Obama and the Arab world: A legacy of failure

Azza Radwan Sedky
Tuesday 21 Mar 2017

When he came to office, millions were hopeful that Barack Obama would deliver on his promises regarding US relations with Arab countries. He failed.

In August 2008, on a cruise ship heading to Alaska, I sat glued to my cabin TV set. Nothing on that luxurious ship could have enticed me to leave that cabin as I watched the Democratic Party candidate, back then, Senator Barack Obama, speak.

He had me captivated, but I was not alone, for Obama always held his audience spellbound, coming across as articulate and genuine.

Early on, his foreign policy pledges were undeniably bonafide. He vowed to disentangle the US from Afghanistan and Iraq, and close Guantanamo; “No more Iraqs” had gained him many voters. And he became the 44the US president, his being the first black presidency, which exemplified diversity and acknowledgement of the other.

Then he chose Egypt’s Cairo University as the venue from which to speak to the Muslim world, and again I watched in awe. “I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.”

“The Holy Quran tells us,” continued Obama, “O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”

No other US president had extended the reconciliatory olive branch of peace in that fashion. It was like a new beginning, and I, like millions, was hopeful that Obama would deliver on his promises.

Today, eight years after Obama’s heartening start, we look back and assess his legacy in the Arab world — a legacy of failure.


Though President Bush’s invasion of Iraq remains one of history's most tragic disasters, President Obama’s role in the Iraqi war may have surpassed Bush’s jaded blunder. In 2011, Obama ordered US combat troops to withdraw from Iraq. Regrettably, they left behind an open playing field for the Islamic State (IS), Al-Nusra Front, and other insurgencies to move in. Not only did Obama forsake the Iraqis but he also renounced the US’s role in generating the Iraqi plight.

Iraq, today, remains at the mercy of Islamist militants. And to this Obama comments, “The ability of ISIL to not just mass inside of Syria, but then to initiate major land offensives that took Mosul [in Iraq], for example, that was not on my intelligence radar screen."


Syria will remain the thorn in Obama’s legacy in the Arab world. Siding with the opposition against President Bashar Al-Assad seems irrelevant today in the large scheme of things. As the opposition gained momentum, it got infiltrated by militants and factions from across the world.

The ongoing war left Syria with a humanitarian calamity: over 400,00 dead, a devastated wasteland, and the foreboding title of “the world’s largest refugee crisis.”

President Obama adopted a feint and indecisive role calling the fight against IS “long-term.” He dithered, leaving the door wide open for a multitude of countries to get involved. Neither Syria nor the Syrians themselves truly mattered.

Robert Ford, who resigned in 2014 as US ambassador to Syria over policy disagreements, said: “I’m personally sad that after we thought we had learned lessons in places like Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Rwanda, it's in fact very clear that this administration doesn't really care.”

Today, a ceasefire in Syria is holding as a Russian-backed truce that the US played no role in takes effect. 


Intervening in Libya and toppling Gaddafi left the country with a vacuum similar to that created in Iraq. President Obama made sure that the intervention was led by a NATO coalition, and in October 2011 NATO pulled out of Libya. This vacuum was immediately seized by IS.

Once Libya was Africa’s richest state; today Libya is in chaos, torn by civil war, split between Misrata militias on one side and General Khalifa Hiftar on the other.

While Obama was for the change in leadership and saving the lives of innocent Libyans, he never completed the task he initiated. When asked about his failures, Obama responded that failing to prepare for the aftermath of the ousting of the Libyan leader was the worst mistake of his presidency.

Whether in Libya, Iraq, or Syria, IS emerged as the successor after the toppled or targeted regimes left these countries easy prey. Obama’s strategy regarding IS failed; it never seemed wilful or deliberate enough, and yet his administration continued its rhetoric on how it was working to degrade and destroy IS.

The repercussions of this stance are felt across the Arab world.


“An orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now,” announced President Obama declaring the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s reign.

After Mubarak stepped down, Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton sided with ex-President Morsi, but were never willing to stand with President El-Sisi. As retributive measures, the US withheld F-16 fighter jets, cancelled joint military exercises and, as the final straw, suspended, even if temporarily or partially, $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt.

President Obama had invested much in the Muslim Brotherhood and their leader and he couldn’t forgo that investment without a fuss. Muslim Brotherhood members blatantly raised the Rabaa sign in the White House, even after Egypt designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group.

President Obama gave President El-Sisi a deliberate snub. Egypt was left to fend for itself against terrorism and economic hardship with the US oblivious to its capacity to assist. Soon Egypt was drawing on other allegiances and partnerships, such as Russia, China and France, in addition to the Gulf States, and maintaining an aloof and distant relationship with the US.

The one and only decision made by President Obama which, at face value, sided with the Arab world came too late and, alas, immediately backfired. On the eve of Obama’s leaving office, the US abstained from a UN vote that allowed the UN to demand an end to Israeli settlements. This was followed by a vow from Israeli officials to build thousands of new settlements on occupied Palestinian land in defiance.

President Obama failed miserably in the Arab world, and it is no wonder that Arabs awaited his exit from the Oval Office with anticipation, and are, rightfully or wrongfully, awaiting to see how President Trump handles Obama’s legacy in the coming days.

The writer is an academic, political analyst, and author of Cairo Rewind: the First Two Years of Egypt's Revolution, 2011-2013.

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