In a famous 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt, Obama proclaimed the beginning of a new relationship and outreach to Muslim nations, including overtures to Iran. Coincidentally, at about the same time arose the political/social phenomenon known as the Arab Spring, throughout the Arab Islamic world. At first the Arab Spring seemed to embody the best of what Obama hoped for, a longing for freedom and democracy in previously autocratic states. It’s apparent and greatest success was in Egypt where dictator, President Hosni Mubarak, was overthrown by the masses. A constitution was cobbled together, an election held and the Muslim Brotherhood (a previously outlawed Islamacist group) won the election. Obama welcomed the new leader, Mohammed Morsi.
However, quickly things spiraled out of control there and in other countries where the Arab Spring arose. Rather than democratic groups taking control, Islamic fundamentalist groups began gaining the upper hand. In Libya the masses began rebelling against the dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi responded with overwhelming force. Obama, under pressure from European allies, agreed to limited US involvement to protect the civilian population. Gaddafi was eventually overthrown by a combination of European forces and Libyan rebel groups. Obama refused further US involvement. The result today is a completely failed state, controlled in various places by competing rebel groups, including Islamic fundamentalists.
In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood solidified its control with Islamists, which proved unpopular with the masses and with the Egyptian military, including President Morsi’s hand picked military chief of staff, Abdel el-Sisi. El-sisi ultimately led a military overthrow of the Brotherhood regime, jailed most of its members and rules the country today. The Obama administration has a strained relationship with el-Sisi.
In Iraq, Iran’s influence had increased with the election of former Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite leader in 2006. Governing coalitions with Sunni and Kurd groups proved unsuccessful, as Maliki, with Iranian support, sidelined the Sunnis, which US forces had fought to win over several years before. Disaffected Sunnis became the basis for the later developing ISIS organization.
The greatest tragedy and failing, however, was in Syria. Beginning in 2011, the Arab Spring sought reforms to the dictatorial state. Bashar Assad, the leader and Western trained doctor, responded to the then peaceful protests with overwhelming force. As force continued, various rebel groups formed around the country. Assad responded with ever increasing violence, leading to approximately 250,000 deaths and millions of refugees. Pressure was applied to the Obama administration to do something. While promises were made, actions were never taken. The use of barrel bombs, slaughter of civilian populations, the dissemination of chemical weapons led to minimal or no US involvement. According to many reports, many within the Obama administration supported some military action, such as the institution of protected no fly zones, where refugees could be relocated. In the end, the Obama administration refused.
Where the possibility existed of assisting some moderate rebel groups, because of the lack of support, more radical Islamacist groups associated with Al Qaida gained strength and popularity. Into this quagmire arose the latest and deadliest Islamist group, ISIS. Finding fertile ground in disaffected Iraqi Sunni Muslims, including some military leaders from the Hussein era, and the unpopulated areas of Syria, ISIS formed as a sudden viable government and successful military force, quickly conquering large swaths of under populated areas. Proclaiming itself a new Caliphate in the Middle East, it sophistically used social media to spread its message and gain thousands of recruits from around the world. Its message and warning was incomprehensible violence. Iraqi military forces were overrun. Suddenly, Iraq looked vulnerable to this crazed group, and finally the Obama administration responded with limited air strikes but no ground forces. At this point ISIS appears somewhat degraded but continues as an effective and deadly fighting force. In the meantime, Iran and now Russia have intervened on the side of Assad in Syria with little or no push back from the Obama administration. They seem content with US concentration against ISIS.
There are probably many reasons why Obama has been reticent to involve US forces in the Middle East, but certainly a big one was the Iran nuclear negotiations. As stated earlier, Obama made outreach to Iran one of his early priorities. In the latter Bush and through much of the Obama years, Iran’s nuclear activities increased, despite ever increasing and punishing international economic sanctions. Finally, in 2013 Iran elected a so-called moderate as president, Hassan Rouhani, who immediately indicated interest in nuclear negotiations. The negotiations were “completed” in June and signed by the various parties, Iran, the US and five European nations. The deal halts further Iranian nuclear development for at least 10 years and subjects Iran to intrusive international inspections. In turn, the economic sanctions are gradually removed.
Sadly, the deal is fraught with numerous holes. The vast majority of the US public opposes the deal as does a majority of the Congress. The only ones happy about it are the Obama administration and Iran. Iran has made clear that it will expand its influence over Middle Eastern affairs and appears willing to challenge US power everywhere, again most openly in Syria, propping up the murderous Assad regime.
Furthering adding to the woes of these scenarios is the massive refugee crisis descending upon Europe. With no place to go and no end in sight to the relentless violence and destruction, hundreds of thousands and potentially millions of Syrian/Iraqi refugees are now migrating to Europe, thus creating another massive international crisis. This is unprecedented in European history. The world seems hand strung; the Obama administration oblivious to its culpability in all of these affairs.
While it is true US adventurism and her military interventions have a mixed history, there is no question US expansion of power and threat of military action made the world a safer place. Trade, commerce and economic prosperity have flowed around the globe consistently since the end of WW II. The Obama administration clearly saw and sees US involvement and projection of power as quite limited. The result is an increasingly dangerous world, where renegade regimes such as Iran and Russia push the envelope wherever possible. The Middle East will continue to be a hotbed of activity, likely leading to more and dangerous increases in weapons acquisition programs by various states. Of course, Israel stands right in the middle, watching all of this with great anxiety.
The challenge for the US will be to try and right the ship after a new President is elected. Hopefully, the American public will wash their hands of Obama’s nonsensical foreign policy and rightfully take her place again as one of history’s greatest nations, who can assist the world in the promotion of goodwill and prosperity.