The fierce criticism that United States President Barack Obama has attracted over suggestions that he wants Britain to remain in the European Union (EU) seems pretty tame when compared with the ear-bashing he was expected to receive in Saudi Arabia yesterday.
US officials have been at pains to stress it will be for the British people to decide whether they leave or remain in the EU in June’s referendum. But the fact that the White House has indicated a preference for Britain’s continued membership has nevertheless prompted ‘Brexit’ campaigners to accuse Obama, who was due to arrive in the United Kingdom yesterday, of hypocrisy and double standards. Before Air Force One touched down in London, though, Obama first travelled to Saudi Arabia for a summit with Gulf leaders, where he was likely to face far stronger criticism than that voiced by disgruntled Brexiteers.
In common with his predecessors, Obama is anxious to secure his foreign policy legacy as he enters the twilight of his presidency. Bill Clinton spent his final year in office trying to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal (it failed), while George W. Bush sought to bring some semblance of order to war-torn Iraq by limiting the extent of the sectarian violence.
Obama, too, would like to be remembered for making his mark on the treacherous politics of the Middle East. He did, after all, make the region one of his foreign policy priorities when, shortly after taking office, he delivered his ground-breaking Cairo speech in April 2009, in which he sought a “new beginning” between Washington and the Arab world. Seven years later, the naivety of those sentiments has been laid bare. Far from enjoying a more constructive dialogue with Arab leaders, Washington now finds itself desperately trying to repair relations with them. Moreover, Obama has no one but himself to blame for causing this dangerous rift. It began when he gave his enthusiastic backing to pro-democracy demonstrators at the start of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, not realising that by so doing he was supporting the removal of long-standing allies such as Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak and Bahrain’s ruling family.
Much of the turmoil now afflicting the region, with Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) fanatics seeking to establish fiefdoms in Iraq, Syria and Libya, has its origins in Obama’s enthusiasm for overturning the Arab world’s status quo. This has been further compounded by Obama’s pursuit of a deal to end Iran’s long-standing obsession with acquiring nuclear weapons.
The reason leaders of Iran’s Islamic revolution sought to become a nuclear superpower in the first place was so that they could dominate their rivals in Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia. Thus, by bending over backwards to seal a deal with Iran, Obama has succeeded in alienating long-standing regional allies such as the Saudis and Egypt. When he invited Arab leaders to Camp David last year to offer assurances about the Iran deal, most of them made their excuses and stayed at home.
Obama’s hopes of repairing relations during what was likely his final presidential visit to the kingdom will not have been helped by his recent comments in an interview for the Atlantic that the Saudis need to find a way “to share the neighbourhood” with Iran. Nothing could be further from Saudi minds. On the contrary, everywhere you look in the Middle East today, from Syria to Yemen, the Saudis are actively resisting Iran’s attempts to further extend its influence.
For what Obama fails to understand is that, for all Tehran’s claims that, following the successful conclusion of the nuclear talks, it would seek better relations with the outside world, the deal appears to have had the opposite effect. Buoyed by the knowledge that it is to receive a $150 billion (Dh551.7 billion) bonanza from the removal of economic sanctions, as well as being able to recommence exporting its vast oil reserves, Iran is now seeking to intimidate, rather than reassure, its regional rivals. Apart from test-firing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, Iran has been caught shipping weapons to their allies in Bahrain and Yemen.
In Syria, pro-Iranian militias are exploiting the ceasefire to consolidate President Bashar Al Assad’s position, while in Iraq, the Iran-backed radical cleric Moqtada Al Sadr is trying to overthrow the pro-western government of Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi. So much for Tehran’s promises of good behaviour. In short, Obama’s nuclear deal has encouraged more trouble-making by Iran, rather than ending it — a point his Saudi hosts will have been keen to reiterate in Riyadh.
Furthermore, Obama’s failure on the Iran issue should have a bearing on any thoughts he has on the EU campaign. If the leader of the free world can get it so wrong on a vital issue like Iran, then why would anyone in Britain take seriously any advice he has to offer on how they should vote in June’s referendum?
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2016
Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence editor and chief foreign affairs columnist.