Obama’s Legacy in the Middle East

“I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and the Muslim World, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”

– President Barack Obama at Cairo University, June 4, 2009


    President Barack Obama made an idealistic promise of a ‘new beginning’ in U.S.-Middle Eastern relations during his 2009 address in Cairo. This thesis will focus on the inherent historical claim of this address, and thus, contextualise the newly inaugurated President’s political promise through a multi-layered approach. Rhetoric, political initiatives, and Middle Eastern ‘reaction’ to the program will be compared and convergent and divergent trends explained. Thematically, the research is guided by the President’s own program outlined in Cairo, focusing on international terrorism, the Palestinian conflict, Iran’s nuclear program, and the U.S. involvement in Iraq, which will permit a historical contextualisation of the political program. The undertaking is based on the premise that a comprehensive understanding of the historical implications of the multi-faceted U.S. relationship with the Middle East is a critical factor necessary to address the current developments in the region and the Middle East’s interaction with the global community. Thus the interdisciplinary approach between the historical and political sciences contributes to the current research both thematically and methodologically.

Keywords: Middle Eastern History, U.S. Foreign Policy, Obama Presidency, International Relations, Inter-Disciplinary Approach, Oral History, Terrorism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Iran Nuclear Program, Iraq, Syria

Study Outline (pdf.)
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Study Outline

President Obama’s address to the Muslim World from Cairo University in June 2009 was hailed as a turning point in U.S.-Middle East relations. The President’s vision was of a comprehensive partnership that would promote regional stability, economic growth, and political liberalisation. His personal promise for a ‘new beginning’ in the superpower’s approach to the region had raised hopes and suspicions alike. With Obama’s second term drawing to an end, an evaluation of Cairo 2009 is due. While the U.S.-Middle Eastern relationship suffered during the first decade of the 21st century, this dissertation will focus on the development of the current President’s ambitious Middle East foreign policy during his two terms in office (2009-2016).

Although Obama’s approach to the Middle East has been the subject of great debate, a central question within Obama’s historic pledge in Cairo remains largely unanswered: Did President Obama’s powerful rhetoric and his idealistic assurances for a ‘new beginning’ in U.S.-Middle Eastern relations translate into political initiatives with tangible results? Or did the region’s political reality compel him to abandon his ambitious program and retreat to a pragmatic approach?
Specifically, could the President meet the high expectations raised in Cairo? Where did his ‘new’ approach succeed, what strategies were used, and how were these successes perceived? What were the limitations to his strategy, and what goals had to be altered or abandoned? Where was Obama’s approach ill-fitted to address the realities on the ground, and what (political) price did his Administration pay for such missteps? Finally, where did Obama break with the policies of his predecessor(s), and where did his Administration continue with the policies of an American engagement in the Middle East during previous decades?

Historiography and Desideratum
Although historical works remain scarce, a considerable amount of expert analysis on Obama’s Middle Eastern policy has been published in the field of political sciences since 2009. While ‘restraint’ and ‘the primacy of diplomacy’ became key features of the policy initiatives that followed the ambitious program outlined in Cairo, experts on U.S. foreign policy are greatly divided over the effectiveness of this Grand Strategy realignment aimed at ‘rightsizing’ the U.S. role in the Middle East. The reduction of Washington’s military engagement in the region as a strategic retrenchment emphasised the importance of giving more responsibility (and political independence) to regional partners (Lynch 2015, Gerges 2012), and gained support by those who fear an American ‘imperial overstretch’. The mostly futile and costly efforts of democratisation and nation building in Iraq exemplify this claim. Obama’s critics, on the other hand, argue that the alleged American retreat from the Middle East has emboldened regional rogue players with hegemonic aspirations such as Iran. They suggest that the reluctance of the U.S. to engage militarily in regional conflicts has deteriorated the region’s security situation and jeopardised the fragile geopolitical power balance, both of which are core interests of the United States (Stephens 2014). The civil war in Syria and the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS) are used to support this position. This polarised simplification of the reaction to Obama’s performance in the Middle Eastern theatre from within the political sciences, of course, leaves a large middle ground along which most researchers will position themselves (see also Bremmer 2015).

The small number of historians that have contributed to the topic, however, not only reflect the suspicion with which the profession approaches ‘too recent’ contemporary issues, but also the lack of cooperation between the two disciplines in order to address the core questions of a complex such as the U.S. Middle Eastern policy. The prevailing trend among the historians who attempted to incorporate the Obama Presidency in the long-term historical developments of the U.S.-Middle Eastern relationship, is to situate the Administration within the realist paradigm that dominated the U.S. approach to the Middle East during the last seven decades (see also Simon and Stevenson 2015). Similarly, the argument that present the first Bush administration (2001-2004) as an idealist exception that compromised of a series of ill-fated foreign policy adventures affords to the same line of reasoning from a different vantage point (see Ikenberry 2008).

