Obama’s Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017

This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

Introduction

In a period of about six weeks spanning August and September, President Obama has dramatically revamped his Middle East policy to put degrading and destroying ISIS at its center. Overruling his own decision in 2012 not to overtly arm and train the Syrian moderate opposition with lethal weapons, he pushed through Congress an authorization to do so. After earlier vowing that the United States would not be Iraq’s air force, he has authorized an air campaign against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Khorasan targets in Iraq and Syria. He has organized a 60-member international coalition centered on Sunni moderate states, especially Saudi Arabia, for the purpose of confronting ISIS. At the gathering of world leaders for the UN General Assembly, he broadened his attack to include calling on Muslim communities worldwide to reject extremist ideology, and he chaired a UN Security Council meeting authorizing a binding resolution to compel all countries to put in place laws to prosecute those who travel abroad to join terrorist organizations or who help them by raising funds.

Why this change in a president who has a checkered record in his willingness to use force? The answer is twofold. First, ISIS’s actions on the ground met his criteria for U.S. direct engagement. Second, he was concerned about his legacy. Much like his predecessor who, nearing the end of his sixth year in office, launched a surge in Iraq to save a failing, unpopular war, President Obama seeks to tune his policies to meet the challenges of his final stint in office.

If a projected balance were drawn now, Obama’s legacy would likely feature the concepts he brought to office: an undeclared doctrine setting standards for the use of force and his approaches to outreach, collaboration, and negotiation as well as to the promotion of democracy. Like his predecessors, his likely unfinished business would be substantial. Understandably in the loose order of the post Arab Spring Middle East, they would include his new initiative on ISIS and terrorism, mediation of Israeli-Palestinian issues, and the American response to the Arab Spring. This unfinished business may or may not include a nuclear agreement with Iran, his best chance at an accomplishment started and completed on his watch.

Obama and His Legacy[1]

Middle East issues have dominated the foreign policy of Obama’s presidency and will largely determine his foreign affairs legacy when he leaves office in 2017. The greater Middle East from Afghanistan to Morocco has been a testing ground for his administration’s ideas about the use of force, the role of negotiation and collaborative diplomacy, and the promotion of democracy. With more than two years to go, it is too early to draw bottom lines in view of the region’s changing dynamics, but to a large extent elements that will determine Obama’s legacy are apparent and at least some of the “known unknowns” can be surmised.

This analysis reviews the current state of play of Middle East issues as they relate to his legacy, describes the likely drivers and dynamics in play, points out opportunities and pitfalls, and offers conclusions.

As the first African-American president, Obama has been cognizant of his legacy from the beginning of his term. Even before taking office he made clear that he had “no desire to be one of those presidents who are just on the list…. I really want to be a president who makes a difference.”[2] Terms such as “being on the right side of history” have punctuated his remarks across diverse topics ranging from the Arab Spring to gay marriage.

From the beginning of Obama’s political career, domestic issues have had a priority; the same is true about his legacy. Reflecting on the remaining three years of his term in early 2014, he related, “I will measure myself at the end of my presidency in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this society.”[3] When asked about his legacy in foreign affairs, he cited his main initiatives in the region at that time – Iran, Syria, and Israel and the Palestinians. Evaluating their chances of success at less than 50 percent, he assessed, “We may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.”[4] In the words of his advisor and friend, Valerie Jarrett, “The president always takes the long view” of history. [5]

Other recent presidents have had a formidable Middle East agenda during their last two years in office. Bush 43 doubled down in Iraq with his 2007 surge that turned the war around and negotiated a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as well as a Strategic Framework Agreement to regularize relations with Iraq. He also launched the Annapolis initiative to spur movement on Israeli-Palestinian issues. With dogged devotion, Clinton spent his last year on speed dial in an unsuccessful attempt to replicate President Carter’s success at Camp David in the Middle East peace negotiations. Bush 41 initiated an elaborate multilateral and bilateral Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) to take advantage of the opportunities in the aftermath of the Gulf War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. President Reagan’s Middle East policy was hijacked by the Irangate affair in his final two years.

While probably all presidents seek to shape their legacy as their terms draw to a close, the degree they can do so in foreign policy heavily depends not only on their determination but also on the opportunities and circumstances of the time. Especially in the Middle East, foreigners have a large say in what happens as well. So it will be with President Obama as he launches his coalition to degrade and destroy ISIS.

