No, President Obama Did Not Break the Middle East

A short response to an unfair charge by a former Bush administration official
The view through a broken window in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp, near the Lebanese port city of Sidon. (Ali Hashisho/Reuters)

A brief note on a new Elliott Abrams essay in Politico Magazine that appears under the eye-catching headline, “The Man Who Broke the Middle East.” The man in question is not Sykes or Picot or Nasser or Saddam or Khomeini or George W. Bush or Nouri al-Maliki, but Barack Obama. I often agree with Elliott, but I could not let this one go by without a response. Don’t worry. This won’t take long.

Here is Elliott’s thesis:

The Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace, for the surge in Iraq had beaten down the al Qaeda-linked groups. U.S. relations with traditional allies in the Gulf, Jordan, Israel and Egypt were very good. Iran was contained, its Revolutionary Guard forces at home. Today, terrorism has metastasized in Syria and Iraq, Jordan is at risk, the humanitarian toll is staggering, terrorist groups are growing fast and relations with U.S. allies are strained.

A few points. The first is to note that the Middle East Obama inherited in early 2009 was literally at war—Israel and the Gaza-based Hamas were going at each other hard until nearly the day of Obama's inauguration. Obama managed to extract himself from that one without breaking the Middle East.

In reference to a “contained” Iran, I would only note that Iran in 2009 was moving steadily toward nuclearization, and nothing that the Bush administration, in which Elliott served, had done seemed to be slowing Iran down. Flash forward to today—the Obama administration (with huge help from Congress) implemented a set of sanctions so punishing that it forced Iran into negotiations. (Obama, it should be said, did a very good job bringing allies on board with this program.) Iran's nuclear program is currently frozen. The Bush administration never managed to freeze Iran's nuclear apparatus in place. I'm not optimistic about the prospects for success in these negotiations (neither is Obama), but the president should get credit for leading a campaign that gave a negotiated solution to the nuclear question a fighting chance.

It's also worth noting that when Obama came to power, he discovered that the Bush administration had done no detailed thinking about ways to confront Iran, either militarily or through negotiations. There was rhetoric, but no actual planning. Obama applied himself to this problem in ways that Bush simply did not.

Elliott writes that, in 2009, U.S. relations with Arab allies were good. But these relations, in many cases, were built on lies and morally dubious accommodations. He states that "the most populous Arab country is Egypt, where Obama stuck too long with Hosni Mubarak as the Arab Spring arrived, and then with the Army, and then the Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, and now is embracing the Army again."

Let's break this down for a minute. It was the policy of several administrations to maintain close relations with Egypt's military rulers. It was Bush administration policy to maintain close relations with Mubarak. Perhaps the 2011 uprising in Egypt could have been avoided had the Bush administration, in honoring its "Freedom Doctrine," engineered Mubarak's smooth departure several years before Cairo exploded. Obama inherited a dysfunctional relationship with Egypt from his predecessor. This is not to excuse the administration's faltering and sometimes contradictory approach to the Egypt problem today, but simply to set it in some context.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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