The cooperation between the political and historical sciences, as Louise Fawcett laments in the third edition of her call to enhance joint efforts between the two disciplines (2013), remain at an embryonic stage. Convinced by the potential insight such an interdisciplinary approach is likely to yield, this thesis will contribute to the establishment of a cooperative research environment and the development of suitable methodological tools for such an endeavour. Analysing President Obama’s historical call for a ‘new beginning’ under these premisses, not only fills a thematic gap in contemporary research, but also provides an excellent case study due to the inherent historical claim issued in the political statement.

Lead Questions, Methodological Approach and Sources
As outlined above, the central question that this study addresses is whether President Obama’s promise for a ‘new beginning’ in the relationship between the United States and the Middle East successfully translated into political action. In order to guarantee a scientifically defendable analysis of this question, three methodological steps are envisioned, each examined within the thematic framework of a selection of case studies taken from the central issues addressed in Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech.
Firstly, the new administration’s rhetoric and strategic outline towards Middle Eastern issues will be analysed. Addresses by the President during the electoral campaign and within the first months of taking office build the core documents of this part. The methodological challenge in this context is to find trends that overlap the occasion-specific deviations. Furthermore, specific attention must be paid to the domestic, political environment as it puts considerable constraint on the White House, especially with regard to its Middle Eastern policy. This core will be complemented by public sources such as the White House’ periodic ‘National Security Strategy’ or declassified publications on U.S.-Middle Eastern issues by the State and Defence Departments or the Intelligence Community (CIA, NSA and FBI).
Secondly, in order to support and extend the first aim, specific foreign policy actions and diplomatic initiatives towards the Middle East will be evaluated based on whether their defined goals have been reached. As this objective task carries the risk of getting lost in partisan opinion and subjective measurement bars, the academic debate and controversies on different policy initiatives will be added to contextualise deviations from the Administration’s initial course when confronted with the dynamics of the political realities of the region. In addition to declassified reports by U.S Government agencies, expert analysis by colleagues in the field builds the core of this section.
Thirdly, and in contrast to the first two approaches, a ‘response’ to U.S. rhetoric and political initiatives from within the Middle East will be elicited. The insight gained through first hand narratives from public intellectuals, will enable a multi-layered approach to the questions outlined above. Both sides of Obama’s envisioned partnership will be considered, and convergent and divergent trends will be discovered in the relationship between the intention of the U.S. foreign policy and the perception in the Middle East.

The bulk of primary source research relates to this part of the study, envisioning the ambitious project of obtaining a qualitative response to Obama’s Middle Eastern policy from inside the Middle Eastern region. The core of theses sources are built by interviews with public intellectuals and (with the option to include policy makers) in Middle Eastern countries that are both a focus of Obama’s policy and at the same time accessible for research. For the production of these sources, an extended period of field research is planned in the Middle East. However, given the current degree of violence in many of these countries, limitations will need to be made and/or methods adapted. Egypt, not only as host of Obama’s 2009 speech, but also, historically, in a hegemonic position (politically and culturally) within Arab World, as well as one of the main intellectual centres of the region, holds high qualifications for such an endeavour. Other easily accessible countries include Jordan, Israel and Turkey, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia and the United Emirates. North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia are also easily accessible, however, they lack the intellectual authority of their Egyptian neighbour. Given that the political situation remains stable, it is currently planned to base the research on Egypt and Jordan and enlarge the geographical scope of the interviews by technological means (internet and telecommunication). In addition to interviews with Middle Eastern pundits, the primary sources of this section may be complemented by their own (and other’s) publications on pertinent topics. This qualitative response will be complemented by existing area-wide quantitative polls, an endeavour that would go beyond the scope of this study if it was to be executed specifically to answer the lead questions outlined above. Institutions that offer such quantitative data to complement the qualitative sources are, for example, the Middle East and North Africa section of the Gallup Poll or Arab American Institute.

Finally, the results of the three methodological sections will be laid out, allowing for a scientifically founded comparison. Thus, the contrasted ‘intention’ and ‘action’ (thesis), and ‘reaction’ (antithesis) will be combined into a research project utilising a thorough number of case studies. This will provide the means to gain unique knowledge of the complex political relationship between the United States and the Middle East during Obama’s presidency (synthesis).