The following policy essay appears in the Winter 2017 issue of The Middle East Journal.
As the new American President comes into office amid the pomp and circumstance of Inauguration Day, we look ahead to the challenges facing him from and within the Middle East. To recognize, however, the degree to which such predictions may be quickly overcome by events, we also look back at the preceding four American inauguration days and examine what we thought then, what actually happened, how significantly the region has changed, and what that means for the United States.
Saturday, January 20, 2001
The most contentious American Presidential election in 125 years had finally been settled by the US Supreme Court the month before. Now the outgoing President, William Jefferson Clinton rode up Pennsylvania Avenue in a mammoth new Cadillac, sitting next to the man he did not want to be his successor, the former Governor of Texas, George W. Bush. America stood in generally high regard in the Middle East on that day. In his eight years, Bill Clinton had used force sparingly in the region and had tried to promote peace negotiations. Indeed, Clinton had failed only weeks before in a final attempt to negotiate a peace agreement between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. He had come very close, but in the end Yasir ‘Arafat had walked away from the table. No one thought the new President would, any time soon, pick up where Clinton had left off with attempting to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It was not on his agenda.
The new American President had little personal foreign policy or national security expertise. That lack of familiarity with the issues, peoples, and leaders of the Middle East was, however, thought by the punditry of the time to be more than compensated by his choice of a national security team. As Secretary of State, he had chosen retired General Colin Powell, who had led the US military in the 1991 Gulf War. As Secretary of Defense, he had brought back Donald Rumsfeld, who had held the job years before (1975–77) and had traveled extensively in the region. Most importantly, he had selected as Vice President a man who had reluctantly led the Pentagon in the first Gulf War, Dick Cheney. These three were people who each had a reputation for knowing not only the Middle East, but also the limitations of employing American military power there.
Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell were more concerned with great power issues, namely China and Russia. America had been the single superpower for slightly over a decade and these three well respected national security leaders wanted to keep it that way. Although a US warship, the USS Cole, had almost been sunk and 17 sailors had been killed by a terrorist bombing in Yemen during the final weeks of the US Presidential election, there had still been no US retaliation. Nor did the leaders of the new Bush Administration have one in mind. Indeed, they were not even curious about al-Qa‘ida, the group that had committed the attack.
To the extent that they were concerned at all with the Middle East, it was with the fraying of the post–Gulf War economic and military sanctions on Iraq. The international consensus on maintaining the restrictions was being strained, and Saddam Husayn, still the ruler in Baghdad, was testing the limits of the United Nations–imposed and American-enforced constraints on his weapons development. The three new top US national security officials were all very familiar with Saddam Husayn (in fact, Rumsfeld had personally met with him in the 1980s). As officials in the White House under George H. W. Bush, Cheney and Powell had advocated leaving Saddam in power in 1991, rather than risking the disintegration of Iraq they said would happen if the US toppled Saddam as part of the Gulf War. Ten years on, in January 2001, they thought it might be necessary to remind Saddam of US military power in order to get him to be compliant with the UN restrictions on his weapons development programs. Perhaps, the new, inexperienced President also thought he might have a chance to teach Saddam another lesson. As a son of the President who had failed to topple him previously, Bush had a personal grudge with the Iraqi leader.
With the exception of Saddam, however, as the three national security officials looked at the Middle East that January, they saw a region in which the United States had had good relations with almost every nation, most of which were ruled by leaders well known and generally liked by the US government. As residue of the Gulf War a decade earlier, America maintained a higher military profile in the region than it had in the 1980s. The US also seemed to have broad respect and influence, at least among the ruling classes in the region. Not yet a theater of American foreign policy, the Middle East was not mentioned in George W. Bush’s first inaugural address.
It was, for the previous decade, more so than it had been for most of the century that had just concluded, a region in relative peace and with a degree of stability. All of that would begin to change eight months later and would continue in a wave of chaos that lasts to this day.
Thursday, January 20, 2005
After a narrow victory in his bid for reelection, George W. Bush was inaugurated for his second term as Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces, as Americans were fighting two wars in the Middle East simultaneously. In the preceding half-century, no other American leader had carried a two war burden. Franklin D. Roosevelt had done so in World War II, but unlike FDR, Bush directed at least one war of his own initiation. Sworn in again on that cold day in Washington, Bush now commanded American troops serving as occupying armies in two predominantly Muslim nations. It was something no one had foreseen four years earlier, but in that short time, the perception of America in the region had shifted from a generally positive force promoting peace and using its military to enhance stability to being one of a wounded and somewhat irrational aggressor.
