Alex Rowell

Obama’s Middle East legacy: desertion of the democrats

From Iran through Syria, Egypt and beyond, the net effect of Obama’s two terms has worked in favor of autocrats

Rarely did Obama back his 2009 pledge in Cairo to support democracy with concrete action (NOW/Tania Radwan)

Forty minutes into his address at Cairo University in June 2009, the President of the United States was interrupted by a cry from the audience. Disturbances on such occasions were of course not unknown: this was only six months after the President of the United States had had a pair of shoes hurled at him in Baghdad – “a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog,” as the footwear tosser had declared. 


These were, however, two very different Presidents of the United States, and the message sent by the anonymous Cairene couldn’t have been further in spirit from the Iraqi’s cynophobic venom. “We love you!” it went, simply. Clearly caught off guard, a full-cheeked beam broke out instantaneously on Barack Obama’s face, his head jerking upward in a chuckle, before the unflappable composure was hastily restored. “Thank you,” he replied, almost deadpan, with an affable wave of the arm, and then the whole room burst into whistling, palm-smacking applause. 


They loved him, perhaps almost as much as they hadn’t loved George Bush. One probably shouldn’t stretch the contrast, but there’s no question it was real enough for millions in the Middle East on that day. Nor was it very difficult to see why. In place of the man who had invaded and occupied Iraq on a “crusade” (not meant that way, of course, but rendered that way in the Arabic press as hamla salibiyya; “attack of the cross-bearers”) was a man who had voted against that unpopular war, and who had shown up in the largest city of the Arab world to announce “a new beginning”.


Coming from this partial descendant of Muslims – with the middle name Hussein, as he reminded the audience, again to applause – this reconciliation seemed inexorable, almost a foregone conclusion. He spoke knowledgeably of “civilization’s debt to Islam” and declared “Islam is a part of America” as though these were to him heartfelt, indeed self-evident, truths. He promised a healthier, friendlier relationship that would herald a more dignified future for the Middle East. He would take American troops out of Iraq. He would (later) take them out of Afghanistan. He would end torture and close Guantanamo Bay. He would even support the Palestinians, who “for more than 60 years [have] endured the pain of dislocation” and “the daily humiliations [of] occupation”, in their “legitimate [...] aspiration for […] a state of their own”. Israeli settlements were without “legitimacy” and had to “stop”. On the questions of democracy and human rights in general – then still terms unfortunately tainted by association with the Iraq war – he would “support them everywhere” while not, he implied, using them as pretexts for unwelcome military interventions. Addressing Arab autocrats, he urged them to accept the logic of reform for their own nations’ sake, echoing the memorable offer made in his inaugural address “that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”.


It was an exhilarating performance, a triumph that raised America’s standing with Muslims globally overnight (one PEW poll found 33% of Turks thought Obama would “do the right thing in world affairs” in 2009, up from just 2% for Bush in 2008. In Egypt, Gallup saw approval of US “leadership” jump sixfold from 6% in 2008 to 37% in 2009). If one could quibble that it took a lot of optimism to imagine, say, Colonel Gaddafi shedding a remorseful tear while watching and resolving to abolish his military dictatorship, or Hamas dutifully obliging the call to “put an end to violence” and “recognize Israel’s right to exist”, it could still be countered that diplomatic trial balloons were worth floating once, if only for form’s sake. 


In the event, however, as millions in the Middle East have since learned to their incalculable cost, it was neither the juntas nor the jihadists who broke the terms of Obama’s proposal, but the president himself. For when his extended hand was met with a still-clenched fist, it transpired he was happy to smile and shake the bulging knuckles anyway. What’s more, he wrapped his palms over these fists even as they squelched with the fresh blood of their own people.


The Persian diversion


It was, in fact, only a matter of days – eight, precisely – after his Cairo address that the first test of Obama’s words would arise. In Tehran, the claim by arch-conservative incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to have won the elections of June 12th was dismissed as fraudulent by all three of the opposition candidates, among them the reformists Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Thousands of demonstrators – many of them young, many of them women – took to the streets, to be met by the regime’s unsmiling Basij militiamen. Unarmed protestors were gunned down by the dozens, perhaps most famously the 26-year-old philosophy student Neda Agha-Soltan, whose dying moments after she was shot in the chest were caught on gruesome video clips watched online by millions. 


As this unfolded, Obama faced a predicament. In Cairo he had spoken specifically about “mov[ing] forward” with the Iranian regime, allowing that it had “the right to access peaceful nuclear power” and offering bilateral talks “without preconditions” on the subject. As we now all know, he was seeking a landmark deal by which Iran would forswear pursuit of nuclear weaponry in exchange for sanctions relief and permission to produce nuclear energy; a deal that would eventually materialize in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed between Iran and the P5+1 nations in July 2015. 


Any such deal, however, was going to require the approval of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who had quickly endorsed Ahmadinejad’s electoral ‘victory’ and demanded protestors cease their “rioting”. Were Obama to support the opposition ‘Green Movement’, even if only rhetorically, it would naturally irritate an already-cantankerous Khamenei, whom Obama had in fact sent a private letter the previous month in the hope of breaking the ice. With the Supreme Leader’s forces now massacring peaceful demonstrators in the streets, Obama had to choose: did he want to “support [human rights] everywhere”, as he declared in Cairo, or did he want to pursue his nuclear deal? Or, in the forthright words of the young Iranian women and men themselves; “Obama, are you with us or them?”