Current Situation

Obama came to office vowing to end America’s overinvestment in the Middle East. He pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, fight the “real war” in Afghanistan, “rebalance” resources toward Asia to meet the rising power of China, and take a hard line against terrorism by increasing deployments to Afghanistan and approving the use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen.

While there have been no “black swans” of the caliber of 9/11, his foreign policy has been shaped as much by exogenous factors as by policies laid down by Washington. They include the sparking of the concatenation of events emanating from the Arab Spring, the vagaries of Iranian politics that elected Hassan Rouhani as president, and the brutal, enterprising spirit that has powered the rise of ISIS. Another factor has been the largely unforeseen rise of unconventional energy production; U.S. crude production hitting 40-year highs has lessened U.S. dependence on imported crude and has thereby helped provide supply margins to offset the effect of international sanctions that restrict the export of Iranian crude.

The year 2014 has been described as a “marker” time for Obama’s presidency because it is the final interval before the fight for succession becomes politically all consuming.[6] This year has brought the “summer from hell”[7] fraught by overlapping crises. The administration’s attempt to “rebalance” toward Asia has been set back, perhaps even set aside, by crises in the Middle East and Europe. The rise of ISIS has squarely placed the Middle East, especially Iraq, once more as a prime determinant of Obama’s legacy, as it was for Bush 43.

In his address to the UN General Assembly in 2013 Obama set out his foreign affairs agenda, a triptych of initiatives for negotiation about Iran’s nuclear program, the situation in Syria, and Israeli-Palestinian differences. While the first is viable a year later, with the P5+1 and Iran agreeing to extend negotiations until November, the latter two have little hope of a negotiated result in Obama’s time.

The negotiations on Syria have tragically failed as the number killed approaches 200,000, and ISIS’s conflating the situations in Syria and Iraq has signaled the failure of the administration’s strategy to contain the regional ramifications of the Syrian crisis. The president has found himself faced with conflicting predilections: his skepticism about deployment of U.S. military assets to Iraq and the Levant, and his strong commitment to protect the United States from terrorism in the wake of ISIS’s atrocities, including the beheading of two U.S. journalists.

The Israeli-Palestinian talks in which Secretary of State John Kerry and veteran negotiator Martin Indyk so heavily invested “paused” in April after nine months of frenetic diplomacy amid reports that this time the two-state solution may actually have suffered a mortal blow. This setback set the stage for another round of fighting in Gaza ending in an uncertain late summer ceasefire.

Elsewhere in the greater Middle East, Libya has degenerated into factional fighting in which UAE aircraft with Egyptian help bombed factions reputedly supported by Qatar. In the other Arab Spring countries except Tunisia, the bright hopes of 2011 have remained unfulfilled. In Afghanistan, Kerry has intervened personally to resolve charges of election fraud so a new Afghan president could assume office and sign an agreement for NATO force withdrawals by the end of the year. At this point the outcome of the planned NATO withdrawal by the end of 2016 is problematic given the complications already apparent and the consequences of U.S. withdrawal in Iraq. For Obama’s legacy, the difference is that Afghanistan was Obama’s war and Iraq was Bush’s.

Equally important, these Middle East events occur in the context of a new threat of Putinist Russia to Ukraine and East European NATO allies following the Russian annexation of Crimea, an insurgency among ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, and the shooting down of a Malaysian Airlines plane killing all 298 aboard in which Russia has been strongly implicated.

These crises prompted widespread calls for a broad gauge policy reassessment. Obama’s response has been measured. He has successfully used ISIS’s advances as leverage for the formation of a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad, a prerequisite to attract alienated Sunnis back to supporting the central government. Despite his longstanding antipathy to further U.S. military involvement in Iraq, he authorized U.S. airstrikes justified on the grounds of protecting U.S. facilities and personnel and of providing humanitarian relief to besieged Yazidis and Turkmen minorities. He also expedited assistance to Iraqi Security Forces and the Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

On September 10, the eve of the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, Obama took another step by announcing his strategy for dealing with ISIS, including extended use of air strikes to target ISIS assets in both Iraq and Syria. He also dispatched Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to the Middle East to build an international coalition to confront ISIS in an effort that will extend beyond his presidency. The administration claims support from more than 60 countries.

