phases and by supporting the new Egyptian government, there stands an opportunity to resurrect American standing and presence on the world stage. If, within the next 2 years, President Obama is morally capable of turning the Egyptian Revolution and Syrian Conflict around so that American interests are served, it will be a positive signal from America that her allies- and rivals- have awaited for so long, and it will give something for historians of the Obama White House foreign policy to debate other than the scope of its failure. Yet if the slumber of the giant continues, it will awake to a very different and a far more dangerous world in 2016.