Lara Marlowe: Obama stands over Middle East policy that unleashed horrors

Hopes for a free and democratic Arab world have drowned in the blood of 470,000 dead Syrians

Masked Palestinian Hamas militants watch the televised speech of US President Barack Obama in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip in 2009. AP Photo/Eyad Baba

Masked Palestinian Hamas militants watch the televised speech of US President Barack Obama in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip in 2009. AP Photo/Eyad Baba

 

The horrendous last five years in the Middle East started with joy at the fall of dictators in Tunis and Cairo.

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s flight to Saudi Arabia, but especially US president Barack Obama’s refusal to protect Hosni Mubarak, inspired Syrians and Libyans to rise up in turn.

Hopes for a free and democratic Arab world drowned in the blood of 470,000 dead Syrians. Europe is torn by the resultant refugee crisis, and traumatised by jihadist attacks that killed 148 people in France in 2015 and 35 people in Brussels last month.

The five-year mark was bound to be a time of stock-taking. Obama has set down his version of events in a 70-page interview with the American-Israeli journalist Jeffrey Goldberg for the April edition of Atlantic magazine, and in the third episode of BBC Two’s documentary Inside Obama’s White House.

Both dwell extensively on the turning point in the Syrian war. On August 30th, 2013, Obama backed down on his threat to punish Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for crossing the “red line” of using chemical weapons against his own people. Some 1,400 Syrian civilians died in a sarin gas attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Much of the world, and particularly French president François Hollande, who had committed to attacking Assad alongside the US, bitterly resented Obama’s climbdown. Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, called it “a case study in embarrassingly amateurish improvisation”.

But Obama says it’s one of the decisions he’s most proud of, because it defied the “Washington playbook” and the perceived necessity of preserving “credibility” at all cost. “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just the worst reason to use force,” the US president told his entourage.

Stupid war

IraqSyriaIslamic State

Obama’s initial assessment of Islamic State, also known as Isis, as a “junior varsity team” in an interview with the New Yorker came back to haunt him. He promises to “degrade and destroy” the “caliphate”, but his real policy is containment. When the group seized Mosul and threatened Baghdad in the summer of 2014, he talked about putting it “back in the box” – the term used by the Clinton administration for its containment of Saddam Hussein.

Russian president Vladimir Putin got Obama off the hook in September 2014 by proposing that Assad relinquish his chemical arsenal. Putin again seized the initiative by sending troops to Syria a year later. Despite his pledge to withdraw, Russian forces helped Assad’s army drive Islamic State out of the ancient city of Palmyra last month. The Russians and Assad have together killed the greatest number of civilians, but they are also doing most to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State.

Obama refers to the Europeans disparagingly as “free-riders”. During the seven-month bombardment of Libya, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was a braggart and British prime minister David Cameron was “distracted”, he says. Obama privately refers to the ensuing anarchy in Libya as a “shit show”. In an April 10th interview with Fox News, he said that “probably failing to plan for the day after (the fall of Gadafy)” was his “worst mistake” as president.

Nor did Europe count for much in the historic Iranian nuclear agreement. As revealed by the BBC, then deputy secretary of state Bill Burns and the vice-president’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, were secretly dispatched by Obama to negotiate with Iranians in a private beach club in Oman. The French were so angry that they nearly scuppered the deal.

Obama was supposed to be the president who finally obtained justice for the Palestinians. In Cairo in June 2009, he promised “to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience and dedication that the task requires”. The following year, he told the UN General Assembly that he hoped to welcome “an independent sovereign state of Palestine” to the UN by 2011.

Under pressure from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israel’s supporters in the US, Obama flip-flopped. In 2011, he threatened to veto the Palestinian application for UN membership.

Obama’s abandonment of the Palestinians has been virtually excised from the record. The BBC’s one-hour documentary on Obama and the Middle East does not mention them once. Goldberg merely takes note of the Cairo speech. The continuing expropriation of Palestinian land in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the strangulation of Gaza, are forgotten.

Former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005 – almost certainly by the Assad-Hizbollah alliance, claimed it was better to endure a century of dictatorship than one day of anarchy. Now Obama reportedly jokes that “all I need in the Middle East is a few smart autocrats”.

The ideal of Arab democracy died when neither Washington nor the Europeans objected to Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup against the flawed but democratically elected Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. The idea that western powers have a “duty to intervene” (former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner) or a “responsibility to protect” (Irish-born US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power) has been another casualty of the wars in Iraq and Syria.

Enemies

Israel

Islamic State’s Sunni “caliphate” straddles Iraq and Syria. Despite the group’s recent territorial losses, it fills the leadership vacuum left by Saddam Hussein. For that reason, it is likely to survive in some form, even if Obama succeeds in his reported goal of assassinating the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, just as he assassinated Osama bin Laden. Lara Marlowe is Paris correspondent

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