Thanks to reporting that has come to light several years since, we now know he chose the latter, quickly and with little difficulty. In a January 2016 revelation that didn’t receive nearly the attention it deserved, the Wall Street Journal quoted current and former Obama administration officials then working on Iran to the effect that the president never took any serious interest in the opposition, even as the latter were secretly lobbying the White House for help. “It was made clear: ‘We should monitor, but do nothing’”, remembered one. The CIA was even given explicit orders against “any covert work to support the Green Movement either inside Iran or overseas”. Why such anxious determination to steer clear of brave young democrats risking their lives to oppose what they called their “dictator”? “Administration officials at the time were working behind the scenes with the Sultan of Oman to open a channel” to the very same dictator.



“Obama, are you with us or them?” went one Green Movement chant (Source: familysecuritymatters.org)


In public, therefore, Obama crafted a script that would be reused elsewhere in the region in the coming years; one offering generic, noncommittal condemnations of lethal violence while also expressing ambivalence about the virtues of that violence’s victims. On the question of the legitimacy or otherwise of Ahmadinejad’s ‘victory’, he implied it hardly mattered, since “the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual positions may not be as great as has been advertised”. This prompted the bitter question from an incredulous Mousavi spokesman of how Obama would “like it [if someone said] there is no difference between Obama and Bush”. The same spokesman called on the international community to reject the Ahmadinejad verdict, something Obama pointedly refused to do.


It only took two weeks after Cairo, in other words, for the first democratic-minded opponents of a despotic Middle East regime – the very people who had privately cheered, and self-identified with, Obama’s liberalism – to feel a distinct pang of betrayal. They wouldn’t be the last. The precedent set by the White House that month would hold, mutatis mutandis, in almost all of the region’s key crises over the following seven years – with humanitarian consequences on a scale utterly inconceivable back in what now seems, by comparison, the quaint serenity of the late 2000s.


A Damascene conversion


Most obviously, this has been the case in Syria, where an estimated half a million people have perished since 2011 in a conflict more than twice as deadly as Iraq. The story of Obama’s extraordinary reluctance to take action against the party responsible for the vast majority of these deaths – the Bashar al-Assad regime itself – has now been so well told by so many rightly furious people (among them an A-list cast of the president’s own former national security advisors, intelligence chiefs, military generals, ambassadors, and Arabists) that it almost doesn’t need repeating. With such a colossal scale of human life expended, however, it’s also a story that cannot be retold enough.


It was in late 2011, around the time the NATO intervention in Libya had helped the rebels surround Gaddafi’s last holdout, his hometown of Sirte (where he would be killed on October 20th), that Syrians began to wonder out loud whether the ‘responsibility to protect’ notion invoked in UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which mandated a no-fly zone over Libya, might not also merit consideration in their own rapidly deteriorating situation. “The people want the NATO Alliance!” chanted demonstrators in Homs in October, playing on the immortal words of the Arab Spring anthem. “O, NATO, come to us!” went another jingle. 


That wasn’t going to happen, NATO candidly (not to say rather callously) replied. “I can completely rule that out”, said NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen on October 31st, speaking from – of all places – the capital of newly-liberated Libya. After all, Syria wasn’t Libya, as Syrians began to be told, all obvious parallels notwithstanding. The mantra was both true and dishonest. What it really meant was partly borne out during the failed attempt on October 4th to pass a Security Council resolution merely condemning the violence that had then killed nearly 3,000 Syrians. Whereas Russia had abstained from voting on the Libya resolution in March, this time it used its veto. For NATO – let’s speak plainly, for America – to act in Syria, therefore, would mean opposing Russia. It would also mean opposing Assad’s close friends in Iran, with whom the American president was keen, as we have seen, to build bridges. By late 2011, indeed, the wheels of engagement were already busily (if entirely secretly) in motion. As the Wall Street Journal would later report, the Obama administration had made concrete overtures as early as 2010, when it blacklisted a Pakistan-based militant group at the explicit behest of Tehran (communicated via Muscat). By July 2012, seven months after NATO ruled out intervention in Syria, ties would warm to the point that US officials would conduct their first face-to-face meeting with Iranian counterparts, in the Omani capital.


Thus unimpeded by any Libyaesque no-fly-zone, Assad’s air force set about pulverizing the country’s cities, towns and villages from the sky, while his army and shabbiha death squads stabbed, raped, shot, bombed, rocketed and SCUD-missiled their way along the ground. The bodies piled up – often literally, as in the graphic massacres of scores of men, women and children in Houla (May 2012); Al-Qubair (June); Daraya (August); and Bayda & Baniyas (May 2013); not to mention the torture dungeons where, photo evidence attests, over 6,000 people were thrashed and starved to death in just two Damascus locations alone. 


“When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience”, Obama said in Cairo, to applause. “In the 21st century”, he explained, there is a “responsibility we have to one another as human beings”.


