Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment?

Palgrave Macmillan, May 2012

obama_and_the_meDuring his presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to distance the United States from the neoconservative foreign policy legacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, and usher in a new era of a global, interconnected world. More than two years have passed since his inauguration, and the reality of President Obama’s approach is in stark contrast to the ebullient and optimistic image that he originally built up. In fact, Obama is not committed to redefining U.S. foreign policy in a transformational way, but calibrating and correcting the Bush policies, and reclaiming the neorealist approach that defined America’s foreign policy since WWII. Taking stock of Obama’s first two and a half years in the White House, this book places his engagement in the Middle East within the broader context of U.S. foreign policy since 9/11 and examines key areas that have posed a challenge to his administration: negotiation with Israel and Palestine, troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan, engagement with the Arab Spring, intervention in Libya, and the death of Osama bin Laden.

– Charlie Rose interviews Fawaz Gerges on his new book > watch

– Gerges on the Brian Lehrer Show > listen

– Diane Rehmlooks at his new book > listen

– Gerges on Here and Now > listen

– Gerges on After Words > watch

> buy online


“When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many in the Middle East and beyond rejoiced. The new president promised to help negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and to reach out to Iran’s intransigent regime. An early, rousing speech in Cairo persuaded many ordinary Muslims that a new chapter in relations between America and the volatile region had begun.

This was sorely needed. Since September 11th 2001, George Bush’s catch-all “war on terror” had led to two conflicts in Muslim nations – Afghanistan and Iraq – which brought misery, mistrust and a hefty bill for America’s ailing economy. A rising Turkey checked America’s power in the region, and Iran’s Shia leadership had spread its tentacles into Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. The Arab-Israeli peace process was on ice.

But now, nearly four years on and as American elections loom, Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, is critical of Mr Obama’s timidity in the region. Mr Gerges reckons that the American president’s preference for pragmatism has left him open to attacks from all sides. The left, pointing to increased drone strikes and America’s threat to veto a Palestinian bid for statehood, accuses Mr Obama of antagonism towards the Arab world. The right wails that he is too soft on enemy states and has diminished America’s ability to shape the region’s affairs.

Some of this is unfair. By the standards of Washington, DC, which has long viewed the Middle East as a bulwark against Russian influence, Mr Obama’s record has not been too bad. Iraq is no beacon of democracy, but America’s army is no longer stuck in a quagmire there. American troops are gradually leaving Afghanistan too; a further 23,000 exit this year, and all combat troops will depart by 2014. And the region’s oil still flows into the market.

Mr Gerges is not without praise for Mr Obama, who has had to deal with a dramatically changing Middle East. The Arab spring last year took the administration by surprise. But after reacting slowly to popular movements against erstwhile autocrat chums, America wisely cut loose its Egyptian ally, Hosni Mubarak. Mr Gerges also commends Mr Obama’s effort to get the Arab League’s support for NATO’s war in Libya, a diplomatic move that recognised the limits of America’s military might. More recently, administration officials have extended a hand to moderate Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia, of whom they had been wary.

But Mr Gerges echoes the disappointment of many that the president failed to live up to his soaring rhetoric and bring about real change. Some American officials reckon that drone attacks in Yemen and elsewhere, though less costly in terms of American lives, create as many radical young men as they obliterate. Washington has also failed to give concrete help to new governments in the midst of tricky transitions. Many Arabs point out that America’s embrace of the “Tahrir generation” (named after the protesters’ square in Cairo) is undermined by the green light it gave Saudi Arabia to roll its tanks into Bahrain to crush a nascent uprising there.

The main problem, writes Mr Gerges, is that “Washington has changed Obama far more than he has changed Washington.” Nowhere is that more clear than in America’s “striking policy failure” in talks between Israel and the Palestinians. After initially pressing Israel’s hawkish prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to stop building settlements, Mr Obama’s fear of the political cost at home made him back down. American Jews may not be as inflexible about peace as politicians on Capitol Hill make out, yet powerful lobbies such as AIPAC make for “poisonous domestic politics”.

Mr Gerges has long urged America to shake up its policy in the region. Time and again, he writes, America creates problems for itself. Its tolerance of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories may be the biggest call to jihad for the radicalised young men that Washington fears. Today such criticism may be more relevant than ever. New governments and Syria’s civil war will change the Middle East and America’s relationship with it. Come January, the resident of the White House will have to do some bold rethinking.” — The Economist