In his 2014 address to the UN General Assembly he revamped his 2013 agenda to put front and center the degrading and destroying of ISIS, and he stated that it was time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to reject violent extremist ideologies. Calling for all nations “to observe and enforce international norms,” he appealed to Iran’s leaders and people to take “this historic opportunity…to reach a solution that meets your energy needs while assuring the world that your program is peaceful.” While acknowledging the “bleak” landscape between Palestinians and Israelis, he gave mild endorsement of the two-state solution, stating, “So long as I am president, we will stand up for the principle that Israelis, Palestinians, the region, and the world will be more just with two states living side by side, in peace and security.”[8]

Critics have charged that Obama’s policies in the Middle East have transformed America into “a self-contained” power.[9] The administration has not taken this criticism lightly. Obama has pointed to the 35,000 troops that the United States maintains in the region and the fact that the United States remains the world’s indispensible power not only militarily but also politically and economically. Kerry has declaimed, “The most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed retreat by the United States from the Middle East. Now, my response to that suggestion is simple: You cannot find another country – not one country – that is as proactively engaged, that is partnering with so many Middle Eastern countries as constructively as we are on so many high-stake fronts.”[10] Obama’s latest initiatives have only partially silenced his critics, some of whom claim “boots on the ground,” not just air power, are necessary for military success.

A part of the new reality is Obama’s recognition of the financial restraints on U.S. policy. While the United States can serve as a convener of donors, most assistance must come from others, especially the Gulf states. Egypt is the case in point. The Gulf states withheld large-scale assistance to the Mohamed Morsi regime but are now giving it to Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi’s government. Their deep pockets are making a crucial difference that the United States and the West cannot nullify even if they would want to do so.

Even though the determinants of events in the Middle East have become increasingly indigenous in nature, another part of the reality is that the United States remains the preponderant outside power. U.S. leadership is still an important element in determining events there.

U.S. Policy Dynamics in the Middle East

Obama’s policies on the use of force, negotiation and collective action, and democracy promotion initially sought to recognize the constraints he believes have been hard-bought lessons of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. They have been conditioned and tailored as he has gained experience in office.

On the use of force, he declared in his first inaugural address that America’s “power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; [and] the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” He also foreshadowed his approach to outreach and negotiation: “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.”[11] On both themes he has embroidered often since he has been in office.

While he has never proclaimed an Obama Doctrine officially, he has in his role as professor-in-chief proclaimed guidelines that frame his decision making on the use of force. First, he has averred to use “all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.” These he has defined as “confronting external aggression against our allies and partners,” assuring “the free flow of energy from the region to the world,” dismantling “terrorist networks that threaten our people,” and not tolerating “the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.”[12] In his view, “the most important policy consideration, particularly when the United States contemplates using lethal force, is whether our actions protect American lives.”[13] Still, because “America must move off a permanent war footing,” he has placed “prudent limits,” the most important of which has been as commander in chief he will not commit U.S. “armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”[14]

The corollary to this undeclared doctrine is “when issues of global concern that do not pose a direct threat to the United States are at stake – when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction – then the threshold for military action must be higher.” In such circumstances, the United States

should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We must broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law and – if just, necessary, and effective – multilateral military action. We must do so because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, and less likely to lead to costly mistakes.[15]

In line with the first part of these guidelines, Obama has authorized the use of force in clear-cut cases such as drone strikes against terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen and high-risk special operations to neutralize Osama bin Laden and to rescue kidnapped Americans. He also has consistently supported strong military ties and precedent-setting arms sales to regional allies, especially Israel and the GCC states.

Less clear-cut has been implementation regarding situations covered by the corollary. The pattern is a hesitancy to use force followed by diplomatic maneuvering to transform the conditions to a formula fitting the criteria Obama outlined. It brings to mind Winston Churchill’s supposed quip that “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they have tried everything else.” Libya and Syria offer the prime examples.

In Libya, Obama’s eventual agreement to use unique U.S. military assets to protect civilians came only after endorsement of a collective response by the UN Security Council, NATO, the Arab League, and the GCC. He accepted NATO’s generous interpretation of its mandate that led to NATO forces assisting in the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi. Often cited as the prototype of “leading from behind,”[16] the Libyan experience provides the grist from which Obama generalized in his corollary. Obama regretted subsequently that he had not insisted on post-conflict planning as well,[17] in essence repeating in Libya the policy failure of Bush 43 in Iraq. He has related that he now asks not only “Should we intervene, militarily?” but also “Do we have an answer [for] the day after?”[18]

In Syria, Obama rejected in late 2012 the unanimous recommendation of his senior National Security advisors, including the secretaries of state and defense, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and the director of the CIA, to arm the moderate Syrian resistance. As recently as June 2014, he dismissed this idea as “a fantasy.” [19] Yet two months later he proposed congressional action to do exactly that. Why the switch?

