President Obama has been perhaps more deeply involved in Middle East affairs than any other president and yet he has failed to outlined his foreign policy vision for the region. If anything, he has pursued a ping-pong policy. His secretary of state is now so frustrated, she’s jumping ship and those around her are leaking that the president’s foreign policy team are amateurs.
The first two years of Obama’s policy was driven by the desire to reverse the Arab/Muslim belief that, under George W. Bush, the United States was hostile toward them. Hence, his first major foreign policy address in Cairo declaring his respect for Islam and desire to improve relations with the Arab/Muslim world. Lost on his advisers was that giving the speech in Egypt was a tacit endorsement of a regime that repressed Muslims and sent the message that Obama was just like his predecessors in his willingness to support dictators so long as they were pro-American.
The Arab lobby also pushed the longstanding view that America’s most important interest is in securing oil supplies, which means keeping the Saudis happy.
The Arabists believe the way to keep them happy is to weaken our alliance with Israel and to promote a Palestinian state, which they think can best be achieved by pressuring Israel to make one-sided concessions to the Palestinians. This policy proved a disaster as the president demanded that Israel freeze settlements, including in its capital, Jerusalem, thereby alienating most Israelis. By raising a demand never made by the Palestinians, he boxed them into a corner where they refused to negotiate unless Israel met Obama’s demand.
The Saudis, meanwhile, refused to take any steps Obama asked them to take to support Middle East peace. By the end of last year, Obama’s approach was universally viewed as a failure that could have been avoided by ignoring the Arabists.
Arabists cling to the notion that Israel is the root of all problems in the Middle East even as the region has exploded in turmoil completely unrelated to Israel. Thus, they now advocate focusing even more energy on the Palestinian issue.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians have no interest in negotiating, and the Israelis say they will talk, but now have to worry about coping with new dangers created by the Arab upheaval.
The unrest in the Middle East has forced Obama to confront problems beyond the Palestinian issue, but he has no coherent policy. On one hand, he says the United States favors democracy and he's backed protestors in Tunisia and Egypt, but, at the same time, he won’t help protestors in Jordan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Syria or Bahrain.
The president routinely criticizes Israel, the only democratic government in the region, while extolling the virtues of autocrats in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states.
Obama rewards the loyalty of Gulf autocrats with support, but threw America’s Egyptian friend Hosni Mubarak under the bus. He opposes dictators, such as Qaddafi, but remains silent about the oppressive regime in Saudi Arabia.
Obama justifies intervention in Libya on humanitarian grounds, but he is unwilling to use force to protect civilians from massacres in Syria or Yemen.
The president says Qaddafi’s rule must end, but he does not want to use military force to bring about regime change.
When protestors rallied against the repressive theocracy in Iran, he did nothing to support them and, rather than endorse the calls for democracy and an end to that brutal regime, Obama has advocated negotiations with the mullahs, helping to legitimize and sustain their rule.
Rather than act as the leader of the Free World, Obama has been indecisive in the face of each eruption in the Arab world, waiting for direction from other leaders, the U.N. or the Arab League.
When he finally acted in Libya, he immediately turned the decision making over to others. Even after his speech to the nation, it is unclear what we are trying to achieve, but he appears to want no role in influencing Libya’s future.
Now, after more than two years, it is possible to discern the Obama Doctrine in the Middle East: America will support allies, encourage freedom and democracy and protect innocents from massacres by their leaders – except for when we don’t.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign policy analyst whose latest book is "The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East" (HarperCollins Publishers).