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.

On the peace process, Elliott writes,

Obama began with the view that there was no issue in the Middle East more central than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Five years later he has lost the confidence of both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and watched his second secretary of state squander endless efforts in a doomed quest for a comprehensive peace. Obama embittered relations with America’s closest ally in the region and achieved nothing whatsoever in the “peace process.” The end result in the summer of 2014 is to see the Palestinian Authority turn to a deal with Hamas for new elections that—if they are held, which admittedly is unlikely—would usher the terrorist group into a power-sharing deal. This is not progress.

I'm sure Elliott remembers that in 2006, the Bush administration helped bring the terrorist group Hamas to power, by engineering elections that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Israel actually wanted. I'm sure he also remembers that President Bush (along with a series of presidents before him) failed utterly to bring about a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians. It seems a bit unfair to single-out Obama for failing at something presidents of both parties, for 40 years, have also failed to accomplish.

On Syria and Iraq, Elliott is on somewhat firmer ground. I've argued that an earlier intervention in Syria, in the form of support for what was then a more-moderate rebel coalition, might—might—have changed the balance of power.

On a deeper level, the idea of blaming any American president for the terrible state of the Middle East seems somewhat dubious. I argue this question with myself and with my friends all the time, because I do recognize that the U.S. has a singular role to play in the world's most volatile and dysfunctional region, and I agree with Robert Kagan, who argues that superpowers don't have the luxury of taking vacations from responsibility. But on the other hand, conditions in Iraq, while aggravated by certain Obama policies, cannot be pinned on him alone. For that matter, the man who truly broke Iraq was not George W. Bush, but Saddam Hussein, who through murder, rape, pillage, torture, and genocide destroyed millions of Iraqi lives.

What I would like is to read Elliott on this question: To what extent is this really about us at all?