The answer is the rise of ISIS. Its brutal beheading of two American journalists, its threat to the stability of the region, especially in Iraq, and its recruitment of Western passport holders, including Americans, moved it up to Obama’s category of action justified by a direct threat to U.S. interests. Correspondingly, the administration repurposed the lethal assistance from overthrowing the Assad regime to degrading and destroying ISIS. Nonetheless, the Obama administration has trouble answering the argument that earlier lethal assistance could have stymied ISIS’s rise. Both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta have pointedly criticized his decision in their recently published memoirs.

Obama made another policy reversal a year earlier in his sudden decision in September 2013 to abandon his plans announced in late August to “take military action against Syrian regime targets” because Syria had used chemical weapons, killing more than a 1,000 people ten days before. He quickly backtracked by insisting on congressional approval before jettisoning the idea altogether in favor of a Russian-brokered deal by which Syria would cooperate with the UN to ship its chemical weapons out of the country. Administration officials have argued that this solution epitomizes the skillful employment of the threat to use force to produce a diplomatic result better than what would have occurred had the U.S. military acted alone.[20]

The perspective from a year later is that Obama may have indeed made a calculated choice but that his choice of diplomatic dismantlement over military action has had three detrimental consequences: it has called into question Obama’s willingness to use force even when his red lines are clearly crossed; it has proved extraneous to the central issue of the removal of the Assad regime, which Obama has vowed must go; and it has fed fears in the Gulf of American retrenchment in the Middle East to the extent that Saudi Arabia declined a seat on the UN Security Council to show its disillusionment.

The second policy dynamic – outreach and negotiation – has received equal, if less doctrinal, attention from Obama. Iran has been the major test case. Because of the violence after the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, he abandoned his initial outreach to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in favor of an international sanctions regime to drive Iran to serious negotiations about its nuclear program. Initially, he avoided threats of force implicit in his predecessor’s repeated statements that “all options are on the table.” As the P5+1 negotiations stalled and Israeli pressure for a firm U.S. stance heightened, he added not only this rhetoric but also a mantra that “our policy is not to allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon,”[21] implying that he would back diplomacy with force if necessary.

With the election of Rouhani and the start of serious P5+1 negotiations a year ago, the prospects have been bright enough that these implicit threats of the use of force are again muted. They have been replaced by the stick that Iran would face increased international sanctions if negotiations fail to produce a satisfactory result. Still, it seems clear that Obama would seriously undermine U.S. credibility if he failed to use force as a last resort to prevent Iran’s obtaining a nuclear weapon.

In addition to these two high profile policy dynamics, a third has been the promotion of democracy. When he took office, Obama sought to distinguish his approach from Bush 43’s by declaring that democracy could not be imposed. In January 2011, when the administration sensed rising public frustration in Egypt and elsewhere, Secretary Clinton warned just weeks before Arab Spring events gathered momentum, "In too many places, in too many ways, the region's foundations are sinking into the sand.”[22] Obama marked the high point of his administration’s promotion of democracy in remarks in May 2011, after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, when he declared that the Arab Spring uprisings presented “an historic opportunity” and that “it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region and to support transitions to democracy.”[23]

This dynamic of democracy promotion has played out differently in the various Arab Spring states. In Tunisia, it has largely worked because it has aligned with indigenous forces headed in that direction. In Yemen, GCC-led negotiations strongly supported by the United States for the transition to new, democratically-oriented leadership launched a process whose result is still very much in doubt. In Egypt, after the June 30 mass demonstrations against the Morsi government and the army’s removal of Morsi by force, the United States has found creative ways of pursuing close strategic cooperation with Egypt while urging a return to a democratic path. In Iraq, the United States finally brought its weight to bear to help oust the authoritarian and sectarian regime of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki after his misrule embarrassingly enabled the rise of ISIS and once more raised the situation in Iraq to a level threatening U.S. security interests.

