Will Obama’s policy last after his term ends?

The United States has for decades adopted a Middle East policy based on certain principles

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

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The United States has for decades adopted a Middle East policy based on certain principles: rejecting Iran’s nuclear program, committing to Israel’s security, and providing stability to energy sources, namely Gulf oil. This is why Washington demanded that Iran halt its nuclear program and end its hostile foreign activities.

These principles are based on one another, as Iran’s nuclear program threatens the security of Israel and the oil-rich Gulf region, which in turn threatens US interests. However, President Barack Obama’s policies have not harmonized with these principles - a viewed shared by many politicians in the Middle East.

His adoption of a different policy came as a shock to the region, including the Gulf and Israel, which viewed the nuclear deal with Iran and setting it loose in the region as a dangerous change to the rules of the game. Obama was thus blamed for increasing violence and armament.

Does his policy express his vision of the world, or does it represent a strategic transformation in Washington? Obama has talked about this transformation more than once. He said his country no longer views the Middle East as important, and will prioritize its interests in the Pacific. Will the next US president walk Obama’s path, or will he or she go back to when Washington granted itself a bigger role in the Middle East?

It will not be long before we find out, as Obama’s term ends in almost six months. He will hand his successor the presidency and all its files, including that of the Middle East, where four wars are raging simultaneously - that has not happened since World War II. The Obama administration killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, but terrorism has returned and spread more than before.

Obama will leave his successor with many dangerous and unresolved affairs, which will force him or her to reactivate the US role in the Middle East

Abdulrahman al-Rashed


Although Obama has repeatedly said his policy is about exiting the Middle East’s wars and struggles, reality shows otherwise. Washington is leading a massive military alliance against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and has not stopped fighting Al-Qaeda in Yemen using drones. Reality states that the reasons for the U.S. presence in the region - oil, Israel and terrorism - have not changed.

Obama said he was elected on his promise to get his country out of the Middle East’s wars. He ended the dispute with Iran, but at the expense of other principles.

Tehran expanded its hostile political and military activities against US allies, gaining influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It would have gained influence in Yemen if not for the Saudi-led military intervention, which ended a coup that would have brought in a pro-Iranian government.

The next US president will be Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. It is difficult to know how Trump thinks, though his statements during his electoral campaign suggest that he will not commit to Obama’s policy, and is willing to reactivate the US role via a pragmatic partnership that serves his country’s interests. Clinton’s political stances show that she is willing to cooperate with Iran but with stricter conditions.

By the time a new president is elected, the Middle East will have reached a more difficult phase. It seems the Syrian peace talks aim to just keep everyone busy with useless negotiations until Obama’s term ends. Iraq’s battles, in which Washington is playing a role against ISIS in Fallujah, and in which it may play a role against the group in Mosul, will not eliminate terrorist organizations.

Therefore, Obama will leave his successor with many dangerous and unresolved affairs, which will force him or her to reactivate the US role in the Middle East.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on May 31, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed

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