When innocents in Syria were slaughtered, however, the president gave little impression of harboring a troubled conscience, still less any burden of responsibility. The Free Syrian Army – the military defectors and local residents whose armed opposition to Assad Washington was under mounting pressure to support – might actually be Hamas, his secretary of state cautioned in February 2012. The Free Syrian Army might even be Al-Qaeda, it was said. Years later, the president would reflect that the Free Syrian Army was a feckless ragtag of “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” whose military prospects had “always been a fantasy”.


Still, there was one way, Obama said in August 2012, that he could be roused to do something about Syria, where the death toll had then jumped to around 20,000. If Assad were to start killing civilians not only with guns, and rockets, and tanks, and attack helicopters, and fighter jets, but also with chemical weapons, that would cross a “red line” for the president. In fact, minor uses of these weapons of mass destruction, such as those on a Le Monde journalist in Damascus in April 2013, would still be acceptable (“As long as they keep [the] body count at a certain level, we won’t do anything,” one official told Foreign Policy). In the president’s words, there would have to be “a whole bunch” of chemical weapons involved to warrant action. 


When the day inevitably came, then, on August 21st, 2013, that the world awoke to footage of rooms full of babies gargling on sarin, their limbs convulsing, the doctors wailing as they pumped their tiny, lifeless ribcages, all eyes turned to Washington, D.C. There could be no semantic sophistry about the meaning of “a whole bunch” with an attack that had killed well over 1,000 civilians in a matter of minutes. Surely, this was an outrage too far. Assad hadn’t just committed an utterly infamous atrocity – he had challenged Obama’s word in front of the entire planet. Even at the time (or especially at the time) it was plainly the single most decisive moment in the war so far; a critical fork in the path of history. 


It would also prove a defining episode of Obama’s presidency; a quintessential distillation of his politics and character. Trapped by his own “red line” pledge, he was forced to proceed initially as though a military response of some kind were really happening. His new secretary of state, John Kerry, gave a speech very much to that effect on the 30th, saying, “History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction”. In the hours before Obama took to the podium himself the next day to deliver what was assumed to be his war speech, French fighter jets were already revving on the runways.   


Yet the president stalled at the last moment, stunning onlookers with a request for congressional approval that had neither been provided nor sought before the intervention in Libya two years previously. In the time thus bought, as he would later tell The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama deliberately, if surreptitiously, effaced his own red line, personally offering Russian President Vladimir Putin terms for what has been called a “surrender with honor” – a deal that would ostensibly rid the Assad regime of its chemical arsenal in exchange for calling off the strikes. Putin naturally obliged, and the vote at congress was never held.


Activists in the Syrian town of Kafranbel devote one of their famous artworks to the 2013 chemical weapons deal (Source: syriauntold.com)


That the Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons did not in fact eliminate Syrian chemical weapons or stop Assad using them to kill more civilians has never prevented the Obama administration or its supporters from hailing it as a lives-saving victory for coolheaded diplomacy (another script that would get ample airtime in years to come). Yet the wider repercussions of that fateful fortnight went far beyond enabling the regime to continue murder by WMD, horrendous though that was (and still is). It meant, for one thing, the final confirmation of the moderate, democratic-minded opposition’s fears that American solidarity would never arrive. “The West had, as far as they were concerned, revealed its true colours”, writes the analyst Charles Lister in his book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency. This, as Lister documents, had the dual effect of strengthening and unifying the hardline Islamist brigades at the expense of more moderate Free Syrian Army affiliates, while mortally endangering those same FSA factions who took the risk of maintaining contact with Western governments; an act that would soon come to be seen as tantamount to enemy collaboration. This dynamic would reach its logical conclusion the following year with the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front’s wipeout in Idlib of the FSA’s key Harakat Hazm and Syrian Revolutionaries Front brigades – humiliating defeats that came with the kicker of mass defections to Nusra itself. The number of foreign fighters crossing the Turkish border to join the ranks of the mujahideen, meanwhile, would triple after August’s chemical attack, Lister notes.


Indeed, while Syria is a notoriously complex conflict ill-amenable to easy explanations, much of where it stands today can be traced back to the forces unleashed that month in 2013. Jihadist and Islamist factions are now stronger than ever, much more so than the few remaining non-Islamist brigades. Assad continues to slaughter civilians en masse with every kind of weapon available to him, assisted in recent months in the endeavor by the fighter jets of Obama’s diplomatic partners in Moscow. The administration is no longer even rhetorically committed to its former Assad-must-go policy, with Kerry declaring in December 2015 that the “United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change” in Damascus.


To the question that will puzzle future history students – why? – the official version has been provided by Obama to Goldberg. In this telling of the famous stroll the president took on the White House lawn with Chief of Staff Denis McDonough that ended in his decision to call for a vote on Syria strikes, he was in fact already resolved against action, and was merely “looking for validation” from the uniquely influential aide once described as “Obama’s Obama.” This account states several reasons for the president’s decision, including fear that civilians and UN inspectors could get hit; the British parliament’s rejection of Royal Air Force participation in strikes; the propaganda boost it could potentially lend Assad; and general aversion to military action in a “Muslim” country. These vary in degree of plausibility – Obama has shown little compunction about pounding the “Muslim” countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia with hundreds of drone and fighter jet strikes, killing wedding guests, hospital patients, pregnant women, aid workers and untold numbers of other civilians in the process – and they omit one further consideration of paramount strategic salience that was unlikely to be far from his or McDonough’s minds.


