Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Rescuing the Obama doctrine

While traditional wisdom has it that outgoing US presidents conserve their legacy in the final stretch, Obama could well take risks, including addressing the core Middle East conflict, writes Magda Shahin

Al-Ahram Weekly

It seems that the muddled 2016 US elections can be traced back to the rise of President Obama in 2008 and his winning the nomination over Hillary Clinton, the then strong establishment candidate. Thereafter, challenging the establishment became the norm rather than the exception, whether in the Democratic or Republican parties. Today, the American people are more aware of their power and resent what they perceive as politicking in Washington. They are increasingly becoming their own driving force in the elections.

In 2008, Obama was a young black Illinois senator who created havoc by winning over the establishment and acceding to the presidency. Today, Obama, the first African American president in US history, seems to be concerned with his legacy and his ranking among the party’s pundits. Domestically, Obama succeeded in extracting the US economy from the bottleneck of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. His administration takes pride in returning the economy to a healthy state, with five per cent unemployment and a 2.5 per cent growth rate. On the foreign policy level, Obama, a self-labelled anti-doctrinaire candidate, is suddenly in search of a doctrine. No doubt that his daring moves towards clinching the Iran nuclear deal and passing it through Congress, as well as the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba, count in his favour. Obama’s “engagement with the enemy” diplomacy, however, brought him criticism as well as praise. Such an engagement policy can hardly be considered a blueprint, much less a long-standing presidential doctrine that will outlive him.

On a different note, Obama’s high hopes that Congress will ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement are in doubt in light of the sudden and escalating disapproval of the principle of free trade by presidential candidates from both the Republican and Democratic parties.

In spite of the fact that the Middle East is the least inspiring area to President Obama, it remains the area that can help him seal his doctrine.

Contrary to his policy-thinkers and national security advisors, as well as the military establishment, Obama was wise enough not to fall into the trap of the Iraq-Afghanistan syndrome of conducting a war in Syria without clearly identifying an exit plan. That Obama did not strike, in spite of his faux pas of the “red line” rhetoric, was a rational decision. Given that even his closest ally, British Prime Minister David Cameron, was denied the go ahead by his parliament, Obama opted to back off. He was blamed for having embarrassed himself and having undercut US credibility in the region. That to him was secondary. Neither Syria nor its president were priorities for Obama, or caused any direct threat to US national security.

Such an independent and well-calculated judgement drew Obama further apart from the establishment platform, and from the golden centre of the bi-partisan approach.

Once again Obama singled himself out by announcing that the Islamic State group (ISIS) is contained and does not pose an existential threat to the US. He is even unique in his conviction that the world has to live with attacks such as those in Paris and Brussels and count them as collateral damage. Obama foreshadows an end to ISIS and Islamist terrorism to a distant enlightenment era, like the one undergone by Christianity in the Middle Ages.

The relativity with which Obama weighs the issues of security interests to the US should be instructive enough to delineate his priorities. Between ISIS and climate change, the latter is gaining prominence in what Obama perceives as a real threat to the planet in general, and to the US in particular, to the amazement of many.

Undoubtedly, Obama has proven throughout his two-term presidency that he is sui generis, uncommon and exclusive. Examples are many, as stated. Is Obama ready to damage his legacy by taking a fatalistic approach towards Netanyahu? Does he really want to be placed in history as the US president who backed-off from a confrontation with the strong man in Israel? With all his creativeness and logic, does Obama want to be considered a defeatist regarding the question of the Middle East?

It seems that Obama has not given up on the Middle East. Supporters remain confident that Obama is capable of coming up with broad guidelines for a potential solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They draw the parallels with presidents Reagan and Clinton who did not shy away from bold decisions with one month left before leaving office. Such choices were instrumental in moving the process forward. Reagan’s recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) facilitated the convening of the Madrid Conference, and Clinton’s guidelines induced George W Bush to promote the two-state solution.

Whether American voters want to acknowledge it or not, the legacies of US presidents have, more often than not, been linked to the Middle Eastern region. Starting from Eisenhower to Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush father and son, each has had his mark on the question of the Middle East, which continues to be an unresolved crisis.

It is improbable that Obama will leave office empty-handed concerning the Middle East, where he has previously invested time and effort. Conditions seem to have changed and may play into Obama’s hands at the end of the day. Factors to be borne in mind include:

- The continued violence between the Israelis and Palestinians has to be stopped.
- An engaged US secretary of state who does not take Obama’s no for an answer and strongly promotes some kind of success in the Middle East.
- Because the outcome continues to look blurred, it is in Obama’s prime interest to aid the process and give it a push, either directly by summoning Abbas and Netanyahu, or through his preferred multilateral path, going through the UN Security Council.

There may not be much ground for optimism, but we may hope that constructive and consequential steps will be taken before Obama leaves office. A UN Security Council resolution is once again being widely discussed. France and other countries are talking about convening a conference on the question, or establishing a new contact group. The energy is there and President Obama has nothing to lose, as we witnessed during his remarkable visit to Cuba.

To be clear, as I noted above, Obama’s actions do not need Hillary Clinton’s blessing and could even help her, giving her an issue to distance herself from in the short-term. If she becomes president, she would be in the position to walk into a White House where her predecessor has spared her having to spend political capital on this issue straight away.


The writer is a professor of practice and director of the Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Centre for American Studies and Research at the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

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