Makdisi: The Tragedy of Obama’s Middle East Policy

Ussama Makdisi writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:

In the tragic story of U.S-Arab relations, no era has been as violent as our own. And yet when President Obama began his presidency, he initiated a series of highly-anticipated gestures to the Muslim world. His interview with the Arabic satellite channel Al-Arabiyya was followed by positive speeches in Turkey and Egypt. He insisted there was no clash of civilizations; he alluded to America’s long-standing philanthropic and cultural engagement with the Arab world, and he acknowledged that American actions in Iraq and inaction regarding Palestinian-Israeli peace had undermined faith in America. Above all, he spoke frankly of having to be judged on his actions and not his words. If nothing else, it was a hopeful beginning. Yet midway through his presidential term, the signs are ominous. Rather than signaling a bold change of direction, Obama has chosen half-measures to tweak an untenable status quo. Rather than securing a legacy based upon undoing George W. Bush’s calamitous wars, Obama has ironically deepened his predecessor’s imprint on the Middle East.

On Iraq, President Obama is ostensibly reversing the decision made by Bush to invade a sovereign nation. His address on Iraq to an American public tired of the Iraq war sought to make that clear. The infamous phrase “weapons of mass destruction” was not once mentioned, nor the indecent pretext of spreading democracy in a region rife with American supported and sustained autocrats (including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who was in the United States recently with his son and heir-apparent Gamal).

Obama did, however, declare that “we [Americans] have met our responsibility.” But several million Iraqi civilians have been displaced and countless hundreds of thousands Iraqi civilians have been killed and maimed over the past seven years of U.S. occupation, during which sectarianism reached a paroxysm of murderous violence—to say nothing of the terrible consequences of the U.S.-led sanctions regime and U.S. bombings of Iraqi infrastructure during the decade that preceded the invasion. The partial relaxation of overt U.S. domination of Iraqi politics and society cannot simply erase responsibility, nor can the disingenuous, patronizing notion that it is now up to the Iraqis to take up their own responsibilities as if the war had been waged for them in the first instance.

But Obama has at least acknowledged that the Iraq war was the wrong war. Rather than end it outright, however, his solution has been to withdraw many but not all U.S. troops for Iraq—some 50,000 remain in addition to thousands of private military contractors. Far more dangerously, he has expanded another unwinnable war in Afghanistan. And just like Bush who began the Afghan campaign in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Obama insists that terrorism and national security considerations are paramount as he lurches forward in Afghanistan and bombs parts of Pakistan. He has “surged” in Afghanistan as Bush had done in Iraq.

The logic that Obama has used to withdraw combat troops from Iraq could also have been applied to Afghanistan: a war without end serves neither Americans nor Afghanis. It alienates far more people than it pacifies and it will undoubtedly end in an American withdrawal without any appreciable gains for America. The real question is at what point and at what cost. How many more innocent lives are to be wasted before reality sets in? In any event, it should be clear by now that the resolution of anti-Americanism in the region lies in politics, not military conquests.

Obama, therefore, is making a show of kick-starting the moribund Palestinian-Israeli “peace process” to resolve the problem that has haunted America’s standing in the Middle East longer than any other issue. Far more than Bush or Clinton, Obama appears to understand that a resolution to the Palestinian question is important to American national security—for that was one of the principal messages that General David Petraeus conveyed in his recent congressional testimony and that is why Obama spent so much time at the outset of his presidency criticizing Israeli settlement construction.

But rather than move forward on the issue with new ideas, Obama now seems determined to recycle old failed ones from the Clinton era. He has already capitulated to the rightwing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue of settlements. And for the second time in recent memory, a U.S. president is attempting to browbeat a corrupt, weak and now illegitimate Palestinian Authority (Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential term expired in 2009) into surrendering Palestinian rights in the name of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The same dynamic that was at work during the failed Camp David Summit of 2000 is again evident: an Israeli leadership openly unwilling to make peace on the basis of genuine reciprocity, let alone justice or equality is meeting a Palestinian leadership utterly dependent on an American ability to pressure Israel into significant concessions, under the aegis of an American administration with the same kind of pro-Israel mentality and frame of reference that oversaw the last failed round.

One wonders why Obama is orchestrating this futile exercise at all—for the outcome of such lack of imagination will surely not be a strengthening of the U.S. position in the Middle East. Let us recall President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous stand on the Suez crisis of 1956. Taken by surprise by the British, French and Israeli invasion of Egypt, Eisenhower then faced considerable domestic pressure to go easy on Israel. He also faced strident British appeals for solidarity during the Cold War. Yet Eisenhower compelled the invading nations to withdraw, not for the sake of Egypt, but because he understood that U.S. interests could not be served by ill-conceived colonial wars and by a rigidly pro-Israel policy. Obama seems unable and unwilling to level with the American people about the need to delink Israel’s putative interests from America’s real ones. Without such a delinking, and in the context of ongoing war in Afghanistan that is fast becoming Obama’s war, Obama will surely snuff out what little hope there was when he first came to power, and when he addressed the Muslim world directly.

Obama’s presidency is shaping up to be another missed opportunity to rebuild America’s broken relationship to the Middle East. Americans may be tired of the Middle East, but they can’t afford to ignore it. The status quo no longer afflicts the people of the Middle East alone. It costs Americans as well.