This was that August 2013, although a month of horror for Syria, had proven an especially fruitful month on the matter Obama sought to make the trophy achievement of his second term: the Iran Deal (“This is healthcare for us, just to put it in context,” as Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes phrased it). August had begun, on the 4th, with the inauguration of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, himself a former nuclear negotiator often described as a moderate. “After Rouhani’s inauguration, the change [in the negotiations’ fortunes] was immediate and almost dizzying”, reported Politico’s Indira Lakshmanan in a definitive account of the run-up to the final deal. Within days of his inauguration, Rouhani and Obama would exchange letters, and – at least as importantly – US officials including Deputy Secretary of State William Burns would travel in secret to Oman for a meeting with Iranian interlocutors during which a “breakthrough moment” would occur, a “senior administration official who was involved” told Lakshmanan. McDonough, who had favored keeping a distance from Iran’s Green Movement in 2009, was a crucial confidant of Obama’s regarding this outreach to Tehran. It would be strange if a “breakthrough” on the president’s legacy issue did not weigh as a factor in his contemplation, later the same month, of war against a strategically vital Iranian proxy regime. 


Of course, the August meeting was no isolated event, but only the latest in a series that had begun in earnest in March and would total at least nine encounters by the time the interim agreement was reached in November. 2013 was, in other words, a very unfortunate year for anyone counting on American help fending off Iran and its friends. Not that 2014 would be any better – with the final deal now in sight, the imperative of not upsetting Tehran grew only more urgent. As early as January that year, Obama would confirm to the New Yorker’s David Remnick that Syria’s rebels were no longer seen as potential US partners: “Our best chance of seeing a decent outcome at this point is to work the state actors who have invested so much in keeping Assad in power—mainly the Iranians and the Russians—as well as working with those who have been financing the opposition.” All the way until the Iran Deal was inked in July 2015 – and, indeed, beyond, for it’s still today in the process of implementation – Obama went out of his way to put Iran at ease on Syria, even sending Khamenei his personal assurance in writing that the US would not take military action against Assad.


To say that such assurances, and the broader détente that lay behind them, alienated Syrian democrats would be putting it in the mildest possible terms. 33-year-old Karam Nachar grew up in an Aleppine family with a history of peaceful activism against the regime (his father, Samir, had been habitually arrested since 2001, and went on to co-found the opposition Syrian National Council). In 2011, Karam did as much for the revolution as he could from New York, where he was completing a PhD in history at Princeton; joining demonstrations, coordinating online with comrades active on the ground in Syria and relaying his and their perspective to a US media audience. A secular, left-leaning intellectual now lecturing at Istanbul’s Işık University and managing the Al-Jumhuriya (“The Republic”) digital magazine, he recalls that he cried of joy on the day of Obama’s inauguration. 


“It was very, very moving, and I felt it was a great moment, not just for the US but the whole world, especially after George Bush”, Nachar told NOW. This sentiment was near-ubiquitous among Syrians, he remembers: “I don’t know a single Syrian who wanted McCain to be president back in 2008 – or who supported Clinton”.


Eight years later, however, Nachar says he feels a “fool” in hindsight for shedding those tears. Having imagined – or been led to imagine – in Obama the lineaments of soixante-huitard humanist idealism, what he and his compatriots got instead was a throwback to something more resembling 19th-century Bismarckian realpolitik


“He claimed to be an internationalist. But his internationalism was […] never about solidarity. It was never about the inalienable rights of all human beings. It was never about equality. And it was never about limiting American power for the greater cause of emancipation”.


Instead, “it was this very cynical realism that brought in the Iranians, and brought in the Russians, and suddenly everyone has a stake in Syria, and the Americans are sitting and mediating […] It was a very cynical, very realist way of an imperial power dealing with a Third World country, and somehow I had expected Obama not to behave in that way.”


Were he ever to see Obama in person in the future, Nachar says he would tell him, “You have blood on your hands, Mr. President”. 


“Iraq needs a Shia strongman”


What was true of Washington’s approach in Syria held also in many ways in Iraq, with comparable results. An early bad sign was the parliamentary election of March 2010, when the US acquiesced in the broad-daylight theft by defeated Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of the victory won fair and square by the Iraqiyya bloc, a diverse alliance of Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Kurds, Christians and Turkmen.


Coming up two seats short of Iraqiyya’s secular Shiite leader, Ayad Allawi, an apoplectic Maliki – who had taken the precaution of getting hundreds of Sunni politicians banned from running two months in advance – thundered that his opponents were “terrorists” and there was “no way we will accept the results”. He declared the vote fraudulent, even though the UN and other impartial observers had adjudged it perfectly legitimate. Failing that, he coerced a pliant Supreme Court into creatively ‘reinterpreting’ the constitution to give him the right to form a government (a right that, of course, properly belonged to Allawi). 


