From Obama to Trump: Lessons and challenges

Ahmet Davutoğlu, former Turkish PM, writes on the legacy of Obama’s foreign policy and the challenges ahead for Trump.

Ahmet Davutoglu
Professor Dr Ahmet Davutoğlu is the former prime minister and foreign minister of Turkey and a member of parliament from the AK Party [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

There are few Western politicians whose election aroused as much excitement and hope both in the West and East, in the north and south, as Barack Obama. But there are also few politicians that have caused as much dismay and disappointment worldwide as Obama. Therefore his legacy will certainly be controversial.

After the United States’ two catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ill-conceived strategy on the “war on terror”, Obama’s election represented hope and a new beginning towards recalibrating US foreign policy and rethinking its position in the world. This was particularly important in rehabilitating US relations with the Middle East and the larger Islamic world.

In this vein, Obama’s impassioned and eloquent speeches in Turkey and Egypt were seen as the advent of a new era between the two sides. His emphasis on democracy, human rights, pluralism, good governance, and economic development were particularly noteworthy and inspiring, given the US’ previous tendency to sponsor authoritarian regimes in the region with almost no regard for any of these values. By any account, the stage was well set for a new beginning in regional relations, which were to be underpinned by the shared values of democracy, human rights and economic progress, as well as the long-awaited rejection of the authoritarian-stability thesis.

The observation or analysis of Obama’s foreign, and in particular regional policies is more than a matter of analytical or political curiosity for me. It is also very personal. I became foreign minister of Turkey very soon after Obama took office: on May 1, 2009, to be precise. Three factors in particular led me to have high hopes for his presidency and to feel optimistic about the future prospects of his foreign policy.

‘The Audacity of Hope’

First, the election of a black president was in and of itself good news for the United States and for the world at large; a thought I first expressed back in April 2002 during a conference at Princeton University, long before the prospect of Obama’s presidency came to light. Such a choice, I believed, would reflect the inclusive nature of US politics and American identity. The rise and embracement of these values in US politics and their promotion through American foreign policy would have been one of the strongest sources of support for inclusivity and diversity worldwide. As the boundaries between domestic and foreign policies have become ever more insignificant, the political spillover of such a quintessentially American domestic policy development would encourage positive change across the globe.

Second, we expected that the Bush administration’s militant unilateralism and interventionism would be followed by a new multilateralism. Though with the benefit of hindsight, we anticipated a responsible and consequential multilateralism, which would not have slipped into passive diplomacy and inconsequential policies of engagement as easily as it did.

Third, as stated above, we expected that his stress on human rights and democracy would go beyond rhetoric and form part and parcel of US foreign policy, particularly towards the MENA region. This was not and is not purely a normative or idealistic expectation: I believe that such a regional policy would also have borne more positive results for US interests in the region. Such a policy, in fact, would have enlarged the social and political constituency for American foreign policy in the region, which is, in its current form, confined to the triangle of security, foreign policy and economic elites whose legitimacy, and hence their very survival, is now at stake.

Syrian children walk down a damaged street in the old city of Aleppo [Louai Beshara/AFP]
Syrian children walk down a damaged street in the old city of Aleppo [Louai Beshara/AFP]

Unmet expectations

Hence, in my view, the election of Obama by the American people in 2008 was in line with the zeitgeist, and I believed that his foreign policy would also reflect the values and aspirations associated with it.

These expectations have remained unfulfilled. Failure, disappointment and dismay have characterised his foreign policy more than success or “audacious” hope. The US has alienated its traditional allies and emboldened its adversaries. The defence of democracies and promotion of pluralism, human dignity and decency have remained half-hearted at best.

To be fair, Obama began in the right way, but he never followed through throughout his term. He articulated the right statements profusely, but never matched them with the right actions. He projected a benign vision but did not support this with deeds that have had consequences. In short, there has been a glaring gap between the rhetoric and the implementation.

Though it may be a commendable personal feature, eloquence is no substitute for political vision, courage and responsible policies. Plus, we were unfortunately never able to convert our well-functioning personal dialogue with the Obama administration into political progress on the issues and themes of common interest and concern.

To put it more precisely, Turkey mediated four indirect rounds of peace talks between Israel and Syria to settle this dispute between 2007 and the end of 2008. The talks, mediated by a team led by myself, advanced smoothly to the point that by the end of 2008, many expected the two countries to sign a framework agreement for a peace settlement. Yet the Israeli invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008 derailed the process. We naturally felt betrayed by the fact that Israel had once again chosen war at the very moment that the prospect of a peace deal with Syria was becoming attainable, and that they failed to inform us about their intention to go to war despite the fact that Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had a long talk over dinner with our then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey only days before the invasion. The timing of this derailment coincided with the commencement of the Obama presidency. A peace treaty between Israel and Syria would have had a dramatic transformative impact on the regional political scene. It would probably have set the stage for a new beginning in relations between the countries of the Levant, and later the broader region. Yet, to our dismay, the Obama administration chose not to invest any energy or effort in reviving this initiative.