In short, diplomatic realities have tempered any zeal for democracy promotion into particularism; as explained by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, there is no “cookie-cutter” approach, and U.S. policy is to regard each situation on a case-by-case basis.

Obama himself explained the trade-offs in these terms at the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2014. After touting U.S. programs to promote civil society in the Middle East and elsewhere, he made a disclaimer:

The reality is sometimes…for the sake of our national security, the United States works with governments that do not fully respect the universal rights of their citizens…I will never apologize for doing everything in my power to protect the safety and security of the American people…But that does not mean that human rights can be simply sacrificed for the sake of expediency. So although it is uncomfortable, although it sometimes causes friction, the United States will not stop speaking out for the human rights of all people, and pushing governments to uphold those rights and freedoms.”[24]

Drivers of the Next Two Years

In addition to these three policy dynamics regarding the use of force, outreach and negotiation, and democracy promotion, both the United States and regional drivers outside Obama’s control will shape the stint to the end of his term. If the foregoing overview of the policy dynamics could be called the “known knowns,” the drivers for the next two years might be called the “known unknowns” and guesses at the black swans the “unknown unknowns.”

Known Unknowns at Home: Despite a rise in isolationist sentiment, the U.S. public still recognizes that U.S. leadership remains a prime determinant in world affairs and particularly in the Middle East.[25] Nonetheless, it is at least questionable whether Obama can comfortably sustain public and political support sufficient to avoid being trapped in an unpopular war. At this point the baseline for support of his polices in the Middle East is mixed. Prior to U.S.-led coalition attacks on ISIS targets, only 40 percent approved of his overall job performance and only a third approved of his handling of foreign policy. While these figures may well improve in view of the military actions since the poll, the pattern of both the Iraq and the Vietnam wars is not encouraging. While Americans initially approved of these actions by significant margins, the figures steadily deteriorated as casualties and costs mounted.[26] At home the war on ISIS stands a chance of becoming the situation Obama has feared the most.

Obama’s desire to ward off this possibility is reflected in his insistence that the war on ISIS is different from Bush’s war in Iraq and in his oft-repeated assurances that he will not commit U.S. “armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.” [27] The bottom line is that whatever percentage approval he starts with is likely to deteriorate as the war wears on over the rest of his term.

Politically, the postponement of the congressional debate of the authorization to use military force until a lame duck session after the November elections may or may not help Obama over the remainder of his term. Passage of a bill endorsing what he has been doing would be helpful; defeat would mean he is on his own hook relying on his interpretations of constitutional and statutory authorities. Passage with restrictions would be a mixed blessing.

Equally important will be the composition of a new Congress. Big Republican gains, especially winning control of the Senate, will likely exacerbate confrontations over Middle East issues. Obama always has the option of playing to his legacy rather than to Congress by exerting his executive authority. If the P5+1 negotiators reach an agreement with Iran on a nuclear deal, it would likely take the form of an executive agreement, not a treaty. Thus, he would take the same stance on it that he has taken regarding the Joint Plan of Action: the administration would consult with Congress, but no explicit congressional approval would be required because most sanctions could be waived by executive order.[28] If necessary, Obama could veto legislation that contradicts an agreement, such as an extension of the Iran Sanctions Act set to expire at the end of 2016.[29]

Known Unknowns Abroad: More salient than complications at home are developments in the region, because regional dynamics almost certainly will become increasingly determinative of Obama’s legacy. Drivers include possible leadership changes in the Middle East, the fate of the new coalition to combat ISIS, the outcome of the Iran nuclear talks, and the continuing dynamics of the Arab Spring.

Possible leadership changes in the next two years include several states. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, 92, is reportedly in ill health. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, 75, was recently hospitalized for a week because of a prostate operation. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, 73, has been in Germany for months reportedly with a life-threatening malignancy. And UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed, 66, has curtailed his activities because of poor health. The passing of King Abdullah or Sheikh Khalifa would likely have no profound effect on Obama’s final two years because succession arrangements are in place and portend no significant divergences. In contrast, Qaboos’s successor is more problematic because he has no biological heir and a disputed succession could add another problem to the Middle East agenda. Of greatest impact would be the impairment or death of Khamenei, which would set off a succession struggle whose outcome cannot be predicted. Added to these possible changes are Israeli elections in the next two years in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may face a difficult contest from the political right and the likelihood that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, 79, will step down, leaving no clear successor or succession process in place.

