The Middle East that Obama left behind

New US president inherits legacy of “perpetual warfare” in the region.

Obama in the middle east
Obama's legacy 'is one of near-total failure', according to Harvard professor Stephen Walt [Getty Images]

No matter who wins Tuesday’s presidential election, one thing is clear: The United States will continue to meddle in the conflicts of the Middle East, analysts say.

Barack Obama, who shied away from large-scale military intervention in favour of more covert drone warfare, will end his eight years of presidency with a deeply controversial legacy, and at a time when the region faces myriad competing crises. Conflicts are raging in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya; major attacks have been staged in Tunisia, Turkey and Lebanon; and an uprising has been simmering among residents of the occupied West Bank, while Palestinians in Gaza have barely begun to recover from Israel’s 2014 bombing campaign.

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“Obama’s legacy … is one of near-total failure,” Stephen Walt, an international affairs professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told Al Jazeera.

“A two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians is further away than ever. Intervention in Libya and Yemen produced a failed state. Insisting that ‘Assad must go’ and backing other forms of intervention made the Syrian civil war worse,” he said, noting that the only success story to emerge from Obama’s two presidential terms was last year’s historic Iran nuclear deal, which curbed Tehran’s nuclear programme in return for a lifting of sanctions.

“I believe Clinton will follow a similar policy to Obama’s, although she will try to look and sound tougher in doing it,” Walt added. “The main risk she faces is a slippery slope, whereby limited intervention in Syria or elsewhere gradually expands. With Trump, we have no idea whatsoever what he will do, and neither does he.”

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As Americans head to the ballot box on Tuesday, pollsters are forecasting a tight race, as Donald Trump has increasingly closed the gap with Hillary Clinton over the past week. Clinton is still widely expected to win, with the analysis website FiveThirtyEight giving her a 70 percent chance of victory.

The next president will inherit Obama’s legacy of “perpetual warfare” in the region, noted Samer Abboud, an associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University. Although Obama assumed office with a vision to reshape US engagement in the Middle East after the damaging Bush era – and while his administration has avoided sending troops into direct ground warfare, as his predecessor did in Iraq and Afghanistan – Washington has engaged in sustained aerial intervention throughout the region, including in Iraq and Syria.


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“Because this type of warfare is not as spectacular or widespread as military interventions, we have largely ignored the normalcy that this breeds and the exceptionalism it engenders,” Abboud told Al Jazeera. “The US has basically gone around the world bombing and droning at will, all in the name of combating terrorism.”

The failures of the US administration have been equally stark on the Israel/Palestine file, analysts note. Over the past eight years, Israel has launched three wars on the besieged Gaza Strip, while simultaneously accelerating its settlement programme throughout the occupied West Bank. Attempts by US Secretary of State John Kerry to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have ended in abject failure.

“To cap it all, Obama signed a $38bn military aid package, the largest to any country in history, to unconditionally support Israeli occupation, colonisation and apartheid for the next decade,” said Ali Abunimah, cofounder of The Electronic Intifada website and a policy adviser with Al-Shabaka. Both Clinton and Trump have indicated that they would continue the US tradition of unwavering support for Israel.

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Although Tuesday’s election is likely to lead to a recalibration of US policy towards the Middle East in several arenas, the size and scope of that transformation is difficult to predict, analysts say.

When it comes to Syria, now into the sixth year of a bloody conflict that shows no signs of abating, the two presidential candidates have presented directly opposing views. Trump has indicated that he would side with the Syrian regime and its Russian allies to battle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), stating during last month’s debate: “I don’t like [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS.” In fact, many of the air strikes launched by the regime and its allies have actually targeted Syrian rebels, not ISIL.

Clinton, meanwhile, has called for a no-fly zone over Syria in order to gain “leverage” over the Russians.

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“Hillary Clinton has clearly signalled that she intends to intervene in a variety of different conflicts, not least of which is Syria – but at the same time, Trump has given us a tremendous amount of rhetoric as far as the idea of being in this perpetual war against ‘radical Islamic terrorism’,” said Abdullah Al-Arian, an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

“The idea that they’re at war with Islamic militants around the region means that he will not be at all shy about the use of US military force in the region, and that’s something we can unfortunately expect from both of these candidates,” Al-Arian told Al Jazeera, noting that the US legacy of supporting its regional interests at the expense of indigenous populations throughout the Middle East is certain to continue, regardless of who wins on Tuesday.

Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow with the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, noted that Clinton would likely aim to seek out a “middle ground” between Obama’s purported disengagement and Bush’s militarised intervention in the region – a doomed strategy, he suggested.

“The problems of the Middle East have gotten so bad that middle options, or limited options, aren’t going to work,” Pollack told Al Jazeera. “They’re going to make the situation worse.”

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Should Trump ultimately prevail in Tuesday’s election, all bets are off in terms of how the Middle East file would move forward, analysts say.


“It is very difficult to tell what to expect [if Trump wins],” Abboud said. “He has suggested everything from war crimes to completely disengaging from the region. I seriously doubt that a Trump administration would find it politically or strategically feasible to enhance military intervention in the region.”

Despite growing fatigue among the American public over their country’s role in the Middle East, the region remains strategically important and will likely remain a dominating force on the US foreign policy agenda in the years ahead, said Steven Heydemann, the Ketcham chair in Middle East Studies at Smith College.

“[Obama] sought to downplay US interests in the Middle East and to downplay the extent to which the US could shape outcomes in the Middle East, and tended to view the Middle East as a distraction that prevented America from focusing more energy on areas of the world that were more central to its interests, in particular Asia,” Heydemann told Al Jazeera.

“I have a feeling that the next president will look at the Middle East differently … and will probably move quickly to re-engage in a number of different arenas.”

Follow Megan O’Toole on Twitter: @megan_otoole

Source: Al Jazeera