Fast forward to 2011: The Obama administration has adopted the right discursive position on Syria. It declared the Assad regime to be illegitimate in August 2011, well in advance of Turkey doing the same. In fact, on August 9, 2011, I held a six-hour-long talk with Assad himself. We agreed on a 14-point framework for a peaceful transition and two-week time period for him to declare this framework after necessary preparations. We informed our American counterpart about the deal. Yet the US administration was rushing to declare the Assad regime as illegitimate, which it did only a week after we agreed upon the framework deal. Needless to say, during the same time period, the Assad regime also violated the terms of this framework deal several times. Thereafter, we also cut all the contacts with the regime.

Along the same lines, the Obama administration rightly condemned the brutality of the Assad regime, called for a regime change, and denoted the use of chemical weapons as red lines that would trigger a military response and lead to severe repercussions for the Assad regime. All these publicly declared positions and red lines have since been violated by the Assad regime with more or less impunity, not least by the use of chemical weapons in August 2013.

On a more bilateral note, even though the Obama administration denoted the Assad regime early on as illegitimate and rightly accused him of committing grave crimes, including crimes against humanity, the same administration has proven to be unsympathetic towards the difficulties, challenges and threats that Turkey has faced as a neighbour to a war-torn country nominally ruled by an illegitimate regime. From the flow of millions of refugees into the country to Syria-induced ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) and PKK terrorism, Turkey has faced myriad hardships and threats. In other words, this illegitimate regime was the source of these challenges and threats for Turkey, yet the Obama administration was unwilling to recognise it as such and act upon it accordingly. To the contrary, at the end of the day, the Obama administration allowed Assad’s brutality to continue while supporting “his ally” Turkey’s foes, on the ground.

2013: Regional and global implications

Furthermore, just as Obama’s Cairo statements were commendable, forward-looking and encouraging, his stance on the military coup against the first elected president in the most populous country in the Arab world was disheartening and discouraging. The militarisation of the Syrian uprising, the coup in Egypt and the rise of ISIL have been three factors that have turned the tide of the movements of democracy and human dignity in the Arab world. In this respect, 2013 was a crucial year. Obama’s equivocal responses to the breach of his red lines in Syria and the coup in Egypt encouraged dictators to commit further atrocities to retain power, fed into the narratives of extremists, and undermined the cause of democracy and human dignity. To understand ISIL’s exponential expansion from 2014 onwards requires a better comprehension of what happened in 2013.

But the story doesn’t end there: US failure in 2013 also sent signals to the adversaries and rivals of the United States that they could count on the US’ inaction. This message, it seems, Russia has taken deeply to heart. Arguably, Russia would have not been so defiant and groundbreaking in Crimea and the Ukraine in 2014 and later in Syria from 2015 onwards if the Obama administration had been able to match its discourse with deeds. In other words, Russian activism from Ukraine to Syria, and from Crimea to Libya, is all the direct result of the fading away of the deterrence built on the US commitment to upholding the rules and principles of international law and its declared goals, be it by default or by design. Perhaps future historians will treat 2013 as the year that shaped the course of ensuing decades, reversed the tide of region-wide change, and redefined the dynamics of global power relations.

The Turkish Coast Guard tows refugees and migrants in a dinghy [Umit Bektas/Reuters]
The Turkish Coast Guard tows refugees and migrants in a dinghy [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

Misconceptualisations and faulty prescriptions

Even more tragically, Obama’s ineffective strategies seem, after a while, to have culminated in his reconceptualisation of the issues and of rereading events.

Obama has easily fallen into the trap of trading symptoms for causes. The Syrian crisis has been progressively reduced to yet another war on terror – this time in the form of ISIL – plus the need for humanitarian assistance, while Iran has been reduced to the nuclear file. Such a reading misses the true source of tension between Iran and its neighbours: its regional policy. Even on the nuclear file, the US had to settle for a less favourable deal than the one we, in partnership with Brazil, had negotiated with Iran in May 2010. I still remember the last day, our tough negotiations with the Iranian team, together with my colleague Celso Amorim, foreign minister of Brazil, lasted 17 hours without break. We had informed the US about our efforts and intention to settle the dispute. After long and cumbersome negotiations, we reached a deal on May 16, 2010. We expected a positive response from Washington, but the Obama administration rebuffed the deal, only because it wasn’t achieved by the P5 1. At that time, Iran’s level of enrichment capacity was relatively low. Five years later, the P5 1 had to settle on a deal at a time when Iran had achieved a much higher level of enrichment. Lastly, on Iraq, “getting out of Iraq” has taken precedence and priority over “getting Iraq right” for the Obama administration.