“Gerges succinctly traces the history of the West’s relationship with the Middle East and pulls no punches as he iterates the trail of failed policies. The Middle East has always been a hotbed, but now it is a conflagration waiting to ignite. The dissolution of trust and friendship toward the West, beginning with French and English imperialism up to the current Israeli doctrine of permanent conflict, is reaching critical mass. These ex-colonies wanted development, modernization and relief from economic hardship, while all the West wanted was to thwart communism and control the area’s oil. Policy decisions were based on containment of the Soviets, but the focus has now shifted to stifling Iran’s influence and that of militant Islamism. As a leading authority on the Middle East, Gerges’ extensive research and analysis exposes the effects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the war on terror and the emerging power of Turkey, Iran and Egypt. The author excoriates the Bush administration and its imperialistic “continuity of failure,” from the act of rejecting Iran’s offer of help after 9/11 to unilateral war in Iraq. The president’s neoconservative advisers used exaggeration, overreaction and crusading impulses to further their goals, tactics that poisoned the entire Middle East against the United States. Obama’s attempts at conciliation have been repeatedly stymied by the constraints of the American political system and his own protracted efforts to build consensus. Frustrated Arab states are weary of rhetoric and distrust America’s inaction as they turn to the rising powers of Turkey, Egypt and Iran for solutions. Gerges lays out the problems from multiple viewpoints and establishes the points of greatest need. How Obama addresses the challenge to America’s hegemony and whether he can stand up to political pressure from home will determine if this is truly the end of America’s moment in the Middle East. An exceptional book that thoroughly scrutinizes the struggles of all the nations of the Middle East and doesn’t hesitate to distribute blame where it’s warranted.” – Kirkus (starred review)

“Gerges provides an analysis of U.S. interaction with the Middle East during the first three years of the Obama presidency. During his election campaign and in early presidential speeches (most notably in Cairo), Obama expressed a desire to create a new beginning for U.S.–Middle East relations. Gerges examines the gaps between this optimistic rhetoric and the reality of Obama’s policies while framing those policies within their historical context. Some of the specific areas he focuses on are the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the War on Terror, the 2011 Arab Spring, and the roles of pivotal states such as Egypt, Iran, and Turkey. In Gerges’s assessment, Obama’s approach has more closely resembled the realism of post-World War II America than the promised transformative path. He states that without a change in course from a kind of Cold War mentality, the continued decline of U.S. influence in the region is virtually assured. Despite the complexity of the issues involved, this is a highly readable book, recommended for anyone who regularly follows the news in this region.” — Brian T. Sullivan, Alfred Univ. Lib., NY, Library Journal

“The ever-shifting geopolitical, cultural, military, and religious dynamics of America’s engagement with the Middle East is optimal ground for serious inquiry in this thoughtful examination of America’s standing in the region. Gerges (The Rise and Fall of Al-Qaeda), chair of the Middle Eastern Center at the London School of Economics, deftly condenses many years–from the Eisenhower Doctrine, to the origin of America’s “special relationship” with Israel, to the Arab Spring–into an easily digestible history rife with spot-on analysis. His historical investigation into America’s mercurial relationships with the region’s dictators–e.g., in the case of Saddam Hussein, going from preventing a UN investigation into his use of chemical weapons to handing him over to the Iraqi Special Tribunal, which found him guilty of crimes against humanity–is juxtaposed with an honest and thorough analysis of how President Obama “has shown no desire to alter the dominant foreign policy narrative on the Middle East.” The book is a strong and informative primer on American involvement in the Middle East, but Gerges misses his chance to offer up concrete solutions, beyond positing that Obama must “take risks on people’s aspirations for open and representative government” and “seize the moment and…structurally reorient American foreign policy.” – Publishers Weekly

“Fawaz Gerges has written a provocative book that should make Americans think carefully about their country’s role in the rapidly changing Middle East.” – William B. Quandt, professor of Politics, University of Virginia

“A penetrating study by one of the most influential writers on a most troubled region, one that shows every sign of becoming more troubled still in the future. In Gerges’ view, the American ‘moment’ in the Middle East is fast coming to an end with potential consequences we can only yet dimly perceive. A must-read.” – Michael Cox, professor and co-director, IDEAS, The London School of Economics and Political Science

“Fawaz Gerges scrutinizes President Obama’s Middle Eastern policy with the clinical accuracy and piercing insight of one of the leading authorities on the region. Distinguishing sweeping rhetoric from policy, he is compelling in demonstrating that while Obama has inherited reduced influence abroad and a rapidly changing landscape, American official attitudes remain largely constant.” – James Piscatori, Durham University

“With characteristic and skillful gusto, Fawaz Gerges goes straight to the heart of the matter. Arguing that a supposedly transformational president has been anything but when it comes to US foreign policy in the Middle East, he lays out an ambitious strategy for navigating a region in tectonic flux. Essential reading for policymakers, pundits, and all students of the contemporary Middle East.” – Peter Mandaville, author of Global Political Islam and director of the Ali Vural Ak Center for Islamic Studies, George Mason University

“As Fawaz Gerges describes in lucid and deeply informed prose, Obama has lost a historic opportunity to redefine the American political culture—and he has in fact managed to drag it even deeper into a habitual politics of brute force and vulgar violence. Fawaz Gerges’ timely and tempered book is too late for Obama but vastly informative and deeply encouraging for the rest of us still committed to a better and more responsible world.” – Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University, New York

“Fawaz Gerges is one of the foremost scholars of Middle East politics. Here he delivers a cogent analysis of Barack Obama’s foreign policy toward the Middle East. Gerges’s verdict is harsh: Obama has neither prioritized the region nor taken the necessary risks required to alter a flawed foreign policy. This is simply the best analysis of the Obama administration’s foreign policy toward the region.” – Samer Shehata, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University