American Policy in the Middle East: Obama's Last Year and a Look Ahead
The Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a panel discussion on October 20, 2015 regarding American foreign policy in the Middle East during the final year of President Barack Obama’s administration. The panelists were F. Gregory Gause, a non-resident senior fellow at the BDC and head of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University, and Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of Political Science at Kuwait University. Sultan Barakat, the BDC’s director of research, moderated the event, which was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, diplomatic, and media community.
Barakat started the discussion by noting that Obama’s presidency began with a sense of optimism felt throughout the Middle East, but now there is disappointment toward his foreign policy in the final year of his administration. Barakat then asked the panelists what Obama’s greatest achievement in the Middle East has been, and if they believe that his foreign policy is a disappointment.
F. Gregory Gause opened his remarks by stating Obama’s administration is too fixed on contradictory principles. At the beginning of his presidency, the goal was to shift the focus of American foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia. When the Arab Spring began, the Obama administration fell prey to the temptation to attempt to shape events to further American interests. However, the administration’s intervention in Libya ultimately backfired over the long term, which made Obama reluctant to directly intervene militarily in Syria. Obama found himself facing opposing objectives once again; he wanted to remove President Bashar Assad from power, but not at the cost of allowing extremists to fill the power vacuum left by his removal.
Gause explained that the Obama administration has now clearly chosen to prioritize combating Salafi-jihadi movements. Domestic political pressure has prevented the administration from involving itself further in other issues, primarily due to a lack of resources. Gause nevertheless concluded that the greatest achievement of Obama’s foreign policy was the Iranian nuclear deal.
Shafeeq Ghabra agreed that the Iran deal is the Obama administration’s main accomplishment, but warned of misinterpreting the deal as a sign of Iranian power or as proof of change in its foreign policy in the region. He argued that Iran only sought to secure the deal due to the dismal state of its economy, and that Iran may be disappointed to see that foreign investment will not immediately funnel into the country and improve the situation. Additionally, more improvements need to be made to its infrastructure. Nevertheless, Ghabra described the Iranian population as a relatively secular and urban society, with 60 percent of the population under 35 and residing in major Iranian cities. This segment of society desires a more prosperous economic situation, one that may slowly materialize after sanctions are lifted. In the long term, Ghabra noted, the young, reform-driven segment of Iranian society may strengthen the economy or even transform its foreign policy, but little should be expected in the short run.
Barakat noted that it is surprising that the Iran deal is Obama’s main accomplishment, as it was not a key issue of his foreign policy at the beginning of his presidency. Gause agreed and added that the Iran deal was misunderstood in the United States, where it has become a major domestic political issue. According to Gause, a false claim exists that asserts the United States has shifted towards Iran, and by doing so, Obama has abandoned traditional alliances in the region, the Gulf states and Israel. Gause asserted that the Obama administration is wagering that Iran will act as a more moderate state as a result of the deal, but the actual outcome will not be known for many years.
Discussion on Iran continued in relation to the Arab World’s perceived distrust of Iranian actions. Ghabra argued the Gulf states tend to generalize when assessing Iran and its role in the region. He believes they are too entrenched in an outdated mindset, which assesses regional issues within a simplistic Sunni versus Shiite framework. For instance, while Iran’s role in Bahrain was minimal, the Gulf states insist that Iran is the main force behind the protests that took place in 2011 simply because the Bahraini opposition is majority Shiite. Today, the Gulf states highly distrust the Iran deal because it was constructed without their input.
Barakat then asked why Obama was unable to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Gause listed a number of obstacles, including the Israeli government being unwilling to make the territorial concessions required due to the shift to the right in Israeli politics, the Palestinian community being divided between Fatah and Hamas, and the conflict itself becoming less important to U.S. policy makers. While the oil embargo in the 1970s brought Arab-Israeli instability to the forefront of the U.S. foreign policy agenda, today it has become clear that oil prices are not affected by instability in the region. As a result, the sense of immediacy has slowly been lost. Ghabra added that the Palestinian cause has returned to its basic denominator—a struggle for justice, morality, and human dignity. He argued that grassroots movements throughout the region have found inspiration and guidance from the Palestinian struggle and that the Palestinian cause will only be addressed after the political structure of the whole region is transformed.
On the issue of Yemen, Gause noted that American policy is run adjunct to its policy toward Saudi Arabia. The United States is supporting Saudi policy in Yemen to convey that it has not abandoned its ally in the wake of the deal with Iran. Ghabra feels that Yemen was lost multiple times; first in 1991, when the GCC did not absorb Yemen into its apparatus; and then in 2011 when it failed to effectively support and capitalize on the youth revolts. He believes all parties must be involved in any negotiated settlement, regarding the conflict in Yemen. From a pragmatic perspective, Iran must be involved, either indirectly or directly. Ghabra concluded by stating the same inclusive model in Yemen should eventually apply itself to Syria.
The discussion concluded with a few bold predictions. Ghabra held that the idea of a strong central state is in question, arguing that power is slowly moving toward the periphery, explaining the rise of non-state actors. Finally disagreeing with Ghabra, Gause argued that non-state actors had only become so prominent due to the decline of states creating vacuums where they can thrive. He concluded that in order for a more pluralistic and less centralized society to take shape in the Middle East, states would first need to become stronger.
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