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The moment is yet to come

Only a second Obama term could break with the United States’ policy of disengagement with the Middle East

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

By Fawaz A. Gerges,

Palgrave Macmillan, 304 pages, $28

Readers might know Fawaz A. Gerges as an authority on political and militant Islam, through his books such as “America and Political Islam” and “Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy”. But he is actually a professor of International Relations and Middle East Studies and his latest book, published in United States and to follow soon in United Kingdom, on America’s Middle East policy draws on his specialisation. In less than 300 pages and six chapters, an introduction and a conclusion, the book reviews the American relationship with the region since after end of the Second World War.

“To what extent is Obama’s foreign policy transformational or centrist-realist? Does Obama, despite his uplifting rhetoric, represent continuity rather than change? Has he challenged the basic premises on which his country’s Middle East policy is based — Israel-first, America’s relations with oil-producing regimes, and the war on terror? How high up is the Middle East on Obama’s foreign-policy agenda? What does his response to the Arab world’s popular uprisings in early 2011 say about American influence and engagement in the region? What does the Obama presidency reveal about American foreign policy towards the Middle East and the potential for continuing failure? What is it about the broken American political system that so often makes the practice fall short of the rhetoric? What can be done to close the gap between rhetoric and reality in US foreign policy, or, rather, to repair the dysfunctional political system to overcome the legacy of bitter relations between America and Middle Eastern societies?” These are the questions Gerges tackles in “Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment?”

The Cold War was pivotal in America’s involvement in the region. “The effect of the East-West rivalry was to retard democratic development in the region in two distinct ways: through a strengthening of the executive authority of Middle East rulers at the expense of other branches of government and the citizenry and their rights, and by creating conditions adverse to democracy,” Gerges writes. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shaped the US foreign policy in the Middle East, and Gerges devotes a chapter to it to demonstrate that. Yet, the focus is the “doctrinal” US foreign policy in the region under the Bush administration. That is meant to set the scene for the main theme of the book, “The Obama ‘Antidoctrinal’ Doctrine”.

The author predicts that Obama, faced with many internal challenges and by shifting foreign-policy focus to the Asia-Pacific, will use rhetoric to distance himself from his predecessor’s policies in the Middle East but will continue on a course of disengagement. The Middle East peace process is a stark example of this. However, the “war on terror” will continue but with a different tactic. “Thus, contrary to the public perceptions, Obama’s lofty rhetoric about a new start in relations between the United States and Muslim countries did not signify that the region ranked high on his foreign-policy agenda”. Another example of that real “disengagement” is the American stance towards the so-called Arab Spring. “More than anything, the Arab revolts that broke out in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere along the Mediterranean littoral in early 2011 have clearly revealed the inability of the Obama administration to shape the future of the region.”

Yet, Gerges does not see a complete American disengagement in the Middle East and bets on a continued involvement on another level. “The end of America’s moment in the Middle East does not mean that the United States will disengage from the region and cease to exercise influence there. The United States is fully engaged in the oil-producing Gulf arena, a strategic theatre necessary for the wellbeing of the world economy, and has built the largest concentration of military bases there outside the homeland,” he states. His bet is on the second term of Obama presidency, if he wins the election at the end of this year. “Liberated from the policy straitjacket of Bush’s wars, and freed from the timid expediency demanded by a looming re-election campaign, a second-term Obama could potentially shed his political inhibitions and escape the trappings of special interest groups in an effort to establish America’s progressive leadership in the New Middle East”, he concludes. But we still have to wait and see if Obama changes his foreign-policy agenda in a possible second term, or will continue the “disengagement” that started under his predecessor.

Ayman Mustafa is a writer based in London.