Characterizing events from Yemen to Syria to Libya as a "transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia" is not only a reality distortion by U.S. President Barack Obama, but also a dangerous fantasy that resigns American diplomacy to dismissiveness in the Middle East.
Shrugging off the Middle East's largest upheaval in decades as a theological rift, and shying away from major diplomatic initiatives, is a slap in the face for U.S. role and stature, restricted today to responding and containing conflicts.
Blaming the chaos of the Middle East on centuries' old battles is a perfect cop-out strategy for Obama, avoiding his legacy from being tarnished by the fragmentation of four states, two of which were bombed by the United States (Iraq and Libya).
Except, religious scriptures from a different era are not driving the current regional rivalry, or spurring ISIS. It's oppression, civil wars, ISIS territorial gains, and unchecked regional bickering that is fueling the hellfire.
Obama's narrative, however, is largely aimed at absolving his administration of any wrong doing in the Middle East, and attributing current infernos to a "transformation" across a whole generation that Washington apparently has little influence over. This claim self destructs in every conflict zone in the Middle East, three of them started on Obama's watch four years ago.
This is not to say U.S. leadership is not needed in the Middle East. On the contrary, it is only through U.S. leadership that the region can see an end to the current horror.Joyce Karam
In Iraq, it was U.S. catastrophic invasion in 2003 and not a Quran scripture that unleashed hell in that country. Five years later, it was Obama's mismanagement of Iraq, propping up the corrupt leadership of Nouri Maliki even as he lost elections in 2010, that gave ISIS a golden opportunity to takeover Mosul. The fall of Mosul has little to do with a generational "transformation" and plenty with misguided policies from the White House.
In Libya, the Sunni-Shia millennia rift does not even apply in a country with majority of Sunnis and intricate tribal structure and large oil wealth. It's not a sectarian conflict that is breaking Libya between East and West, and it's not under theological circumstances that ISIS was able to recruit 3500 members across the country. The failed state in Tripoli is a direct product and outcome of an unfinished intervention by NATO (US included) in 2011. Leaving militias in place, and allowing proxy regional wars to takeover the country was a fatal blow to Tripoli's transition after the elections, and a recipe for the civil war to come.
In Syria, a sectarian conflict is only a self fulfilling prophecy after years of promising democracy and "orderly transition" to a population while going silent when war crimes, chemical weapons were used against it. Obama's cold approach to Syria, comparing it to Congo in 2014, and shying away until 2015 from robust diplomacy, has opened the door for almost every regional power, mercenary and terrorist organization out there to step into the void.
Resignation not an answer
Obama's tone comes at a very low point for U.S. diplomacy in the region. The Palestinian-Israeli peace process is dead, and regional tension between two major powers in the Middle East, Saudi and Iran, is at an all time high threatening backlash from Sanaa to Beirut.
While Obama bragged at the Congress that "when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead -- they call us", that is no longer exclusively the case in the Middle East. Washington was not consulted before the Yemen war, and its efforts were rejected in the latest Gaza ceasefire. Russia's relations with Egypt, UAE and Saudi Arabia have seen improvement over the last three years. Also, the Iraqi government that the U.S. spent trillions to bring to power, has not been able to stop Russia's flights through its airspace into Syria.
This is not to say that U.S. leadership is not needed in the Middle East. On the contrary, it is only through U.S. leadership that the region can see an end to the current horror. The biggest breakthroughs in the region, whether it's in the Arab-Israeli conflict or rolling back aggressors have happened because of U.S. leadership. However, an agreement on Iran's nuclear program is not a substitute for regional diplomacy, nor should it come at expense of ending conflicts.
Obama's last State of the Union was almost a surrender to the new Middle East realities against his own vision when he assumed the Presidency. It is a complete departure from the Cairo speech, and Obama's address to the Arab youth in 2011 promising that "after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be." Not anymore.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief 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
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