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The Evolution Of Obama’s Middle East Fantasy


Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces captured the city of Palmyra over the weekend thanks to heavy air support from Russian warplanes, dealing a blow to ISIS and strengthening Assad’s hold on power. Regime forces, with Russian support, are reported to be continuing the offensive to nearby ISIS-controlled cities. Meanwhile, Syrian opposition forces backed by the CIA and the Pentagon are fighting each other, and the number of U.S. troops deployed to Iraq has increased to about 5,000.

This is what President Obama’s Middle East foreign policy looks like today.

It’s a far cry from the peaceful vision Obama laid out in his 2009 Cairo speech. He spoke then of a “new beginning” for the Muslim world and the West, and the need to “act boldly in the years ahead” to face “shared challenges” in a globalized world. “When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience,” Obama said to thunderous applause. “That is what it means to share this world in the twenty-first century.”

One wonders whether Obama thinks the death toll in Syria, now estimated to be at least 470,000, counts as a stain on our collective conscience.

Obama Blames Others For The Middle East Quagmire

Whatever Obama meant in 2009 by “shared challenges,” he proved unwilling to shoulder much responsibility for them. Today, he’s ready to blame everyone but himself for the Middle East quagmire. In Jeffrey Goldberg’s long article in the current issue of The Atlantic, “The Obama Doctrine,” Obama comes off as dismayed that the many fractious elements in the Middle East have not responded to his agenda the way they were supposed to. The piece, impressive for its access to the president, chronicles the evolution of Obama’s Middle East fantasy.

Obama is dismayed the many fractious elements in the Middle East have not responded the way they were supposed to.

Goldberg writes that some of Obama’s “deepest disappointments concern Middle Eastern leaders themselves.” Assad was not supposed to use chemical weapons on his own people. Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, was supposed to do more to end the civil war in Syria. The Europeans were supposed to do more to stabilize Libya after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. The king of Jordan, Abdullah II, was not supposed to complain so much about Iran. The Saudis were supposed to modernize in response to the Arab Spring, not try to crush the movement. Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to work harder toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians. They have all let Obama down.

All these leaders of course represent competing factions—tribes that have frustrated Obama by their backward ways. The problem, for example, with Libya? “The degree of tribal division in Libya was greater than our analysts had expected,” Obama explained. “And our ability to have any kind of structure there that we could interact with and start training and start providing resources broke down very quickly.” So Libya was left to its own unhappy fate.

Tribalism and Fatalism

Obama had a similar response to countries across the Middle East, especially once the Arab Spring descended into violence. Today, he seems to have resigned himself to the intransigence and tribalism of Muslim leaders on the one hand, and American impotence on the other. “One of the most destructive forces in the Middle East, Obama believes, is tribalism—a force no president can neutralize,” writes Goldberg. “Tribalism, made manifest in the reversion to sect, creed, clan, and village by the desperate citizens of failing states, is the source of much of the Muslim Middle East’s problems, and it is another source of his fatalism.”

Instead of creating a new beginning for the Middle East, Obama created a vacuum by pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq at just the wrong moment.

But of course tribalism can be neutralized—by force, if necessary. That’s precisely what the U.S. military did in Iraq in 2007-08, when President Bush ordered the troop surge that finally pacified the country. By making itself the most powerful tribe, the U.S. military became the necessary arbiter between Iraq’s warring Sunni factions, including some groups that would eventually help to form ISIS. When Obama inherited Iraq from Bush in 2009, it was within our power to negotiate a continuing U.S. presence that likely would have preempted the formation of ISIS and might have also prevented the Syrian civil war.

But instead of creating a new beginning for the Middle East, Obama created a vacuum by pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq at just the wrong moment. Goldberg’s piece reveals just how far Obama has drifted from those heady days of his 2009 Cairo speech. Back then, Obama’s idée fixe was that tribes and factions will eventually melt away in the face of globalization. Here was the adjunct faculty lounge philosopher at his finest:

For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes—and, yes, religions—subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

Obama Retreated From Hard Mideast Realities

Although Obama hasn’t fully abandoned that comforting view of history, the chaos his foreign policy has unleashed in the Middle East has chastened him somewhat. Goldberg calls him a “Hobbesian optimist,” which means he thinks the Saudis and Iranians need to “share the neighborhood” so we don’t have to “start coming in and using our military power to settle scores”—as if the purpose of checking Iran’s revolutionary ambition were merely to stroke the Saudi royal family’s ego.

Obama still hasn’t grasped the maxim James Madison set forth in Federalist No. 10: ‘The latent causes of faction… are sown into the nature of man.’

In other words, Obama’s encounter with reality has not helped him to see it more clearly. He is dismayed by the disorder and chaos of the world because he still hasn’t grasped the maxim James Madison set forth in Federalist No. 10: “The latent causes of faction… are sown into the nature of man.”

In 2009, Obama believed that, for some reason, “we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.” What he found in the Middle East is the world as it really is: fractious and violent and stubborn. In response, he retreated from it. Whatever Obama thought was possible for the Muslim world six years ago, today he is deeply disillusioned with the region—but still convinced America is powerless to tame its factions.

It will take another administration to impose order in the Middle East, one that understands, as Madison did, that “the causes of faction cannot be removed… relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”