Will Hilary Clinton re-establish the US position in the Middle East?

We must concede that the Obama doctrine in the Middle East has been a terrible failure

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
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For all its high-minded idealism, we must concede that the Obama doctrine in the Middle East has been a terrible failure. To be sure, there was plenty to be critical about the United States’ approach to the region beforehand. And the Iraq war illustrates those failures better than anything else.

So it is understandable that a courageous visionary / assertive ideologue (depending on which side of the isle you are on) like Obama would try to do things differently. Indeed, his Atlantic interview shows that this is what he self-consciously set out to do: to overhaul the “Washington Playbook”.


But the irony is that, in the end, his approach has displayed the same kind of naïve optimism that Bush had vis-à-vis the prospects of Iraqi democracy post-invasion. And it has floundered on the same optimism.

Obama, and the rest of us, have encouraged the people of the Middle East to rise up against tyrannical dictators, and have cheered them on when the Arab Spring looked like it would mark a glorious democratic renaissance from Tunisia all the way to Syria.

But just like Bush and Blair, we thought that once tyrants were toppled, democracy would just magic itself into existence in countries with little to no civil society, and no cultural experience of democratic compromise. And, barely out of the Iraqi insurgency, we have still managed to be surprised when Syria, Libya and Egypt turned into a violent mess soon after.

Two waves of optimism later, the first of the Bush era neo-con project for the “New American Century”, and the second of the Obama era placating dovish pacifism, have left the Middle East in ruins. Even as we speak those ruins are still burning. And they will continue to burn for the foreseeable future.

Just like Bush and Blair, we thought that once tyrants were toppled, democracy would just magic itself into existence in countries with little to no civil society, and no cultural experience of democratic compromise

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

There has been mounting frustration at US policy, even among Obama’s own advisers. And only a few days ago it has emerged that as many as 50 US diplomats have used internal State Department channels to beg the Obama administration to change tack in Syria – numbers that are believed to be unprecedented.

The problem for the US is that it sits atop a global security and trading empire. The definition of a state is a monopoly of force over a given territory. And though technically every UN recognized state is sovereign and independent, for all practical intents and purposes the US, I reckon, could impose its will by military force almost everywhere in the world, with few notable exceptions: China, Russia, and any country that these two are willing to stick their neck out for (e.g. North Korea backed by China).

NATO members are fully cognizant of these facts, and they are happy about the situation. Every Middle Eastern and African country is also perfectly aware of this, though their opinions on the matter vary: Israel and Saudi Arabia are very pleased about it, Iran less so.

Wilful ignorance

But the public in the United States appears to be resolutely ignorant of these facts. And very many US politicians are either wilfully ignorant on this, see for example Donald Trump and really most of the Republican presidential cohort this year, or actively opposed to this fact. Obama is not completely opposed, but he is clearly uncomfortable with this situation.

And herein lies the problem: he has been unwilling to assume the responsibilities that come with that position America was in. Through the succession of the Bush and Obama doctrines, America’s role in the Middle East since 2000 has effectively been a hit and run. No wonder, the situation is a complete car crash.

Hilary Clinton, however, is in neither of those categories. Indeed, she is often derided as a hawk in foreign policy. Next to Obama, that is certainly true. But there is no evidence that she is an imperialist fantasist on the scale of the neo-cons in the Bush administration. Rather, it seems to me that she is simply aware of the position of the United States in the world – and the responsibilities that position entails. America is, whether we like it or not, still the World’s Policeman.

When the police stops patrolling the streets, violent crime will go rampant. This is as true with gangsters in inner city US, as it is with the cowboys who run a large part of Middle Eastern countries or non-state Islamist groups. The gangsters, just as Middle Eastern politicians, will always moan about police intervention and heavy-handedness. But it remains the case that the threat of force from the policeman smothers the actual violence of the criminals. That is the essential truth of the “Washington Playbook”.

The question now is whether President Clinton would be able to re-establish America’s authority in the capitals of the Middle East, and re-impose order. And whether the American public has the stomach to support what needs to be done.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim

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