Most of the malaises associated with Bush’s half-baked and shortsighted policy of interventionism, particularly but not exclusively in the Middle East, were mirrored in Obama’s misplaced policy of withdrawal from the Middle East. The idea and mindset of “withdrawal” from the Middle East seems to have afforded the Obama administration the space to pursue inconsequential, ineffective and irresponsible policies towards the region.

This mentality of withdrawal was not solely confined to the Middle East: instead it seems that the US was withdrawing from its responsibilities worldwide. For instance, one reflection of this “withdrawal” was that the Obama administration preferred to invest its time and energy in relatively comfortable issues rather than dealing with the root causes of the real troubles. To put it more concretely, the Obama administration largely reduced the nature of its relations with Europe to that of negotiating over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – at a time when the European integration project was facing its severest crisis since its launch in the aftermath of World War II. This in return has left America’s allies between a rock and a hard place.

The Nobel Prize Effect

Arguably, Obama winning a Nobel Prize early on in his presidency did damage his future foreign policy. It encouraged him to stick to diplomatic passivity and to not undertake foreign policy decisions that would have required tough choices and using hard power. This crippled his foreign policy. With the benefit of hindsight, he should have won a Nobel Prize based on a real achievement instead of being given one in advance. This Nobel Prize came too early and too easily for Obama.

History will pass its own verdict on Obama’s foreign policy. In all likelihood, it will be a damning one. Rather than becoming a transformative global foreign policy figure, and in spite of his rhetoric, Obama chose to be a prisoner of the status quo.

Though the early signs aren’t encouraging, President Trump has four years ahead of him, which represent a new opportunity to get US foreign policy towards the region and the world at large right.

Lessons for the Trump administration

Good policies require a sophisticated analysis of what is happening in the world, particularly in the MENA region. Since the region is passing through one of its most transformative periods, it is important that the Trump administration begins to work on a more sophisticated regional policy starting from the first day in office. In this respect, three factors are particularly important for the new administration to take into account while formulating a new foreign and regional policy.

First, the underlying causes that led to uprisings across the Arab world are still there. If anything, these causes have deepened and gained further salience. Two weeks ago, there was a peaceful transition of power in Washington DC. No tanks were on the streets. The military personnel that were visible were only for ceremonial purposes. The people of this region deserve the same as well. And until and unless they acquire this opportunity, the dust of the region is unlikely to settle.

This picture stands in stark contrast to what was attempted in Turkey on July 15, 2016. The July 15 failed coup attempt perpetrated by the Gulenist terror cult aimed at bloody transfer of power from democratically elected civilian government to a secretive cultish terrorist organisation. Unfortunately, the Obama administration did not show sufficient level of solidarity with Turkey in the face of this brutal coup attempt. What we expect from the new US administration is to show solidarity with its ally, Turkey, by handing over the coup leader Fethullah Gulen, who is residing in Pennsylvania, to Turkey to be held accountable for his deeds.

Second, there is a new and consequential political psychology prevailing among people, and particularly young people, across the region, which will shape future political trajectories. Despite all the trauma that they have been through, this new political psychology refuses to condone their being ruled by this “new” and more brutal form of authoritarianism or treat it as their fate.

Third, the interconnected nature of today’s world means that the crisis in the Middle East is no longer a regional but a global one with far-reaching consequences.

The more the West consents to the authoritarian comeback in the region, the more it risks the erosion of democracy in their own national contexts. Europe doesn’t appear to realise that it has only a fluid border, in the shape of the Mediterranean Sea, between itself and the MENA region.

As the great but tragic human migrations of recent years have shown, this fluid border is passable, no matter how much investment Europe makes in border security and fences. The human tragedy on this side of the Mediterranean engenders political calamity in the form of the rise of political populism and the decline of democratic standards in Europe. Putting aside the effort of political leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President of the European Council Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, with whom we spearheaded a process in 2015-16 that culminated in the signing of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal on March 18, 2016 in the EU-Turkey Summit and which in return has prevented the death of refugees in the Aegean Sea, Europe’s political leadership underestimates and underappreciates the interconnected nature of the political destiny of the people of the Mediterranean basin. They hence tend to forget that Europe is a peninsula between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

Along the same lines, the destiny of one component of the Atlantic community, Europe, will inevitably shape the destiny of the other, North America (and particularly that of the United States). Therefore, it is in the immediate interests of US and European political elites or the community of democracies to search for real and sustainable solutions for these Middle Eastern crises.

