Why Obama fails the leadership test in the Middle East

The US “better safe than sorry” approach to the Middle East has proven dangerous

US President Barack Obama with John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden [Getty]
US President Barack Obama with John Kerry and Joe Biden [Getty]

I’ll be writing plenty about US foreign policy in the next few weeks as there is a lot to say about Barack Obama’s two-term presidency, and there are various ways to scrutinise his approach to the greater Middle East, be it strategic, political, ideological or even personal. 

For starters, I’d like to focus on what struck me this past weekend listening to the Republican debate on  leadership. And by that I don’t mean their bombastic bull***t about making the US “great again” through more bombing of the Middle East, or their paranoiac patriotism.

Once you’ve gone beyond the scripted speeches, soundbites and cliches, you’ll notice how the debate about leadership is primarily divided between the three governors and two senators, the other two weasels, Donald Trump and Ben Carson notwithstanding.

All-talk, no-walk senators

Governor Chris Christie was explicit about the difference between being a governor and a senator candidate for the presidency.

During their heated exchange, the New Jersey governor bashed Senator Marco Rubio as another Washington show horse from the US Senate.

READ MORE: Obama’s Palestine policy – slogans and throwaway phrases

According to the Washington Post, Christie “owned” the senator when he ridiculed his stump 25-second speeches and contrasted Rubio’s Senate speech-making with his own record as a governor who had to solve real problems.

They might appear sharp and controversial, even hostile on C-Span ... but in the hallways these back-slapping men are the best of friends.


“When you’re president of the US, when you’re a governor of a state, the memorised 30-second speech where you talk about how great America is at the end of it doesn’t solve one problem for one person,” said the hack-and-slash governor.

“Every morning when a US senator wakes up, they think about what kind of speech can I give, or what kind of bill can I drop?” the New Jersey governor lamented. “Every morning, when I wake up, I think about what kind of problem do I need to solve for the people who actually elected me. It’s a different experience.”

And in the previous debate, Christie joked some more: “I agree with what Senator Rubio said himself. He said just two weeks ago senators and congressmen can’t solve America’s problems. I couldn’t agree with him more.”

Joking aside, not all senators-come-presidents can be judged solely on these grounds. The US has had 16 of them, including Richard Nixon, who was anything but indecisive and an all-but-convicted war criminal. The same goes for governors, and I don’t only mean Christie’s poor record. Look at George Bush. Need I say more?

So why is any of that relevant to US foreign policy, notably in the Middle East, and more particularly, Syria, Iraq and Palestine, for example?

Senators Obama and co.

With Christie’s words about “all-talk-no-action” in mind, notice that Obama and his two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, as well as his vice president, Joe Biden, were all senators, the last two serving for two or three decades, respectively. Not forgetting the ill-fated secretary of defense, Senator Chuck Hagel.

Democratic US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [REUTERS]
Democratic US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [REUTERS]

Their capacity for talking so much and saying so little is astonishing. Their verbosity is unpalatable.

Obama, a “commander-in-speech” in his own right,  can take on any crowd, preferably with prompter with unmatched skill and wit, to deliver one sermon after another, be it in Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem, or Oslo, Prague, and the United Nations.

His inspirational speeches promised a new world, but his policies, or lack thereof, deliver more or less the same old and tired world, and more chaotic

He might have ended the US war in Iraq in one way and signed a nuclear deal with Iran, but his inaction in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, etc, have made matters far worse than when he took office.

READ MORE: Thank you Obama for your mosque speech

I don’t mean he should have intervened militarily on the ground to remove dictators. Rather, acted decisively, both diplomatically and strategically, to prevent genocide in Syria, such as by establishing a no-fly zone along with Turkey and others. Or by limiting the Iranian intervention in Iraq and the rise of a sectarian regime in Baghdad under Nouri al-Maliki.


Certainly by pressuring Israel to end its occupation and punishing General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for his coup d’etat and repression. 

It’s perhaps telling that after taking its time to take a stand on Egypt’s military coup, the Obama administration concluded: “We have determined that we don’t need to make a determination.”

To solve all these urgent crises and end the bloodshed, some of which Washington helped to start, Kerry reckons all we need to do to get things done is to talk the hell out of them. All you need to do to get enemies to kiss and make up is to get the protagonists into a room and talk them through it. That’s what they do in the Senate.

The kings of pork

Unfortunately, there’s more to the Senate political culture than just talk. Senators – or “the kings of pork”, as they have been called – always ask what’s in it for them before delivering any speech, taking any action or passing a law.

Senators ... always ask what's in it for them before delivering any speech, take any action or pass a law.


To them, “special interests” come first, constituency second, and the country a distant third. What’s good for the world beyond their borders counts very little, if at all.

And regardless of their differences, they always act with such camaraderie and complicity among themselves.

They might appear sharp and controversial, even hostile on C-Span, the network dedicated to their stump speeches, but in the hallways these back-slapping men are the best of friends.

Take no risks; better to be safe than sorry. And you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours, should be the US Senate motto.

This political culture goes a long way to explaining the foreign policy mentality of the Obama administration, whose slogan has long been “Don’t do stupid sh*t”.

This comes from the guy who wrote The Audacity of Hope, and whose campaign was based on the slogan “Yes, we can”.

Call me idealistic, but I think leaving hundreds of thousands of Syrians to die in vain is stupid sh*t.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

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