America's more friendly face

Obama has reached out to hostile nations and criticized Israel. Is his soft diplomacy really working?

Dadang Tri/Reuters

Barack Obama’s rhetoric on the campaign trail and during his first days in office revolved around the promise of change, notably when it came to how America would relate to the Muslim nations of the Middle East. “We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said in his inauguration speech.

“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

It was an explicit and calculated departure from the doctrine of his predecessor, George W. Bush, who believed that American security was enhanced by the spread of democracy, and who spoke of solidarity with the people of oppressive states such as Syria and Iran rather than seeking an understanding with their leaders. “The demands of justice and the peace of this world require their freedom as well,” Bush said in his 2006 state of the union address—this after he had already launched wars to overthrow hostile regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama promised a different approach, a “new beginning,” he said to an audience at Cairo University shortly after his inauguration. In the same speech, Obama blamed tensions between the United States and the Muslim world, in part, on “colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims,” and he underlined his government’s commitment to engaging with Iran “on the basis of mutual respect.”

The rhetorical gap separating Obama from Bush then was yawning. It has now been more than a year since he spoke those words, and 16 months since his presidency began. How much has American policy in the Middle East really changed in that time, and to the extent that it has, what does the United States have to show for it?

Obama inherited two major wars upon taking office: in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite his vocal opposition to the war in Iraq, he has deviated little from the strategy established there by Bush during his final two years in office. A troop surge and counter-insurgency campaign ordered by Bush—and strongly opposed by Obama—in 2007 helped curtail violence in the country. When the surge appeared to be working in 2008, Obama scaled back his opposition and has since held to the scheduled troop withdrawals agreed to by Bush and the Iraqi government.

Obama has been much more aggressive in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he believes are crucial to American security in a way that Iraq is not. He has poured thousands of additional American troops into Afghanistan, where they employ the same “clear, hold, and build” counter-insurgency tactics used by U.S. forces during the surge in Iraq. This strategic continuity is not surprising. Obama’s secretary of defence, Robert Gates, was nominated by Bush in 2006.

Obama, unlike his predecessor, doesn’t talk about a “war on terror.” But the targets—al-Qaeda and its affiliates—haven’t changed. If anything, Obama is more hawkish in pursuing them. The frequency of air strikes by Predator and Reaper unmanned drones in Pakistan have soared during the Obama presidency, and U.S. special forces are now operating in 75 countries.

America’s relationship with the Middle East and with the Muslim world is about more than confronting al-Qaeda, however. And it is in the realm of diplomacy that more substantial changes have occurred. Obama reached out to American enemies such as Syria and Iran, and has pressured and publicly criticized Israel in a way previous administrations did not. His goals are narrower than those of Bush. Obama doesn’t want to democratize the region. He hopes to soften the behaviour of hostile regimes, and to push Israel toward a peace deal in an effort to build Arab support for a tough line against Iran should his outreach efforts there come to naught.

So far these efforts have been fruitless. Iran responded to Obama’s extended hand with an even firmer fist—continuing its apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support for Hamas and Hezbollah, while crushing dissent in an increasingly brutal fashion at home. Syria, which conducted peace talks with Israel during Bush’s second term, still ships weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah, interferes in Lebanon, and sticks close to Iran. Progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains elusive.

Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration, accuses Obama of neglecting America’s commitment to Israel and says this shift will not lead to progress on peace negotiations. He argues that previous Israeli willingness to compromise—such as at Camp David during the Bill Clinton administration—came during periods of close ties with the United States. “This tactic of thinking that an insecure Israel is going to be more flexible than a secure Israel is a mistake,” says Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world, coupled with demands that Israel stop building settlements, as well as recent diplomatic snubs, have certainly caused unease in Israel. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, says Israel is weaker as a result. “Bush was feared,” he says. “Bush was a tough guy, a cowboy. The Syrians were afraid of Bush, and we were seen as the American proxy in the region, so they were afraid of us. Now they are less afraid. Weakness invites aggression in our part of the world.” It’s a flawed argument, according to Steven Simon, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked on counterterrorism and Near East security policy in the Clinton administration. Simon points out that Syria started a nuclear program during the Bush administration and that its proxy militia, Hezbollah, triggered a war with Israel in 2006—hardly the actions of a state paralyzed by fear.

Obama’s pressure on Israel is motivated in part by a desire to reassure America’s Arab allies and ensure their support for any future showdown with Iran. In January, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees American security interests in the Middle East, dispatched a team of senior military officers to the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They said Arab leaders feared America would not stand up to Israel and were losing faith in American promises. In other words, says Bruce Riedel, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who last year helped Obama overhaul U.S. policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, what happens in Gaza and the West Bank makes it harder for the United States to succeed elsewhere in the region.

Obama’s tougher line, however, hasn’t yielded results. “Ultimately, we’re still hamstrung by the limited leverage we have over the parties at the negotiating table,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings. Leslie Gelb, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and long-time foreign policy analyst, says both Bush and Obama began their presidencies with too little experience and too much idealism about what America could accomplish in the Middle East. Bush believed force could democratize the region. Obama was “overeager, or over-optimistic, about diplomatic resolutions of these matters.” He tried to reach out to Syria, says Gelb, author of the 2009 book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. “But the Syrians, like a lot of those dictatorships, they’re a pain in the neck. They’re not trustworthy. So you try to do these things, and they screw you.”

Gelb believes America’s most effective tools in the region are patience, and carrots and sticks designed to produce gradual shifts in behaviour rather than nation-rocking upheavals. “The United States has leaning power,” he says. “If we lean on the situation long enough, we can make a difference, and we can change policy. We screw up when we expect the changes to come in the short and medium terms.”