Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Navigating the New Middle East? the Obama Administration Is Lost at Sea and on the Rocks

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Navigating the New Middle East? the Obama Administration Is Lost at Sea and on the Rocks

Article excerpt

A previous version of this article was published in The Journal of International Security Affairs (Fall/Winter 2011).

The Obama administration has comprehensively lost its way on Middle East policy to an extent that poses tremendous dangers to the United States, Western interests, and the region as a whole. The cost of these mistakes will be-and already has been-serious losses, crises, and violent conflicts. People in the area will pay heavily in blood and suffering due to these miscomprehensions and miscalculations.

Despite these obvious problems, the mass media and academic experts have tended to ignore, misunderstand, or apologize for them. This failure of critical institutions to fulfill their watch-dog and evaluation tasks has worsened the situation, since corrections have not been made and honest debates have not taken place. Nothing illustrates the depth and extent of the problem more than a balanced survey. Consequently, this article presents three aspects of contemporary U.S. Middle East policy and the problems it faces. The first section provides the basic premises of the situation under the Obama administration. The second section discusses what its strategy should be. The third section looks at the various current issues with brief discussions on the gap between actual policy and preferable policy.


To an extent greater than any modern predecessor, the Obama administration has abandoned traditional diplomatic and international affairs concepts. This does not mean that they have been abandoned completely or that there is no continuity on Middle East policy, but the basic change has been greater than in the past. In particular, ideas such as realpolitik, power politics, leverage, rewarding allies and punishing enemies, credibility, and deterrence have been questioned or undermined. While the onset of the "Arab Spring" starting in January 2011 altered administration policy from the original framework in favor of reform and democratization-though, as shall be seen, not always-the same basic pattern continued. Some of the administration's "new thinking" attitudes are discussed as follows.

First, is the importance of popularity. While wanting to be liked by other countries and their people is something of a theme in U.S. foreign policy history-in sharp contrast to almost every other government in the world-it has never become as high a priority as in the Obama administration. The desire to be popular has shaped administration policies. That Obama had made the United States popular again was one of the administration's main claimed successes-though reliable polls did not necessarily show this to be true. To be popular, of course, required avoiding confrontations with others (even at times when there were conflicting interests) and showing special sensitivity (at times pandering) to what others wanted to hear. This was a perceived contrast with the preceding Bush administration, which was seen as making America especially disliked.

Together with popularity was the idea that the administration must get along with Islam. The interpretation was that being liked required a hypersensitivity toward Islam, going beyond the strong effort at carefulness followed by the preceding president in the wake of the September 11 attacks. While it was not noticed, there was far less emphasis on getting along with Arab nationalism. The president's unique personal experience and sympathy with Islam was a partial factor in this orientation, seen in his Cairo and Istanbul speeches, his banning of anything that even seemed to hint at a problem with radical political Islamism, and such symbolic gestures as ordering the head of NASA to focus on appreciating (that is, largely forging) some great Muslim contribution to space exploration.

The next policy adjustment was the redefinition of the Middle East in Islamic terms. This is a revolutionary, albeit virtually unnoticed, change and was the core idea of Obama's June 2009 Cairo speech. …

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