“How will history judge Barack Obama in terms of his policies and actions toward the Middle East?” asked UCLA Professor of Middle Eastern History James Gelvin at UC Berkeley.
A crowd of around 100 students and faculty, some in Muslim attire, crammed into a small conference room in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Stephens Hall to hear Gelvin’s lecture. The venue was tight and some students squatted just outside the door near a cameraman filming the lecture for online distribution. He spoke with a map of the Middle East projected onto a wall behind him and near a series of posters reading in Arabic and English, “In Accordance with Sharia Law” and “Have a bit of commitment – Inshallah.”
Gelvin’s answer to his opening question—that Obama’s policies were in line with his predecessors’ during the Cold War—strained credulity and mirrored the Middle East studies establishment’s strategy to defend Obama’s record regardless of the chaos it sparked.
The Trump administration’s airstrikes against a Syrian military airfield following a chemical attack in the six-year civil war that has left hundreds of thousands of Syrians dead and millions displaced is only the most recent evidence of this chaos. Iran’s march toward the production of nuclear weaponry encourages a regional nuclear arms race, while the rise of ISIS and the subsequent slaughter of the Yazidis, Middle Eastern Christians, and thousands of Muslims further reveals Obama’s true legacy.
Gelvin downplayed these shortcomings and said that Obama sought a return to a non-interventionist foreign policy, which he claimed was typical of U.S. behavior in the Middle East during the Cold War.
He began by quoting an unnamed Obama critic who wrote that “the abandonment by the world’s leading power of its leadership responsibilities” led to the disaster that is the Middle East today. Gelvin attacked what he called a consensus among political analysts that Obama sidestepped vital issues, such as Syria, lacked requisite foreign policy experience, and practiced an “overabundance of caution,” thereby projecting American weakness and lack of resolve.
Calling this view false, Gelvin argued that during the Cold War America’s primary foreign policy goals in the Middle East included blocking Soviet intervention, maintaining access to fossil fuels for Western markets, promoting stable pro-Western powers (whether democratic or otherwise), and preserving the independence of the Jewish State of Israel.
The fundamental difference between Bush II and Bill Clinton, according to Gelvin, is that Clinton, as a liberal internationalist, believed the West had the right of intervention so long as it could be justified as representing the will of United Nations. Bush and the so-called “Neo-conservatives” felt less constrained—so much so, in fact, that Gelvin referred to “Neo-conservatism” as the “evil twin” of liberal internationalism, but without the constraints of international law.
Gelvin’s apologia for Obama was unconvincing. Was U.S. policy during the Cold War even remotely “non-interventionist”? Given the U.S.-backed toppling of Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953, the Suez Crisis of 1956, the direct U.S. intervention in Lebanon in 1958 and again in 1982, and the placing of medium-range ballistic missiles in Turkey prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, among many other actions, the answer is “no.”
Moreover, it is highly questionable to term Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East “non-interventionist.”
During the falsely named “Arab Spring” in 2011, Obama either enacted or abetted the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, who was killed after U.S.-initiated regime change, and Egypt’s military dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who was removed from power and thrown into prison thanks in part to Obama’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood policies. This is hardly non-interventionist.
Moreover, Obama’s acolytes railed at Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech before Congress opposing the Iranian nuclear deal, and the Obama administration inserted itself directly into the last Israeli election with the intention of ousting Netanyahu from power.
Where Obama was “non-interventionist,” it was to uphold his deal with Iran. Thus, he ignored the pleas of Iranians in the 2009 “green revolution” for support against the regime and chose not to enforce his 2013 “red line” threat against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Whether Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East was driven by a naïve desire to retreat from traditional U.S. responsibilities around the world or by a high-minded, carefully-vetted analysis with the Cold War as a model, the Middle East is a wreck and Obama eroded the trust of U.S. partners in the region, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Historians of the Middle East will wrangle over Obama’s legacy in that region for years to come, and if Gelvin’s analysis is any indication, the tendency to downplay the former president’s failures will persist. As information become available and events unfold that contradict the official narrative, they may find apologetics increasingly difficult.
Michael Lumish is an analyst on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the proprietor of Israel Thrives. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from the Pennsylvania State University and has taught at Penn State, San Francisco State University, and City College of San Francisco. This article was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.