Obama’s new Middle East mantra: Caught by surprise

“We were caught by surprise” has become the chorus of U.S. officials in attempting to defend a hands-off approach to conflicts

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

“Surprise surprise, you’re much better looking when you’re in disguise” is becoming more than a good song for the Canadian punk rock band “Billy Talent” and could sum up the Obama administration’s policy (or lack thereof) in responding to current Middle East turmoil.

“We were caught by surprise” has become the chorus of U.S. officials in attempting to defend a lackluster, hands-off approach to conflicts that are ripping apart the Middle East. More than both the George W. Bush and the Bill Clinton administrations, the Obama team keeps getting surprised by regional events which begs the question on the level of understanding it has for the Middle East. In crisis after crisis, the surprise line has been the knee-jerk reaction of the Obama administration in explaining its mediocre stance in places like Yemen, Iraq, Syria and even Ukraine.

The politics of surprise

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has not missed an opportunity to express surprise at major events shaping the region, and in the process it surprised everyone else by the lack of strategic outlook and inability to predict or connect the dots in several conflicts. For example, Washington was “caught off guard” when ISIS swept through Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city last summer, as it was surprised by an allied government collapsing in the streets of Sanaa earlier this month.

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Obama administration has not missed an opportunity to express surprise at major events shaping the region

Joyce Karam

On the Sanaa developments, Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress this week that the Houthis takeover in Yemen “did surprise,” adding “it surprised everybody that it moved the way it did.” Well, not really. Very few in the region were surprised by the Houthis’ coup in Yemen, and anyone remotely following the trajectory of events in Sanaa and the group’s own statements in that regard would have predicted a turning point.

The writing on the wall since last fall in the form of the Houthis gradual control of Sanaa in September, the changes they forced in the government, the kidnapping of the presidential aide, and taking military basis, all predicted a power grab to follow. While this was happening the statements from Washington were of “deep concern,” as U.S. drones kept operating in that country.

In Iraq, as well as in Syria, the U.S. had been repeatedly warned by key regional allies that terrorism and extremism will only surge and dominate the scene if nothing is done in those conflicts. Instead, the Obama administration decided to delay the ticking bomb, focus on domestic politics in an election year and keep propping up the sectarian corrupt leadership of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq which played directly into the hands of ISIS. A former U.S. official recalls that Turkey sent to Washington in 2012 this warning: “if the moderate opposition in Syria is not supported it will be Talibanized.” Three years later, it is neither a surprise nor an excuse to use this outcome in justifying a failed policy.

Costs on U.S. influence

The surprised and concerned tone of the Obama administration is coming at the expense of U.S. credibility and leadership in the Middle East. More than any time before, regional countries from Israel to Turkey to Saudi Arabia are stepping up their role to advance their separate interests and avoid fatal surprises.

Washington’s diplomatic role has been completely overshadowed in the Peace Process between the Israelis and the Palestinians and there is increased chatter about a regional initiative. In Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, regional actors are partaking in backchannel negotiations to patch up their differences and contain the war of proxy that is fragmenting those countries. And in Iran, where the U.S. is heavily invested in reaching a nuclear deal by this summer, it is far from certain that this deal will be reached, or that the countries of the region will embrace it.

The biggest surprise of all in the Middle East is not in extremism and sectarianism festering on chaos and inaction, but in regional governments slowly peeling off the U.S. orbit as the most influential diplomatic guarantor in the Middle East. Questions from regional figures are frequently raised behind closed doors about the Obama team’s own understanding of the Middle East and the nature of U.S. commitment to the region.

“We love the American people but we cannot wait for the Obama administration,” said one Arab diplomat. This dynamic will shape key developments in the region on counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation in the next two years and will ironically bring more “surprises” to Washington.


Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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