For the US, one might have thought the choice between the pluralist party that had won the election and the predominantly Shiite Islamist losing faction now trying to cheat the system and undermine the whole democratic order would have been a straightforward one. And, to the Obama administration, it was – only not in the way anyone else expected. Emma Sky is a British Arabic speaker who had volunteered to work on civil society programs in Iraq in 2003, only to wind up a senior political advisor to the US military, despite her impassioned opposition to the war. A liberal to the core, she wrote in her 2015 memoir The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq of her excitement at the election of Obama “after the crazy era of the neoconservatives”. So it was with something more than incredulity that she received the word from new ambassador Christopher Hill in 2010 that Washington was in fact backing Maliki’s maneuvers against Allawi. “Iraq is not ready for democracy,” Hill had told her old boss, Commanding General Raymond Odierno. “Iraq needs a Shia strongman”.


We shall see in due course what Sunni Iraqis thought of the suggestion that they needed a Shia strongman. Meanwhile, the Americans would soon discover that another powerful state agreed the 12 million Iraqis who had just voted were ill-suited for democracy. After six months of impasse on the parliamentary front, Iran decided to do things its way. The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, convened a meeting of Iraqi notables in Qom, where he decreed that Maliki would be prime minister and the Kurdish chieftain Jalal Talabani would be president. The Obama administration “decided not to contest Iran’s interference,” wrote the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins. “At a meeting of the National Security Council a month later, the White House signed off on the new regime.”


Seeing his experiment in tin-pot autocracy win the approval of both Washington and Tehran, Maliki took the opportunity over the next two years to grow into something closer to all-out sectarian tyrant. Within 24 hours of the last American troops leaving Iraq in December 2011, he put out an arrest warrant on Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the highest-ranking Sunni politician in the country, later sentencing him to death on “terror” charges.  He made Hadi al-Ameri, head of the ferocious Shiite Islamist Badr Brigades militia, responsible for the gruesome murder of countless Sunnis, a cabinet minister. He made Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, founder of the equally fearsome Kata’ib Hizbullah, his Iran adviser (and neighbor). He released hundreds of Shiite militant prisoners linked to the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, at the same time as he launched mass arrests of Sunnis, including “some of the most non-sectarian, non-violent, practical and technocratic” politicians in the country, in the words of Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Kenneth Pollack. He made himself interior minister, defense minister and intelligence chief, as well as army commander-in-chief. Together with his Iranian patrons he also controlled the judiciary, police, central bank and treasury. He revived one of Saddam’s laws criminalizing criticism of the leader, and put it to use against journalists, judges and MPs. He even started grooming his son, Ahmad, to succeed him, in the style only too familiar to Iraqis. 


The inevitable protests were sparked in December 2012 by the arrest of bodyguards working for Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, one of the last remaining Sunnis of note in the government. In scenes reminiscent of (and partly inspired by) the Arab Spring, tens of thousands turned out for weekly peaceful demonstrations across Anbar and Ninawa provinces, former heartlands of Al-Qaeda in Iraq until local tribal confederations known as the Sahwa (“Awakening”) took up arms in 2006 and routed the jihadists. The stakes could not have been higher – as early as 2010, Sunni leaders had warned US diplomat Ali Khedery that if Maliki continued his belligerent course, it was only a matter of time before the Sahwa’s fragile gains were reversed. Having endured two years of humiliation, by late 2012 the Sunni street was boiling, its patience at an end. To avert a disastrous return to sectarian civil war, Maliki would have to extend a serious olive branch.




Instead, he reached for a bludgeon. When demonstrators threw rocks at soldiers in Fallujah in January 2013, the army opened fire, killing at least seven. After a clash at a checkpoint in Hawija in April left one soldier and one protestor dead, the military encircled the town’s protest camp, eventually attacking it in a dawn raid that killed dozens of civilians. “The peaceful demonstrations are over, due to what happened today,” a leader of the influential Al-Obaidi tribe in Hawija told the New York Times. “Now we are going to carry weapons”.


As indeed they did. What followed was exactly the doomsday scenario the tribes had warned the likes of Khedery and Sky about since 2010. Armed attacks by Sunnis against both state and Shiite targets commenced in earnest, prompting retaliations from the army against civilian and gunman alike. Mosques and markets began to blow up again, including in Baghdad. 700 people were killed in April, making it the deadliest month in five years, until May topped it with over 1,000 killed (the year overall would see 9,000 killed; about triple the annual average since 2008). What tenuous state sovereignty had existed in Sunni areas dissolved, leaving the militants in charge. Quickly prominent among these were the jihadists formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who now called themselves the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) following their successful foray into the civil war next door in Syria (where Assad, who had done so much to help AQI set up shop in Iraq in the first place, was now quietly tolerating their expansion in east Syria, the better to pose as victim of a takfiri insurgency). Five years on from defeat by the Sahwa, these jihadists were being welcomed back into Anbar by the very tribes who had previously vanquished them. “We will fight alongside Da’ash until we have overthrown Maliki – and then we will get rid of Da’ash”, one optimistic insurgent told Sky, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. 


