Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Obama’s legacy

Whoever follows Barack Obama into the White House, they will have to find a new way of dealing with the Middle East, where a new indigenous order is in the making, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

The topic on the agenda of the forum on the Middle East that took place near the American capital, Washington, was the legacy of President Obama’s policies in the Middle East. The following summarises my contribution to that seminar, which I opened with a quote from Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of the Alley: “The disease of our alley is forgetfulness.” The Nobel Prize laureate was speaking not of a particular alley but of the world from the moment of creation to the present day. It is impossible to forget not just Obama’s legacy but also that of his predecessor, George Bush Jr. The common view in Washington is that the two administrations could not have been more different. Bush’s Republican administration was notorious for its interventionism and use of military force. The Democratic administration that followed was characterised by prudence, engineering the withdrawal of US troops from the region and limited use of military force. Nevertheless, they shared the same aim: To change the Middle East in the manner that occurred in the former Soviet bloc.

Former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice famously summed up the standpoint of the Republican administration in a speech at the American University in Cairo in which she used the term “creative chaos.” Contrary to the impression that spread like wildfire in the Middle East, she did not mean to turn the region from order into chaos, but rather to turn it into systems of government with liberal features, most notably free market economies, as occurred in the former Soviet bloc countries. Obama did not mention the word chaos in his farewell speech to the UN General Assembly last month. Rather, he couched the idea in the nature of a dialogue (though perhaps it would be more accurate to say monologue) between two systems of thought and knowledge: Liberalism and authoritarianism. Ultimately, liberalism prevailed. While chaos was not mentioned, pain was there without mercy.

What was missing in the outlook of both administrations was that societies do notfunction in that way, having to choose between two ideological systems such as liberalism and authoritarianism. Neither history nor logic permit us to abridge human societies to such a degree. There are always hundreds of factors and variables that interact leading societies to make transitions from one state to another. Britain during the rule of Henry VIII in the 16th century was not just about the conflict between the Catholic Church and Protestant reform. There was also the question of technological and industrial development, various values and ideas, rival institutions, a church far away in Rome and another closer to hand in London, not to mention a king who wanted to remarry, who would remarry many times and who also had lovers. Britain ultimately changed, but gradually and in stages. Catholics were only given the right to vote in Britain at the beginning of the 19th century; women would have to wait until the 20th century.

The question facing both US administrations was whether or not the US should intervene and if so whether the intervention should include military force and to what extent. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The cost, as has emerged in a recent report, was $5 trillion. In those two wars, hundreds of thousands of people died, a far larger number were wounded, lives were destroyed in many other ways, and states that were not particularly successful but standing were reduced to collapsed and failed states. Obama took the opposite course: To disengage and move away from intervention. To him and others who had opposed the war in Iraq, this was the right choice to make. Others, such as Trump, would work both sides of the issue, altering their stances to suit their political needs at a given moment. In all events, the juxtaposition between intervention and non-intervention, or involvement and withdrawal, is false. The fact is that both the Bush and Obama legacies brought involvement, intervention and use of military force in the pursuit of a concept of the political engineering of other states in accordance with a US vision, regardless of whether this was based on a promise of creative chaos or the type of chaos that ultimately proved destructive. The difference between the neoconservatives and the progressive liberals, it turns out, is miniscule.

It is true that Middle Eastern countries and societies have many indigenous and non-indigenous ills and that they and their leaders cannot be absolved of responsibility for what has become of this region. However, this does not make it possible to exonerate outside powers, and the US in particular, not just with regard to the destruction of the Middle East but also the damage inflicted on the interests of their own countries. Just as the Bush era inflicted a huge price tag that culminated in the economic and financial collapse of 2008, the Obama era ended with a large deficit in money and reputation. As for the world, it ended with a broken and crippled Middle East. The essence of the legacy of Obama and Bush resides in their imagined power to politically engineer states and societies. This notion, unfortunately, is inherent in liberal thought, which imagines that mankind can control the world through the power of ideas or arms or both.

From the perspective of the Middle East, the notion itself is inherently flawed as it is grounded in the theory of root causes which holds that the ills of the Middle East stem from dictatorship, while eliminating the fact that social, economic, cultural and ideological complexities often made thought and political action move in simple and unproductive trajectories. It is amazing that both Bush and Obama overlooked the important lesson taught by Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s. Lincoln held that the value of upholding the federation (by which he meant the American state) should not be overshadowed by other values, including the constitution and abolition.

The old order in the Middle East has ended. The conflict today is not about reinstating old regimes and the ghosts of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hosni Mubarak or even Bashar Al-Assad, however much he clings to power. It is about the search for a new and different order. This would not be the first time this occurs. It happened in 1916 with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was less about borders than it was about dismantling the Ottoman Empire. Subsequently, when the Free Officers movements came to a number of Arab countries, another order emerged in the 1950s and the Middle East changed again as it passed through the Arab-Israeli wars and settlements, and a Cold War and various hot Arab wars, all of which affected the condition of the Arab nation state that fought to steady its keel through conflict, competition, cooperation, alliance and other modes of political and diplomatic movement.

Today, we have arrived at another moment for building another order, the dawn of which is still a long way off. The Arab Spring was not a harbinger of its birth. But when it is born it will essentially be an indigenous creation. As for Bush and Obama, they will go and be replaced by others who will have to search for another way to deal with the Middle East, a way unlike what we have seen during the past two decades.


The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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