The danger of a tragic beginning and fatal mistakes

Here, extreme caution is warranted. While the expectations that we had vis-a-vis Obama remained unfulfilled, the political discourse of President Trump prior to the election and its performance and decisions since then carry worrisome elements and are in complete contradiction of our expectations.

First, instead of inclusivity, exclusivity has become the defining feature of this new administration’s major decisions since the election. Trump’s campaign rhetoric about immigrants and people of different identities – but particularly Mexican immigrants and Muslims – were toxic or problematic at best. The exclusionary nature of US domestic policy towards its citizens, residents and people living on US soil sets a dangerous path and precedent for far-right parties to pursue elsewhere and will tarnish the US image globally, and destroy the foundation of its soft power, which has formed a significant chunk of the country’s overall power and standing in the world.

Second, instead of multilateralism, an unproductive unilateralism has once again become the order of the day. From the ban on the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries to the decision to construct a wall along the US-Mexico border, the new administration has opted for a counterproductive unilateralism.

It is rather a paradox at a time when the new US administration has ordered the Pentagon to devise a plan to deal a death blow to ISIL in Iraq and Syria, it is also instituting a Muslim ban. There can be no stronger gift to be given to ISIL than such an ill-conceived Muslim ban.

Also, it was a twist and irony of history that President Trump signed the Muslim ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Never again to stigmatise any people, religion, societies collectively should have been the guiding principle for this remembrance.

Likewise, the idea behind 9/11 was to drive wedges between different people, religions, societies and civilisations. First and foremost, 9/11 attacked the inclusivity of societies, the idea of co-existence, the phenomenon of multiculturalism. If insisted upon, this Muslim ban will reward these perpetrators with a gift that they could never have imagined before. This Muslim ban will be the institutionalisation of Islamophobia as the government policy of a superpower. This will increase polarisation worldwide and activate socio-political faultlines among societies, religions and civilisations. Fears shouldn’t be operationalised to score political gains.

Inclusivity, respecting human dignity and upholding rights and liberties would be the most powerful means to counter the twisted ideology of the perpetrators of 9/11 and the cowardice of ISIL. Defaulting on these principles and values will in contrast be tantamount to breathing life into these perpetrators’ decaying and dying ideology.

The securitisation of Islam and Muslims will drive a further wedge not only between the US and its own Muslim population, but also between the US and the larger Islamic world.

Third, the US policy towards the MENA region should be premised on a sophisticated understanding of the region. In this respect, Trump’s declared intention of moving the United States’ embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, if implemented, will be a tragic beginning and a fatal mistake. It would be inimical to US interests, cause tension and almost certain bloody conflicts between Palestine and Israel, and would torpedo any chance of a two-state solution. It would ignite a further cycle of violence and bloodshed, and provide fertile political ground for extremism of all sorts to thrive in the region. Jerusalem is not only Jerusalem. It is not only a disputed issue between Israel and Palestine or even the Arabs as a whole, but is a much bigger potential source of friction.

The combined impact of these three points will be the further diminishing of the US’ role and presence in the region and the world. This in return will provide further opportunities for other powers, be they Russia or China, to exploit the void created by the fraying of ties between the US and its traditional Middle Eastern allies, and marginalise the United States in the region and, by extension, the world.

Fourth, if not reversed, Trump’s belittling of the European integration project and downplaying of the significance of NATO will shake the bond between the transatlantic community, which again will be counter-productive to the US’ national interests. In particular, his praise of Brexit, and encouragement of its repetition in other contexts, as well as courting populist movements across the continent, invite security challenges of all sorts, be they political, economic or social. The reversal and undoing of the European integration project would be one of the gravest mistakes since World War II, and its consequences would be deep and far-reaching. This process may once again give rise to the long-buried question of the balance of power in Europe. This would not only be tragic news for Europe, but it would also directly and immediately undermine the global standing of the United States. The Trump administration, therefore, should strive to regain the trust of its traditional allies, be they in the Middle East, Asia or Europe, and solidify its existing bonds.

Obama’s lacklustre foreign policy legacy should motivate the new US administration to devise a new democracy and human rights oriented, people-friendly foreign policy. It should strengthen its ties with its current allies and search for new ones. It is for the whole world to shoulder the burden of preventing further destruction and halting the global drift towards authoritarianism.

The need of humanity today is obvious: a more inclusive, more multilateral and more humanitarian international order.

Professor Dr Ahmet Davutoğlu is the former prime minister and foreign minister of Turkey and a member of parliament from the AK Party.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans and hold flags after a failed coup attempt [EPA]
Supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shout slogans and hold flags after a failed coup attempt [EPA]
Source: Al Jazeera