This internal Iraqi Sunni dynamic may be the single most important, and yet poorest-understood, of the factors that ultimately enabled ISIS to create its ‘caliphate’ through which it now lords over 8 million Iraqi and Syrian subjects. What the study of the group’s ideology, or its funding, or its social media strategy, or the narrowly ‘counterterrorist’ analysis all miss is that it was a political decision, born of political circumstances, to open the door for the jihadists’ reemergence – political circumstances for which President Obama has to bear a share of responsibility. (As late in the day as November 2013, seven months and several thousand bodies after the Hawija massacre, Obama publicly praised Maliki’s “commitment” to an “inclusive and democratic Iraq”.) Though the president eventually grasped the enormity of his error after ISIS’s breathtaking June 2014 takeover of Mosul, and pushed for Maliki’s replacement by the less controversial Haider al-Abadi, in this he did nothing so much as recall Churchill’s line about America reliably doing the right thing after all available alternatives are exhausted. While Obama deserves credit for moving to save Iraqi Yazidis on Mount Sinjar from extirpation at ISIS’s hands in August 2014, and deploying the same air power to assist Kurdish forces in the defense of ISIS-besieged Kobane, a case can be made these interventions were only necessary in the first place because of the administration’s own mistakes – ‘avoidable wars’ par excellence.


Why was Iraq allowed to fester so calamitously? Obama’s years of insouciance about the country are often credited to his campaign pledge to end the “dumb” war of his predecessor’s making as fast as possible, and disentangle America from the Middle East’s “conflicts that date back millennia” more broadly. No doubt there is much truth in this. Yet, as in Syria, if the president had a general aversion to doing anything in Iraq, he had a particular aversion to doing anything there that might antagonize Iran. Indeed, accommodation of Iran was a cornerstone of his very strategy for getting out of Iraq, as he articulated before even taking office, saying while still a senator in 2006 that his plan for Mesopotamia involved “opening a dialogue with both Syria and Iran,” two regimes which he believed shared an interest with America in an Iraq free from “chaos [...] terrorism […] and violence”, outward appearances notwithstanding.


And if his priority of an Iran Deal made him averse to displeasing Tehran in Syria, it could only make him all the more so in Iraq, a country sharing a 1,500-km border with Iran, as well as centuries of cultural, socioeconomic and religious commingling. If he wasn’t going to get in the way of Iran’s interventionism on the Mediterranean coast, he was hardly going to do so on its doorstep. Equally, if he couldn’t bring himself to jeopardize the 2013 “breakthrough” with Iranian negotiators when Tehran’s Syrian proxy killed over 1,000 civilians with chemical weapons in a single morning, he was scarcely going to exercise himself over its Iraqi satrap’s killing of ‘just’ a few hundred over the course of weeks.


Nor were these the only ‘realist’ considerations to bear in mind. So powerful had Iraq’s Iranian-controlled Shiite militias become under Maliki that American troops and diplomats lived safely in the country only with their blessing, anonymous US military sources told Politico. These Iranian guns to American heads were even shaping Washington’s approach to Syria, according to former US ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford. “Multiple [officials] have told me they’re worried about retaliation in Iraq, which does seem to be influencing our Syria policy,” he said. “Basically, they’re afraid that if they provide serious help to the armed opposition against Assad, the Iranians will have their surrogates in Iraq attack us.”


No doubt with this in mind, Obama’s prolific epistolary emissions to the Supreme Leader have also included assurances that the US doesn’t seek “to undermine Iran” in Iraq. Thus far, barring the occasional kidnapping of American contractors by Shiite militants or threats by the same to attack the US, American and Iranian-backed forces have enjoyed a remarkably smooth working relationship in Iraq since US airstrikes began in 2014 – so much so that analysts are understandably concerned the US is “providing air cover” for Shiite fundamentalists who are, in the words of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, “leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake” as they plough through Sunni towns in the name of fighting ISIS.


While this non-aggression pact with the Revolutionary Guard may help keep the troops of the 82nd Airborne Division alive, it does little to dispel the impression held by many Sunnis in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and beyond that America and Iran are in league against them. Undoing this damage will take many years. Meanwhile, Obama will leave his successor an Iraq ablaze with more violence than at any time since the darkest days of Bush’s occupation. One wonders whether he’d get away with only a pair of sandals hurled his way were he to visit Anbar province today.


Restoring democracy


If democrats living in countries where Iran held “equities” (in Obama’s word) had to see their aspirations sacrificed at the altar of the “healthcare” of the president’s second term, that didn’t mean their counterparts under regimes not beholden to Tehran fared much better. The Egyptians who Obama had selected as the first-hand recipients of his goodwill message back in 2009 might reasonably have expected to be dealt a favorable hand by the president, and for a while they may have felt that, on balance, they were. Obama largely (if somewhat tepidly) sided with Tahrir Square against the despotic Hosni Mubarak, an official US ally, whose police force shot over 800 civilians dead during the 18-day revolution. When the country’s first-ever free parliamentary and presidential elections were held in November 2011 and May 2012, respectively, Obama recognized the results even when they empowered a party, the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he doubtless would have preferred to lose. These were laudable stances of principle.