Less tractable are the historical regional rivalries and tensions reflected in the rise of ISIS. It is the most serious challenge to the Sykes-Picot arrangements since T.E. Lawrence’s foray into Syria to subvert them at the end of World War I. The challenge stems both from the caliphate’s attempt to erase the border between Iraq and Syria, the possibility that events could push the Kurds to pursue independence, and the heightening of Sunni-Shi‘i as well as internal Sunni conflicts.

Thus, another major driver will be the fate of the international coalition that Obama has put together to confront ISIS. The first-blush impact of the American-led coalition appears to strengthen ties among the moderate Sunni Arabs symbolized by the joint attack of U.S., Saudi, Qatari, Emirati, Bahraini, and Jordanian planes against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Khorasan targets in Syria. To a large extent Obama’s initiative appears to have quelled Gulf fears of American retrenchment.

In contrast to the salutary effect in the Gulf, these actions have complicated prospects for Turkey’s cooperation as a core member of the coalition. The Turks were initially reluctant partners out of concern for their country’s 49 diplomats kidnapped by ISIS, but they also fear that the coalition’s fight could strengthen both Assad’s hand in Syria and result in arms intended for the Syrian moderate opposition and the KRG flowing instead to the PKK. The freeing of the Turkish diplomatic hostages and the parliamentary passage of new authorizing legislation have broadened the scope for cooperation now being negotiated between Washington and Ankara.

An added complexity is that this coalition targeting ISIS assets enlists the de facto cooperation of the Iranians in Iraq and opens similar possibilities not only with Iran but also with the Assad regime and Hezbollah in Syria. The administration has disavowed any coordination with the Assad regime but has indicated that it is open to discussions with the Iranians to assure operations do not work “at cross purposes”[30] in Iraq. In the only divulged discussions, Burns raised Iraq issues two or three times with his Iranian counterpart on the margins of the P5+1 talks.  What these portents of change may mean in the remainder of Obama’s term cannot be surmised with much confidence at this time. One view is that at least some de facto coordination with Iran is essential to success in Syria, even though the Iranians (and Hezbollah) have denounced any U.S.-led action in Syria.

The outcome of the P5+1 negotiations about Iran’s nuclear future will themselves be a prime driver. Whether or not the negotiations succeed in time to meet the November 24 self-imposed deadline, they likely will have a positive effect regionally if they verifiably limit Iran’s nuclear programs. The Gulf states and Israel would have little alternative to accepting, however reluctantly, a deal agreed to by the P5+1 and Iran. If no agreement is reached, the likely reaction will be tighter sanctions. In any event, part of Obama’s legacy will be to have laid a basis for possible negotiations by his successor. Relations have been elevated from virtually no contact at an official level to ranking diplomats having informal contact on a first-name basis.

Together the ISIS coalition and the P5+1 talks have opened a space for regional initiatives that could improve Saudi and Iranian relations, a prerequisite for any long-term restructuring of Gulf relations. While it is unclear that either the Arab or Persian side will move to take advantage of this possibility, Rouhani in his address to the UN General Assembly noted the broad implications that a nuclear agreement could have. He stated, “A final accord regarding Iran’s peaceful nuclear program can serve as the beginning of multilateral collaboration aimed at promoting security, peace, and development in our region and beyond.”[31]

Finally, the dynamics of the Arab Spring, especially their interplay with violent extremism, will continue to be important. Initially, as the Arab Spring events began to play out, the administration and most analysts regarded the developments as blows to al-Qa‘ida and Islamic extremism because they demonstrated that there was an alternative to the violent change these movements advocate. Now the rapid advance of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and of the Houthis’ march to Sana in Yemen give credence to the argument that such chaotic events in states with weak order and social cohesion provide excellent opportunities for extremists and other political and social entrepreneurs to exploit.[32]

In addition, the demands of the Arab street for dignity, justice, and jobs are far from being resolved. In particular, across the Middle East, youth unemployment remains dangerously high at 25 percent or more in a demographic (ages 16-29) constituting as much as 30 percent of the population in some countries. At this point, good governance with accountability rather than democracy seems to be the priority.

