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The Obama Doctrine: An Arab American Perspective

posted on: Mar 23, 2016

By: Julia Kassem/Contributing Writer

Obama’s presidency was ushered in by Iraq’s remnants, another Gaza war and lack of progress in Afghanistan. The president will be departing under the yoke of the Syrian civil war, the threat of ISIS and the pressure to bring closure, over a course of months, to a crisis that originated decades ago.

Peppered by the 2011 failure in Libya, the polarizing prospects of the Iran deal and the chaos in Yemen, the conflict of interest abroad triggered a competition of interests demanding Obama’s loyalty. Over the years, his vision has been fettered by a gridlocked Congress, pervasive lobbying, and the systemic incapacity for his nation to wean itself off of its military-industrial colic.

The Middle East has increasingly become a litmus test for Obama’s personal convictions alongside his actions as Commander in Chief for the past two terms. “At one point,” noted interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “I observed to him that he is less likely than previous presidents to axiomatically side with Saudi Arabia in its dispute with its archrival, Iran. He didn’t disagree.” In the course of the interview, the President demonstrated his frustration with America’s tied and true allies, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, continuing to woo defense contractors such as Boeing, faces a struggle in maintaining approval from the President. While recognizing “Iran…since 1979, has been an enemy of the United States, and engaged in state sponsored terrorism,” he urged Saudi Arabia to share the Middle East with their Iranian opponents. “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians — which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen — requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”

From proxy wars in Yemen to the infamous beheading of Sheikh Al-Nimr, it’s simple to see how Saudi Arabia’s horrendous track record of human rights comes into conflict with the Democratic Nobel Peace Prize winner. Despite King Salman’s vows to reform the Kingdom, Saudi Arabia continues to escalate its brinkmanship of proxy wars and state sponsored brutality.

Obama’s antipathy towards tribalism — a force he sees as exasperating and reinforcing political tensions and strife in the Middle East — is a conviction as anecdotal as it is a purely political statement. By comparing the negative effects on tribalism in Kenya to its fractionalization of the Middle East, Obama looks upon it with suspicion. Just as Plato or George Washington demonstrated their antagonisms towards the fractionalizing and fragmenting outcomes of factions in a society, Obama too vocalized how the “power of tribal division” would be “the source of a lot of destructive acts.”

“Obama is a gambler, not a bluffer,” said a former National Security Council Advisor in response to Ehud Barak’s concerns that Obama would not follow through on his 2012 assurance to keep a nuclear weapon out of the hands of Iran.

And his decision to take on the Iran deal was a gamble, indeed.

“It (the deal) was far more pragmatic and minimalist,” Susan Rice, former US ambassador to the United Nations, said. “The aim was to make a dangerous country substantially less dangerous.”

Contrary to the narrative often latched onto Obama’s anti-deterrent decision, the Iran deal was not a matter of political or ideological compatibility between the President and Iran. But it is a step in the right direction of pragmatic de-escalation policy, which is a top priority on Obama’s agenda as he spends the next eight to ten months tying up the loose odds and ends in all matters foreign policy. Constantly criticized for his lack of action in Syria, a main policy platform behind the GOP has been to callously and effortlessly destroy ISIL.

However, even with a foreign policy based upon calculation and resolution rather than conflict and tenacity, Obama hesitantly made the decision to authorize the CIA to train and fund Syrian rebels. When considering the president’s advisory board, however, it was a clear act of domestic diplomacy.  It was, essentially, the bargaining act between the Commander in Chief and pro-interventionist US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. But he remains cautious, summarizing his foreign policy motives succinctly: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Obama’s actions seem to be in line with a majority of Arabs who oppose military action in Iran and Syria, having consistently responded negatively to such campaigns in these countries or the support of occupation. Perhaps these groups would find solace with a president that has departed from a foreign policy entrenched in the American exceptionalist mirage and otherwise responsive towards more conducive American values of self-determination and liberty.

A retrospective revisitation of the well-overdue precedents in foreign policy Obama worked so hard to cultivate faces endangerment under from the presidential election. A Clinton or Trump presidency would be a strategic, as well as moral anathema, to this nation that would admittedly learn nothing on foreign policy by casting its ballot for either candidate. Perhaps a Trump or Clinton victory would be a testament to a nation that has learned to drown out the precautionary cries of it’s own conscience with the anesthetizing serenade of all-American establishment exceptionalism.