Where this collapsed was the July 2013 military coup, which the administration farcically refused to even call a military coup, preferring to describe the spectacle of soldiers surrounding the elected president’s location with tanks and arresting him as, in John Kerry’s words, “restoring democracy”. In a sign Washington might not quite have had the courage of its conviction on that point, certain arms sales were temporarily halted, though they were resumed less than two years later in March 2015. Meanwhile, the restoration of democracy involved such milestones as the massacre of “likely at least 1,000” demonstrators in a single day in Cairo’s Rabi`a al-`Adawiyya Square on 14 August, 2013; the killing of hundreds of other protestors on several occasions before and after Rabi`a; the arrest of over 40,000 political detainees, including iconic secular democratic activists of the 2011 revolution, such as Alaa Abd El Fattah, Ahmed Maher, Yara Sallam and Ahmed Douma; the jailing of more journalists than any other country worldwide except China; the silencing of the hugely popular TV satirist Bassem Youssef; and the persecution even of prominent defenders of the 2013 coup, such as the bestselling novelist Alaa al-Aswany. News out of Egypt today has begun to acquire the absurd and black-comic quality of the truly totalitarian: in February, a 3-year-old was mistakenly handed a life sentence for conspiring against the regime (it was supposed to go to a 16-year-old). The month before, the available evidence suggests the regime murdered an Italian student researching in Cairo for his Cambridge PhD. All this under the diktat of a junta boss now fêted everywhere from the Davos Summit to Downing St – and still the recipient of more US military aid than any other country in the world besides Israel, despite Obama’s assurance after the Rabi`a massacre that America wouldn’t “return to business as usual” with another Egyptian dictatorship.




The scandal isn’t only that President Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has committed such atrocities, and left Egypt less free than at any other time in its modern history. As with Assad’s chemical weapons slaughter, which came exactly one week after Rabi`a, the profoundly destructive political fallout of Sisi’s tyranny has included a region-wide galvanization of the very Islamists he purports to combat. “The overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt in early July proved a valuable recruiting tool for jihadists”, writes Lister in The Syrian Jihad. “Within the Syrian insurgency […] moderates, Islamists and jihadists all present[ed] Morsi’s defeat as evidence that democracy and Western political systems were doomed to fail in the Middle East”. Between Sisi and Assad, August 2013 became a month that would forever erase faith in Western humanity for a new generation of Islamists worldwide. Obama has neither seriously attempted to counter this dynamic nor even given any indication he comprehends it.


Moving east across the Red Sea, the president’s seven years in power have also witnessed a conspicuous tightening of repression in the Gulf states, be it the twenty-year-high in beheadings in Saudi Arabia; the incarceration of over 69 political prisoners, including human rights lawyers, in a single trial in the United Arab Emirates; the jailings of bloggers in Kuwait and a poet in Qatar; or, of course, the killing of dozens of reformist demonstrators in Bahrain since 2011 by the combined armed forces of almost all of the above. In his May 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ speech, Obama told the Bahraini monarchy that “mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain's citizens, and will not make legitimate calls for reform go away. The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.” Yet, as so often, the president’s words were not paired with any tangible means of enforcement or carrot-stick incentive mechanisms. Instead, after four more years of shooting civilians dead, torturing detainees, banning demonstrations, closing independent media, ignoring the recommendations of the 2012 Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry and keeping much of the peaceful opposition in jail, the Al-Khalifa regime was rewarded with a $150 million American arms deal. “I went from somewhat optimistic to completely pessimistic about what role the U.S. could play”, said Maryam al-Khawaja, the renowned Brown University-educated Bahraini human rights activist (whose sister, Zainab, was re-arrested in March, and whose father, Abdulhadi, is currently serving a life sentence, both for peaceful reform advocacy).


The story elsewhere in the Gulf is little different. In an April 2015 interview with the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, Obama had some unusually unsentimental words for the Saudi royals, whom he said were overly fixated on Iran, and would do better to look inward for the source of their troubles. “The biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries”, said the president, urging the Gulf regimes to become “more responsive to their people”.


Far from backing this up with hard policy, however, Obama had just a week previously given his blessing to a Saudi military intervention against Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents in Yemen. With ongoing American support, including munitions and intelligence provision, Saudi air strikes in the Arab world’s poorest country have since killed over 2,600 civilians, according to a January 2016 UN report, hitting targets including schools, markets, medical facilities and camps for internally displaced families. By its own admission, the Saudi-led coalition has used indiscriminate and widely-banned cluster bombs (supplied by the US) in its campaign, including against residential targets, according to Human Rights Watch, among others. Humanitarian consequences aside, the war has by all accounts brought disaster to the country, with UNESCO World Heritage sites obliterated and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo massacre – scoring startling gains; seizing the port city of Mukalla just days into the Saudi campaign, looting over $100 million from the central bank, and today roaming freely through ‘liberated’ Aden, Yemen’s second city, where an underpaid Saudi-backed field commander recently told the Guardian he fears “we will be a new Libya”. Not to miss out on that enticing prospect, ISIS too has arrived in style, assassinating the governor of Aden in December and unleashing a series of suicide bombings in the capital, Sanaa.


Last but by no means least, there is the Holy Land, where for all Obama’s unmasked distaste for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, none of the Palestinian hopes raised by the Cairo speech have gone undisappointed. “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”, he had told the auditorium in 2009. “This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop”.


Yet when the UN Security Council tried in February 2011 – after twenty months, that is, of continued Israeli settlements – to pass a resolution affirming exactly what Obama had said; demanding Israel “immediately and completely ceases all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory”; the US deployed its veto to block it. Though Washington still believed that settlements undermined peace, US representative Susan Rice explained, peace would also be undermined by obliging Israel to stop those same settlements. The US was the only one of the Council’s fifteen members to grasp this sophisticated reasoning.