Unknown Unknowns:  “Black swans” are low probability, high impact events. Given the fact that several have taken flight in recent years, it is not unlikely that other cygnets will hatch. This possibility increases as systemic overload causes U.S. leaders or other authorities to miss the significance of seemingly obscure events such as the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010 that sparked the Arab Spring.

Aside from knowns and unknowns in the region are events outside the region that could dilute the administration and world’s focus on the Middle East. In particular, further deterioration of relations with Russia or a crisis with China could stress the system severely.

Obama’s Legacy: Passing the Baton to His Successor

At Disney World in the Hall of U.S. Presidents, each chief executive has a two-page entry, one giving his biography and the other his accomplishments as president. In Obama's case, the accomplishments will probably first feature domestic matters such as Obamacare, but on foreign policy, what will be listed? The entries are unlikely to be as categorical as “Defeated and destroyed the ISIS terrorist threat,” “Concluded a nuclear arms agreement with Iran,” “Brokered a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians,” or “Advanced democracy in the Middle East.” The nouns in the phrases are right but the verbs remain to be determined because in many cases Obama will be passing on unfinished business.

The verbs chosen should reflect his commitment to the concepts he brought to office – an undeclared doctrine setting standards for the use of force and his approaches to outreach and collaborative diplomacy as well as to the promotion of democracy. In the loose order of the post Arab Spring Middle East, the list of unfinished business will likely be substantial, including ISIS and terrorism, Iran and Gulf security, Israeli-Palestinian issues, and fostering a democratic response to the Arab Spring.

A net assessment of prospects would give the highest chance of success to those possibilities over which the United States has the greatest control and which meet Henry Kissinger’s criterion of having “objective conditions” that balance toward opportunities rather than pitfalls.[33]

Topping the list would be a nuclear agreement with Iran because it is closest at hand. Obama called the opportunity “historic” in his 2014 UN General Assembly remarks; the next day Iranian President Rouhani in his UNGA remarks stated, “No one should doubt that compromise and agreement are in the best interests of everyone” and expressed the hope that the “negotiations will lead to a final accord in a short amount of time.”[34] The principal issue remains the number of centrifuges for which there are proposals under consideration. If a deal is struck, there will be the political task of managing opposition at home on both sides and the diplomatic task of reassuring Middle East allies. If reached, an agreement would mark only a beginning step of what would likely be a long, checkered process toward possible U.S.-Iranian reconciliation.

As for the ISIS initiative, the chances of substantial progress on Obama’s watch are better in Iraq than in Syria. In Iraq there is both a strategy and a means to carry it out. The unanswerable questions include: Will Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi be able to govern effectively, including effecting reconciliation with the Sunnis? Will the Iraqi Security Forces, half of whom the Pentagon judges unreliable or incapable of cooperating with U.S. advisors, be able to handle the on-the-ground missions? Will the Kurds remain part of a confederal Iraq?

In Syria, both strategy and means are still unclear. Even though all sides are tired after more than three years of fighting, what is the strategic plan that produces a political solution to remove the Assad regime, a seeming impossibility as long as Iran and Russia give it strong support? Will the Syrian moderate opposition be able to hold out until training and assistance can make a difference? Will the United States use its airpower to defend the newly trained Syrian opposition against the Assad regime, especially since doing so would antagonize the Iranians and Russians and refusing to do so risks antagonizing the Saudis and the breakup of the core coalition?

Progress on both Israeli-Palestinian issues and the promotion of democracy in the region is not primarily in U.S. hands. It is hard to imagine the administration’s making another intense effort on Israeli-Palestinian issues until current conditions change. Despite Obama’s continued support for the two-state solution, Kerry’s intense effort this past year may indeed have been its last best chance at least during the Obama years. Observers including former Special Envoy Martin Indyk have noted that many Palestinians are moving toward a one-state solution with an insistence on equality and justice. In Indyk’s words, Israel is “going to have to decide sooner rather than later whether it's a democracy or a Jewish state, but it won't be able to be both.”[35]

The promotion of democracy and human rights in the Middle East remains a priority for Obama, but the United States truly is a handmaiden even more so than in the case of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The opportunities to do so are long term.

In sum, Obama stands a good chance of being right in his own judgment about his likely accomplishments in the Middle East: “We may be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.” In the words of MEI Scholar David Mack, Obama at this point gets a plus one on Iran, a minus one on the peace process despite tremendous effort, and “no contest” on the various internal Middle East issues.[36] To this accounting should be added a plus one on fighting terrorism.