The first of the two US invasions and subsequent occupations had begun within nine months of the 2001 inauguration. Following massive terrorist attacks on September 11, Bush had ordered retaliation on Afghanistan, which harbored the al-Qa‘ida terrorist group that had plotted and executed the attacks. For several years prior to the 2001 attacks, the United States had warned the leaders of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban faction that they would be held responsible for any al-Qa‘ida action on the United States originating from their country.
In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, there was sympathy in much of the Middle East for the United States as a victim of an unprovoked assault on innocent civilians. One Arab nation even sent forces to fight alongside the Americans and its NATO allies in Afghanistan. In radical circles, however, the terrorist attacks of 2001 were seen as a sign of the weakness of the United States and the ability of Arabs to successfully fight against it, in marked contrast to its ignominious defeat of Iraq in 1991.
Within weeks of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, however, US forces were in Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from power and pushing them and the predominantly Arab terrorists of al-Qa‘ida out of the country. It seemed to much of the world like a great military success and an appropriate retaliation. Since Afghanistan is not an Arab country, its occupation by American and other NATO forces did not provoke a sharp negative reaction in the Arab world, but what came next would.
The Bush Administration thought that the swift and decisive victory over al-Qa‘ida and the Taliban had not been enough to undo the damage done by 9/11 to the superpower reputation of the United States. They wanted to do more. They also wanted to take advantage of what they saw as a unique period in history where the US was an unopposed hegemon, capable of reshaping the political map of the Middle East, removing a troublesome regime, stopping its weapons development, and planting the seed of democracy in the sands of Arabia. They were sure that, once planted, it would spread like kudzu in Carolina, replacing the old regimes that created conditions that bred terrorist groups. Those corrupt leaders would be succeeded by responsive, democratically elected governments.
The US invasion of Iraq took place shortly after the second anniversary of Bush’s inauguration. It had been justified publicly as a way of eliminating Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. US military action had triggered protests throughout Europe and the Middle East and had been done so with little significant allied participation, except for the United Kingdom. While many Arab nations had sent their own forces to join the US in combatting Iraq in 1990, including Syrian and Egyptian tank divisions, none was interested in going to war with Baghdad. The last American forces had only just left Saudi Arabia in 2003 ending the “temporary presence” that had begun 13 years before. The Saudi rulers did not want to contemplate the public reaction to having US forces return to the Kingdom. Only Kuwait, which the United States had saved from Iraqi occupation in 1991, agreed to host a US forces build-up prior to the invasion of Iraq. Even America’s NATO ally, Turkey, refused to allow US forces to stage an attack from its territory. The US invasion was widely seen in the Arab world as unprovoked, having nothing to do with 9/11. Public opinion approval of America plummeted to unprecedented lows.
Militarily, however, the US invasion had appeared successful. Bush had installed a new ruler of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, an American diplomat with no Middle East experience. Although the US had held a ceremony in June 2004 to transfer power back from the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority to Iraqis, large numbers of US forces remained in Iraq. Indeed, faced with the beginnings of an insurgency in 2004, US forces resumed combat operations. Within days of the US election in November 2004, the US initiated a bloody assault on the city of Falluja, the center of much of the armed Sunni opposition. The insurgency responded by briefly seizing half of the city of Mosul, the second largest urban area in Iraq.
Against that backdrop, on January 20, 2005, the words of Bush’s second inaugural address sounded alarm bells to some Arab leaders. He spoke only briefly of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Instead, his address focused on the promotion of democracy to other nations. Bush said that America supported those who challenged undemocratic regimes. His spokespeople said that democracy in the Middle East was Bush’s primary goal, a way to counter terrorist ideology. Ten days after Bush’s second inauguration, Iraqis were to hold an election, under the supervision of the occupying US forces, to choose delegates to write a new constitution. It was part of the American script for the blooming of democracy and the departure of most occupying forces.
Many Sunnis would, a few days after the second Bush inauguration, in January 2005, boycott that referendum and refuse to vote. In the rest of the Middle East that month, many of the region’s rulers who had supported the United States for decades contemplated the words of Bush’s inaugural speech. They wondered if America was turning on them, seeking to also replace them with democratically elected governments. Some of them doubted that Bush knew what type of people could be elected, or what kind of governments they would create.