Nor would that be the only time Obama stood against Palestine at the UN, at odds with almost the entire planet. When UNESCO voted to admit Palestine as a member state in October 2011, the US was one of just 14 countries out of 185 to oppose it. Immediately afterward, it joined Israel in cutting its $80m-a-year funding for the UN agency – a pioneering act of cultural BDS some time before it became fashionable. Four years later at the General Assembly, Washington would even vote against allowing the UN to fly the Palestinian flag – one of 8 nations to do so versus 119 in favor. The flag was raised on 30 September, 2015, in what the US ambassador lamented was yet another unhelpful day for peace.


Obama’s two terms have seen the Israeli settler population grow by over 20%, from 474,000 in 2008 to more than 570,000 by the end of 2014, according to the Associated Press. They have also witnessed two bloody rounds of Israeli bombardment in Gaza, in 2012 and 2014, with over 1,400 Palestinian civilians, including 495 children, killed in the more recent campaign, by the UN’s count. Whatever the president’s academic musings, reported in the Atlantic interview, as to whether the US is right to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military edge”, the more than $3bn in annual American aid that does exactly that has never wavered on his watch. Consistent with the pattern in so many other parts of the Middle East, in Israel-Palestine Obama leaves office not just with no progress made toward peace, but with everyday violence on both sides of the Green Line deadlier than at any time since the Second Intifada.


Why has the president acted with such naked contradiction and incoherence in these latter countries? Naturally, each case has any number of its own idiosyncrasies, but two overarching factors are common to just about all.


The first is what might be termed the unintended consequences, or collateral damage, of the Iran détente. As the New York Times recently reported, explaining the thinking in Washington when Saudi lobbied last March for support for its impending war in Yemen: “the White House needed to placate the Saudis as the administration completed a nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s archenemy. That fact alone eclipsed concerns among many of the president’s advisers that the Saudi-led offensive would be long, bloody and indecisive”. Kerry in particular argued “the United States had an obligation to help the Saudis at a time when the Iran talks had left the kingdom questioning America’s priorities in the region”. In other words, as former State Department official Ilan Goldenberg told the LA Times, “We're doing this not because we think it would be good for Yemen policy; we're doing it because we think it's good for U.S.-Saudi relations”. 


This is highly telling, and relevant well beyond Yemen. Having so outraged the Gulf monarchies (and Israel) with his waltz with the Supreme Leader, Obama compensated by giving them carte blanche on domestic affairs, as well as some of the more alarming aspects of their foreign policy (Saudi is the principal bankroller, along with the UAE and Kuwait, of the Sisi regime, for example). It’s an underappreciated irony of the Iran engagement – often premised intellectually on the purported superiority of Iranian civilization vis-à-vis the Arabian Peninsula’s benighted Wahhabi fanaticism – that it should have had the effect of empowering the pro-beheading faction of Saudi society. The corollary, of course, is that a president who had been harder on Tehran would have had that much more leverage to demand human rights in the Gulf, and an end to settlement and occupation in the West Bank. 


The second common denominator, deftly caught in the Atlantic profile, is that Obama reverted to a palpably more parochial foreign policy in his second term. Goldberg writes of how the president told him the day he broke his own word on chemical weapons use was one of which he was “very proud”; a moment of personal liberation from the irrational rites of a Washington orthodoxy he determined never again to practice. Papa thenceforth had a brand new bag. Between the failures of the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and what he saw as the dwindling strategic importance of the Middle East to America in general, some time around the summer of 2013 Obama simply – in the technical political science terminology – stopped giving a fuck. Grasp this, and much of the mystery of his subsequent behavior is dispelled.




Obama was voted in as the anti-Bush; a fresh breeze of reason and compassion “after the crazy era of the neoconservatives”. Yet, revisiting his sunny Cairo speech in the bleak dusk of 2016, it’s hard to think of a more acute case of liberalism “mugged by reality”, in the phrase of Irving Kristol, godfather of that ideology. How indifferent Obama would become to the lives of Arabs was showcased when he described his Middle East policy in the 2015 Friedman interview as one big, harmless experiment; a laboratory test of an armchair theory about international relations. “We are powerful enough to be able to test these propositions without putting ourselves at risk”, he said. “With respect to Iran […] who knows? Iran may change. If it doesn’t, our deterrence capabilities, our military superiority stays in place […] why wouldn’t we test it?” Never did it seem to occur to the president that the time for such leisurely trial and error might not be the same time Iran and its proxies are killing the lion’s share of half a million Syrians. In reaching a final judgment on his legacy, few could put it better than the man of letters himself, in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope:


“At times, American foreign policy has been farsighted, simultaneously serving our national interests, our ideals and the interests of other nations. At other times American policies have been misguided, based on false assumptions that ignore the legitimate aspirations of other peoples, undermine our own credibility and make for a more dangerous world”.

Rarely did Obama back his 2009 pledge in Cairo to support democracy with concrete action (NOW/Tania Radwan)

When his extended hand was met with a still-clenched fist, it transpired he was happy to smile and shake the bulging knuckles anyway.