Obama’s legacy and Iran

Tewfick Aclimandos
Thursday 25 Jan 2018

On almost all regional issues former US president Barack Obama failed to deliver, but he did contribute to a significant improvement in the international mood

Two weeks ago I started reading US commentator Michael Scheuer’s book “Imperial Hubris,” first published in 2004, and met with a distinguished French scholar who specialises in strategy and military history. My reading and the encounter led me to think once more about the legacy of former US president Barack Obama and his policies on the Middle East as well as policies on Iran. These are two very different issues, though they have some obvious links.

During my meeting with the French scholar, I made my usual criticisms of Obama. For instance, his lectures on ethics were often unbearable. He misunderstood the Middle East, and he did nothing to resolve the Palestinian issue and withdrew US troops too quickly from Iraq. He raised the stakes in Syria and then did nothing to resolve the crisis. He toyed with the idea of an alliance with Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. He failed to assess correctly the situation in Egypt, and he let Iran and Russia gain the upper hand in the wider region. Almost everybody in the Middle East was very angry with him.

My interlocutor replied that Obama had achieved a lot. This might not be obvious, but he did improve relations between Washington and Paris, these being vital both for NATO and the West’s well-being. All the indicators, from policy coordination to tourism, prove that relations between France and the US are now at a new height.

This rang a bell. I had been reading the first 40 pages of Scheuer’s book, and all of a sudden what Obama had done made sense. I know this will irritate Scheuer, but I think his book inspired the Democratic president’s policies. Obama had surely read the book. The thesis of the introduction and the first chapter is simple: Muslims may not like our values and ways of living, but they do not attack us or hate us for these. Those who fight us do so because they do not like our foreign policies. This hatred is widely shared in the Arab and Muslim world, and rightly so as we are ignorant, brutal, interventionist and invaders.

Read Al-Qaeda’s statements – they amply prove the point, Scheuer says. These insights deserve serious discussion, but this would take us too far. Suffice it to say that the basic thesis is sound, but I do not think the author draws the line between Muslim public opinion and the views of the Islamists correctly. On many crucial issues, the Muslim Brotherhood does not represent an average Muslim stance.

If you were an American presidential elections candidate who was not a Middle East specialist, but had read Scheuer’s book in 2008 and talked with a distinguished scholar such as Rashid Khalidi about the issues, you would be likely to reach the following conclusions. We owe the Muslim world many excuses. We should urgently solve the Palestinian issue. We should retreat from Iraq, and we should let the Muslims sort out their own problems with our help, but without too much interference from our side. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood looks like a better representative of Muslim public opinions than the region’s authoritarian regimes.

The first step was the easiest. Obama, duly elected, delivered his famous Cairo speech, and in a single masterstroke achieved a lot. All of a sudden, America looked nice. I thought then, and still think today, that the speech made promises that could not be kept, and that it should have been more modest. However, it was a brilliant success, and we tend to forget how bad relations between America and much Muslim public opinion were before it. Of course, anti-Americanism is still alive and kicking today, but its nature has changed. People now overwhelmingly think the antagonism is more political than religious, though things could change again thanks to the policies of the Trump administration.

The next steps were more difficult. First I should acknowledge that I do not know whether the Obama administration was active or reactive, and whether it considered the Muslim world as a whole, or saw it as made up of three major groups (the Arabs, the Africans and the Asians), or in terms of a number of countries which had nothing in common with each other except Islam. Obama tried to tackle the Palestinian problem first, but the Israelis rebuked him.

Unfortunately, he did not insist and quickly looked the other way. Maybe more could have been done to convince him not to skip the issue. He then turned to the Iraq issue. Retreating from Iraq would mean empowering Iran, so trying to improve relations with Tehran made sense, especially if it is born in mind that there are no military solutions to the nuclear issue. Obama applied considerable pressure and toughened the sanctions against Iran. However, in the negotiations he was much more flexible – too flexible, according to some Western diplomats.

I thought at first that this did not fit with Obama’s position on Syria. But in fact it might. It was necessary to limit Iran’s rise and to give something to Israel and the Sunni Arab countries that felt threatened by Tehran. Therefore, Obama might not have been hostile to a tacit bargain: Syria to the Sunnis, and Iraq to the Shias. However, he overlooked the fact that Syria was also crucial for Iran and Russia. He could not escalate the situation as the mood in the US and US finances would not permit it. More generally, the atmosphere was one of retreat. As a result, the Syrian enterprise soon became a huge disaster.

Then it turned out that Sunni public opinion was much more diversified than some Western academics had contended. Significant forces countered the Muslim Brothers, and the Obama administration was slow to recognise this fact.

Obama’s legacy is curious in that on almost all the issues he failed to deliver. However, he contributed to a significant improvement in the international mood. He stopped the world decline in US popularity. But he did not keep his promises, as he promised too much. The result is that there has been plenty of room for both hope and frustration. In the Middle East, a major development over the past 20 years has been the rise of Iran. In some ways, this was ineluctable; in others, it was the result of US policy in invading Iraq and then retreating from it.

Now many European powers are following in Obama’s footsteps and courting Tehran. Many think that Saudi Arabia will be unable to modernise and that it has already lost the battle. The Saudis are latecomers, and they are going too fast. At such high speeds, serious accidents are likely to occur, some commentators say. Some in Israel defend this diagnosis and line of reasoning. A lot will depend on Iran’s choice between ideology and pragmatism.

All the Sunni countries concerned – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE – face a dilemma: should they try to prepare a joint counter-project, or should they try to reach, separately or together, a détente with Tehran?

* Tewfick Aclimandos is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University. 

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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