Although it was unclear to the leaders of the US government at the time of the second Bush inauguration, in the coming four years, the Iraqi insurgency would gain strength, and there would also be a second problem in Iraq, a sectarian civil war. Rather than leaving a liberated Iraq in which democracy was thriving, Bush would be sending more troops to Iraq.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Something no one had ever dreamed would happen four years earlier took place in 2009. The new American President-elect driving up Pennsylvania Avenue in the seat next to George W. Bush was a young African-American named Barack Hussein Obama. He had campaigned to stop Bush’s wars and the American military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. That promise had won him the election. For, in the preceding four years, the American adventure in Iraq, with its attempt at planting democracy and destroying weapons of mass destruction, had resulted in thousands of American casualties in a virulent insurgency, and a Shi‘i-Sunni civil war of unbridled ferocity and destructiveness. Democracy in Iraq was a weak reed and the weapons of mass destruction had never been found. The US military had finally broken the back of the Iraqi rebellion by a combination of paying Sunni militia and creatively employing tactical intelligence to support a reinforced US military presence. Iraq, however, had been rent asunder, its institutions destroyed, its elites in self-imposed exile, and its cohesion irrevocably shattered. Over 100,000 Iraqis had been killed, perhaps many more.
In his inaugural address, Obama had promised a new beginning:
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.
He added, however, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
Obama was acutely aware of the extent to which America’s reputation in the world, and especially in the Middle East, had been damaged, not only by the Iraqi invasion, but by the exposure of American forces engaged in torture and degradation of Muslim prisoners. Shortly after his inauguration, he would go to Cairo University, where he would echo and expand upon his inaugural address and focus on corrupt regimes clinging to power. The Cairo address also made clear Obama’s commitment to addressing the Palestinian-Israeli dispute and the importance of dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He notably did not utter the word terrorism.
Monday, January 21, 2013
Reelected, Barack Obama in his second inaugural address paused only briefly to note that “a decade of war” was coming to a close. His only mention of the Middle East was in a list of regions where America would support democracy. Had he detailed his progress in the region, he would have noted the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq, an apparently successful effort to destroy Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi’s regime in Libya through an intense campaign of airstrikes alongside NATO forces, and what seemed like progress against the Taliban after a surge of special forces and drone strikes in Pakistan and US forces in Afghanistan. America was involved in intense diplomatic efforts to achieve talks on Iran’s nuclear weapons program and on a two-state solution in Palestine and Israel.
During his second term, a “democratic wave” had risen against the kind of longstanding corrupt or ineffective and repressive regimes that Obama had mentioned four years earlier. The old leaders were out in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. US and NATO forces had helped to oust Qadhafi. A similar uprising was underway in Syria. Obama looked forward to four years in which he hoped he would finish the job by withdrawing from Afghanistan and gaining agreements with Iran, and perhaps Israel and Palestine. He hoped the Arab Spring of 2011 would produce stable democratic governments, but he was determined to resist pressures for further US military involvement in the “dumb wars” and endless rivalries of the region.
Friday, January 20, 2017
The two men driving up Pennsylvania Avenue in “The Beast” that day could hardly be more different. One, a constitutional law professor and community organizer; the other, a billionaire businessman known for branding buildings and golf courses. From what the new President, Donald Trump, had said in his campaign and transition, their two approaches to foreign policy, and to the Middle East, might also be very different.
Obama’s second four years had seen him accomplish his goal of a multilateral agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program. His other goals regarding the Middle East were elusive. He had not made any progress with a peace between Palestine and Israel, chiefly due to the intransigence and political timidity of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He had not withdrawn the last US troops from Afghanistan. Indeed, he had felt the need to halt the withdrawal because of the increasing threats posed by the resurgent Taliban. He had to send US troops back into Iraq to assist in the fight against the al-Qa‘ida splinter group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and as his term came to a close that effort in Iraq had proved to be somewhat successful. Elsewhere in the region, the promise of the Arab Spring had largely turned to dust.
By his own admission, the horrors in Syria haunted Obama. Nonetheless, he continued to believe in the rectitude of his policy of limited involvement, which some critics called amoral indifference. Obama had never been pleased with any option given to him for action on Syria. He found faults with them all, but had apparently not understood that inaction also had its flaws, perhaps even greater ones. Syria’s cities lay in ruin. Much of its population had become refugees or internally displaced persons. Tens of thousands were dead. Russia and Iran were ascendant.
