Obama’s 2009 Cairo address was exceedingly ambitious—an attempt to suture the deep wounds of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Before a packed auditorium at Cairo University, to rounds of applause and even a shouted “We love you,” the new American president expressed determination to remove U.S. soldiers from Iraq and eventually Afghanistan, resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, enter into nuclear negotiations and perhaps a more positive relationship with Iran, and nurture democracy, human rights, and economic development in the region. It was a broad, demilitarized vision for U.S. engagement in the Middle East.
Then came the Arab Spring and its awful aftermath, which led Obama to overthrow a dictator in Libya, redeploy U.S. forces to fight ISIS, and wrestle with whether or not to authorize direct military intervention in Syria. (He ultimately declined to do so.)
Obama did strike a nuclear deal with Iran, but he didn’t manage to permanently draw down the U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan or make much progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace or transforming public opinion of the United States in the Muslim world.
When I asked Gordon, Obama’s top Middle East adviser from 2013 to 2015, how influential the Cairo address had been in shaping policy by the time Gordon arrived at the White House, he responded, “Not too much, honestly.” The remarks “reflected Obama’s instincts about the region and his desires,” Gordon said, but “I think he would be the first to admit that he wasn’t able to deliver that ‘new beginning.’”
By the end of his presidency, Obama had grown profoundly disillusioned with the Middle East. He darkly described the region to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg as a drain on American lives, power, and attention to parts of the world (such as Asia) that were more vital to U.S. interests—rife with high-maintenance allies, dangerous tribalism, and intractable conflicts.
Read: The Obama doctrine
Gordon argued that the extent of Obama’s disengagement from the Middle East is often overstated. Still, Obama was intent on reducing the United States’ costs and commitments in the region and not getting “sucked into the Middle East.” And what Gordon found surprising about the 2016 election was that the policy pendulum didn’t swing back in the other direction, as it often does when the other party takes control of the White House. Instead, the pendulum swung even further toward disengagement from the region.
Faysal Itani, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, pointed to one critical difference between the two presidents, which Pompeo also emphasized in Cairo: Trump’s return to a traditional conception of the United States’ regional allies and adversaries following Obama’s efforts, however limited in scope, to shake up these dynamics.
Obama and his advisers were at times critical of Sunni Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia and unwilling to grant blanket support to them in their rivalry with Shia Iran, Itani noted. Pompeo, by contrast, vowed in black-and-white terms in Egypt to “partner with our friends and vigorously oppose our enemies,” noting that the Trump administration had “fostered a common understanding with our allies of the need to counteract the Iran regime’s revolutionary agenda.”