As for recommendations as Obama faces the sprint to the end, the advice is first to take advantage of the opportunities at hand, which in this case means striving for a “good deal” on Iran’s nuclear program that he can defend at home, abroad, and in history. Second, guard what he has, especially regarding terrorism. In the view of Woodrow Wilson Center scholar and former State Department Middle East hand Aaron David Miller, Obama’s record will be positive as long as he “keeps America safe” for the remainder of his term.[37] And finally, try to shape the context for the unfinished business he will pass on.

If Valerie Jarrett is right that Obama takes a long view of history, he undoubtedly also takes a long-term view of U.S. interests. In his two terms in office, the United States has had to cope in one way or another not only with the two wars he inherited in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also new civil wars in Yemen, Libya, and Syria as well as civil violence in Bahrain, Egypt, and elsewhere. The upheaval in the Middle East is likely to continue through his successor’s term as well. In these circumstances America’s long-term interests include institution building for good governance and continuing to work for an Arab-Israeli settlement as a means of bringing not only peace and justice but also good governance to the Eastern Mediterranean. While the opportunities may not be conducive currently, Obama should do what he can for his successor’s success, just as Bush 43 negotiated a troops withdrawal agreement and Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq in his final months.

>> Series Overview: Obama's Legacy in the Middle East


[1] This paper was written as a capstone paper for an MEI Scholars Conference on October 1, 2014, on “Obama’s Legacy in the Middle East.” While it draws on some scholars’ comments, it reflects the author’s views.

[2] David Remnick, “Going the Distance: On and Off the Road with Barack Obama,” New Yorker, January 27, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/27/going-the-distance-2.

[3] David Remnick, “Going the Distance.”

[4] David Remnick, “Going the Distance.”

[5] David Remnick, “Going the Distance.”

[6] Remnick, “Going the Distance.”

[7] Jane Harman, President and CEO, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, September 15, 2014, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/american-isolationism-it-myth-or-reality.

[9] See Josef Joffe et al, “Dissecting Obama’s Foreign Policy: America Self-Contained,” The American Interest, May/June 2014.

[10] Speech at World Economic Forum, Davos, Switzerland, January 24, 2014, http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2014/01/220605.htm.

[16] The phrase was attributed to an unnamed White House “advisor” in Ryan Lizza, “The Consequentialist,” The New Yorker, May 2, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/05/02/the-consequentialist?currentPage=all. The White House has denied that any White House official used the phrase.

[17] See Remnick, “Going the Distance.”

[18] Thomas Friedman, interview with President Obama, New York Times, August 9, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/09/opinion/president-obama-thomas-l-friedman-iraq-and-world-affairs.html?_r=0.

[21] Reelection campaign speech, Tampa, Florida, September 20, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/09/20/remarks-president-campaign-event-tampa-fl.    

[25] “Foreign Policy in the Age of Retrenchment: Results of the 2014 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and US Foreign Policy,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

[26] Professor John Mueller, Ohio State University, presentation on “Public Opinion and War,” CATO Institute, August 28, 2014, http://cdn.cato.org/archive-2014/cpf-08-28-14.mp4.

[28] Remarks of Philip Gordon, Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region, National Iranian American Council, September 27, 2014.

[29] Kenneth Katzman, “Easing US Sanctions on Iran,” Atlantic Council, June 16, 2014, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/images/publications/Easing_US_Sanctions_on_Iran.pdf.

[30] Deputy Department of State Spokesperson Marie Harf, September 5, 2014, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2014/09/231306.htm.

[32] MEI Scholar Michael W.S. Ryan has pointed out the relevance of the theories of Abu Bakr Naji, especially his 2004 book, Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage through which the Ummah Will Pass, published in Arabic online. For further information, see Ryan’s book, Decoding Al-Qaeda's Strategy: The Deep Battle Against America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) and Jarret M. Brachman and William M. McCants, “Stealing al-Qaida’s Playbook,” https://www.ctc.usma.edu/v2/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Stealing-Al-Qaidas-Playbook.pdf.

[33] Lecture, Brookings Institution, September 12, 2013.

[36] Views offered in MEI Scholars Conference on October 1, 2014.

[37] Comments with Tom Friedman at the launch of Miller’s book, The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have and Doesn’t Want Another Great President (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014),Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, October 7, 2014.