Russia and Iran were recurring subjects in the foreign policy pronouncements of the candidate, and then President-elect, Trump. Unlike Obama, who seemed to personally loathe Vladimir Putin and his policies, Trump had made a point of praising the Russian President and promised greatly improved US-Russia relations. In the Middle East itself, that promise had provoked fears that Trump would “sell out” the Syrian rebel groups that the US had been supporting. Trump’s vague talk about not overthrowing regimes had added to that impression.
Although Russia and Iran found themselves on the same side in Syria, Trump and his advisors had taken a different attitude toward Tehran. The President-elect had called the Iran nuclear agreement “the worst deal ever” and claimed that he would disavow it once in office. The presumed Defense Secretary, James Mattis, and the new National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, are both generals who had been engaged in combat in the Middle East, and were open in their hostility toward Iran. Some Arab leaders found signs of encouragement in the prospect of a US hardline against “the Persians.” There was, however, the prospect that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and others in Tehran who might want to break the nuclear agreement could provoke a military confrontation with the US, or that a minor incident in the Gulf could escalate out of control.
The outgoing President had also had a poor personal relationship with the prime minister of Israel. Trump, on the other hand, had known Netanyahu for decades and promised unwavering support for the country. No two foreign leaders had been more delighted at Trump’s surprise election than Putin and Netanyahu.
Although promising to avoid “nation-building” and “regime change” and criticizing the US invasion of Iraq, Trump had also famously pledged to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.” Thus, the prospect for continued US military involvement in the region seemed high.
Viewed from the region, Trump seemed Islamophobic because of his threats to ban Muslims from entering the United States, as well as his thoughts about establishing a registry of the followers of Islam. His moderating of those proposals toward the end of the campaign had done little to dispel fears that the new American President’s attitude toward a religion would provide further fodder for ISIS and other radical Islamists. Indeed, it was feared that a significant Islamist terrorist attack in the United States might well trigger an intemperate and counterproductive response that would play into the hands of the radicals.
For some in the region, the new faces of the US national security team seemed to epitomize the negative caricature of America: generals and oil barons. Yet leaders of some Arab and regional governments thought Trump’s team might be easier to work with, less likely to lecture them about human rights and democracy, and more understanding of harsh crackdowns on those labeled as terrorists or radicals engaged in “political Islam.”
As always, the unknown and unpredictable lurked in the shadows. What would happen in the ungoverned stretches of failed states, in Libya, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan? How would Saudi Arabia’s attempt at rapid economic reform play out, and would it improve or diminish social cohesion and political stability? Would Pakistan’s political system adequately deal with the threats from within, or would the nation, which will soon have the world’s third-largest inventory of nuclear weapons, present the new US administration with an unexpected crisis? Thinking about how the new US administration would handle an unanticipated crisis, some in the region cringed at the possibility of America further destabilizing the Middle East through miscalculation and lack of expertise.
When “The Beast” arrives at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, President Obama and Mr. Trump will emerge at the Capitol. The peaceful transition of power in the world’s most powerful democracy will occur. A President Trump will return to the White House in that armored car. Citizen Obama will have departed. A new chapter in American history will have begun and a new era in US relations with the Middle East shall have commenced.
. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Remarks by the President at Cairo University (June 4, 2009), www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-cairo-university-6....
. The White House, Remarks by the President on the Middle Easrt and North Africa, May 19, 2011, www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/19/remarks-president-middle-....
. Barack Obama, interview with David Remnick, “Going the Distance,” The New Yorker, January 27, 2014, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/27/going-the-distance-david-remnick.
. “Donald Trump’s National-Security Team Takes Shape,” The Economist, November 26, 2016, https://econ.st/2fJVGS7; Flynn had also argued for agreeing to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s demand to deport Fethullah Gülen, a leading political opponent, from the US for trial in Turkey. Rod Nordland, “Turkey Cheered by Words of Michael Flynn, Trump’s Security Adviser,” The New York Times, November 19, 2016, https://nyti.ms/2j7MMTG.
. Donald Trump, Foreign Policy Speech in Youngstown, C-SPAN2, August 15, 2016, https://cs.pn/2hbd0Tp; “Trump: I’d ‘Bomb the S**t’ Out of ISIS,” The Daily Beast, November 12, 2015, https://thebea.st/2hDLa31.
. Thomas Carothers et al., “U.S. Allies and Rivals Digest Trump’s Victory,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 11, 2016, https://carnegieendowment.org/2016/11/11/u.s.-allies-and-rivals-digest-t....
* Although this essay was not submitted via the usual process, The Middle East Journal editorial staff ensured it did receive anonymous feedback from an independent peer reviewer, and that their suggestions were implemented accordingly.