President Barack Obama predicated his foreign policy on a simple idea: that he would pursue alliances and friendships based on “mutual respect and mutual interests.” Turning away from George W. Bush’s ideologically driven Freedom Agenda was a natural pivot for Obama. Bush’s agenda was ideological. Obama’s was practical.
But Obama’s approach to the region was not quite free from an ideology. He had an ideological confidence in his own gifts, both biographical and intellectual. He anticipated that he would transform America’s relationship with the region through his own speeches, his own engagement and his own efforts.
Recall, that his first diplomatic offensives were aimed squarely at the Arab world. He took on the challenge of forging peace between Israel and the Palestinians right from the outset. One of his first major speeches as president was delivered in Cairo, where his practiced Arabic phrases were aimed at presenting American leadership in a new light, and with a new sound. One cannot say that Obama has ignored his promise to attend to America’s status in the Arab and Muslim world. Attention was paid. Energy was expended. Presidential capital was spent.
How fares this approach?
Across the crescent of states stretching from North Africa through Central Asia, America’s friends are fewer, its influence smaller, its strategic position weakened. America has lost its reliable ally in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, now ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood. It has lost the respect of people in Syria, who in rebellion against a dictator see American support as toothless and empty. Iran, America’s most implacable enemy in the world, squashed a popular uprising without fearing American action — and now moves into the void we left behind in Iraq.
And this week, our ambassador in Libya, together with three other diplomatic officials, was murdered in a planned operation while a mob in Egypt scaled the fences of our embassy, burned the American flag and raised the flag of al-Qaeda. All on September 11 — a day when anti-Americans are feeling particularly nostalgic. With these kinds of results, and in the middle of a presidential election, it’s easy to slip into blame-shifting mode. Obama’s allies do not want to accept that all these actions are his fault, and that besides, Iraq was such a colossal error that nothing on Obama’s watch compares.
For the sake of argument, let’s accept that Iraq was a greater foreign policy error than anything that Obama has committed. I do not accept the argument, but would rather focus merely on Obama and his policies. Let’s stipulate that Obama’s struggles in the region stand on their own, and are no worse or better than those of Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan or Carter.
Let’s merely judge Obama against the goals he hoped to achieve, and let’s judge the success of the means by which he hoped to achieve them.
The core thrust of his foreign policy was to win America friends in the world — especially the Muslim world — and that he, Barack Obama, was critical to that approach. Had Obama succeeded in his goal, one would have had to grant him the personal credit for achieving that goal.
Which is fair, because if there is a leader in America who could do a better job articulating Obama’s “mutual respect, mutual interests” foreign policy, I’m not sure who it is. If there is a president or would-be president whose biography, patrimony and world view would engender greater trust in the Muslim world, I’m not sure who it would be. If there is one guy in America who, in 2008, had to be charged with helping raise America’s then-low standing in the Arab and Muslim world, it would have most likely been Obama, using exactly his gifts and exactly his policies.
Obama can’t construct a “what if” world where he gets to do things that weren’t done, say things that weren’t said, reach out in a way that wasn’t tried. The “what if” world he painted for the world in 2008 became the game plan for the following four years.
He had the time to pursue his approach fully. He had two full years before the uprising in Tahrir Square to create a vision for America’s new approach to its friends in the region. He has had nearly four full years to convince Israelis and Palestinians to make sacrifices for peace, something he believes is at the heart of the region’s conflicts. He has had the time to pull American troops out of Iraq, which was also supposed to improve our standing.
But the man, in the moment, proved wanting. He has no peace agreements. No new regional alliances. No new friends. Our first assassinated ambassador in three decades. Embassies under attack. In the region, America is more isolated than it was on January 19, 2009.
And all of this is before we get to the issue of Iran’s efforts to wipe Israel off the map. Whatever the merits of economic sanctions, international pressure and unknown intelligence efforts, Obama’s efforts have yielded this: The country we want to unnerve is confident; the country we want to calm is panicked. This is not an outcome of a winning foreign policy.
The results speak for themselves: We are more disliked than we were four years ago. We are closer to a major war between two countries in the Middle East than we have been in two decades. Four years into a presidency predicated on the promise of greater peace and greater respect, we have none of the former and less of the latter.
Noam Neusner is a principal with the communications firm 30 Point Strategies. He was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.