Ussama Makdisi is Professor of History at Rice University and author of Faith Misplaced: the Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations (Public Affairs, 2010)

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12 Responses

  1. Makdisi’s commentary’s outstanding. American diplomacy is constrained by economic forces that the American military knows how to exploit.

    Unfettered by national conscription, the commercialized military is bent on waging wars that feed its own growing needs. Federal budgetary excesses will only serve to accelerate the military’s progress toward becoming an independent entity that generates its own income by controlling arms sales, contractors and mercenaries. The military will undertake wars in order to support its own logistical needs. The counter-productive war on drugs will bring in growing profits. Although Obama may want to free his administration from the military’s grip, he has no choice but to protect his political flank from those who see military strength as signifying national well being. Petraeus had the nerve to complain about Israeli influence because the military’s becoming more independent as politicians are becoming more helpless. For instance, Tea Party types never breathe a word about cutting military spending: they know a sacred cow when they see one.

    In calculating GDP, a meaningless composite as it is, economists fail to account for the wasted productivity that war represents. To this day American economists think WWII ended the Great Depression: they overlook how it destroyed the fruits of American industrial output. Measured by the narrow view of profits, the military may survive the nation it’s bound to destroy, just as the final centuries of the Roman Empire saw the military acting as a parasite sucking the life out of the economy.

  2. “Obama has chosen half-measures to tweak an untenable status quo. ” -U. Makdisi

    Unfortunately this sums up his presidency so far, except for the kid glove treatment of the wealthy and powerful Wall Street bankers and his Republican adversaries.

    • Yep, in agreement with you both. There’s not much to see in this latest WH group and sure as hell isn’t any one there near Ike. Sad

  3. Maybe I should be more succinct: people believe, and get conned, by what they desperately want to be so. Obama etal desperately want Israel to not be jerking them around like so many puppets that they have no ability to resist the pressure when it is applied. There emerges a cognitive dissonance, but they have no choice but to soldier-on, participating in these pathetic charades for peace with at least one party that is not there in good faith, as demonstrated by the entire history of their actions.

    And, of course, many, many people have already observed that nothing is really going to change in this game until the US somehow cures itself from the undue influence of the likudnik interests.

  4. The era of the endless wars is a function of the decline in oil production and the peak of the oil wars. How does the geopolitical landscape change if Iraq becomes the world’s number one oil producer, as Lloyd’s of London projects, and if the Afghanistan oil fields pan out?

  5. Having seen many times on Informed Comment that Israel was responsible for the failure of the 2000 Camp David summit, I looked up the Wikipedia article on that subject (link to What I learned was not that Israel was to blame, or that the Palestinians were to blame, but that the parties were much farther from an agreement than I had previously believed.

    • Camp David II was the climax/write-off of theOslo Accords, a process started in 93. It was all a charade, but don’t take my word for it. Look into this segment, in context of the ongoing conflict, and Israel’s lack of good faith and cynicism becomes evident. A WHOLE lot written on it, so read critically. Very few balanced accounts, and you can dismiss alot pretty quickly. Clayton Swishers account is a great starting place, and then there was a book by an Israeli whose name I forget, who was doing a doc for French TV, and was able to get a bunch of contemporaneous interviews which are transripd. Looking at these two you’ll get good real-time inside reportage, rather than most of this stuff which tends to be half-remembered or self-serving dribble. And read wikipedia more critically…it has its place, but this topic takes a more critical and discerning look. It clarifies a great deal, which is a mixed blessing….

  6. Rice University is trying to sell its’ student run station KTRU to the University of Houston. See link to Needless to say, the students aren’t happy. Neither are listeners to a non-commercial station that plays eclectic music, & has shows like Genetic Memory (Avant Garde music), The Navrang Show ( south Asian music), Chickenskin Music (alternative country), & others.

  7. .
    If only.
    If only things were as good as Professor Makdisi reports, that the US is only estranged from the Muslim world.

    Every country that is not a member of the “industrialized West” now fears a US invasion on trumped up charges. How long will it take them to band together in self-defense ? Once that happens, we’re in a world of hurt. There aren’t enough bombs and bullets to persuade them all to like or forgive us.

  8. .
    Fellow JC fans:
    Reality Check. Please tell me if I am misreading what I think is a crucial issue in the poor relations that Professor Makdisi laments.

    I am under the impression that “the Muslim world” sees Guantanamo in 3 parts:
    — Temporary detention pending trial of those that we intend to prosecute under the laws of our country, who we are convinced we will be able to convict and then sentence to life or death;
    — Life in prison without any trial or review for those we are pretty sure deserve to be put on trial, but we fear we could not gain a conviction, even in a military “kangaroo” tribunal; and
    — Indefinite (possibly for life) detention for about 85 men that have been completely exonerated by all US government agencies. Mostly Yemeni, these guys are being held in case they might do something untoward in the future.

    Seems to me that folks everywhere understand the first two categories, even if they don’t agree. But I personally am outraged by that third category, because of how it offends everything that “America” stands for. I figure Muslims worldwide see these men as religious prisoners, since there doesn’t seem to be any other real reason for holding and punishing them.
    What do you hear ?

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