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‘The Obama Effect’ in the Middle East and Beyond

Commentary, 28 April 2009
Americas, Global Security Issues, Middle East and North Africa
Obama's presidency has been greeted with abundant goodwill in the Middle East and his rhetoric thus far has only bettered relations. Much depends on the concrete steps that will follow his fine words.

Obama's presidency has been greeted with abundant goodwill in the Middle East and his rhetoric thus far has only bettered relations. Much depends on the concrete steps that will follow his fine words.

By Mina Al-Oraibi, for

‘The Obama effect’: that was the phrase repeated from London to Istanbul, via Strasbourg and Kehl, as President Barack Obama made his first overseas tour during the first week of April. His landmark visit to Istanbul coincided with the Second Forum of the Alliance of Civilisations, a UN-supported process launched by Turkey and Spain in 2004 at a time of heightened tensions between Muslim and Christian majority countries. Although Obama himself did not visit the conference, there was a feeling that relations were changing and frictions dissipating. While many attributed the reduced tensions to the election of Mr Obama, it was also true that the end of the Bush administration produced a feeling that a new chapter was to open in America’s relations with the Muslim world after a turbulent few years.

From Istanbul, the American president declared that ‘our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a violent ideology that people of all faiths reject’. What followed, however, was of much greater significance: ‘America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to al-Qaida. Far from it. We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect’. Since 2001, America’s engagement with the Islamic world has been restricted to a security-based approach, one which made many Muslims feel that they were guilty in American eyes until they proved their innocence. Some chose to bend over backwards to do so, thus loosing legitimacy amongst their own people, while others were incensed and joined the wave of anti-Americanism that has swelled over the past few years.

From rhetoric to action

The ending of the brash ‘you are either with us or against us’ rhetoric can only mean an improvement in relations. Not only has that rhetoric been discarded, but it has been replaced by a genuine outreach effort. Obama’s pragmatic approach to mutual interests is crucial in dealing with the Muslim and Arab world, while his clear ability to differentiate between different countries and heterogeneous Muslims is welcome. Moreover, President Obama finally articulated what many had been waiting to hear: ‘The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country – I know, because I am one of them'.

While President Obama’s statements and gift for oratory have helped to reduce the bitterness in relations between America and much of the Muslim and Arab world, there is still a long way to go. Several Arab officials have stated that although what they have heard from the Administration is positive, it has not yet been backed up with positive action. This is a cynical response. In just one hundred days, the new American president has shown evidence of genuine commitment. He has already taken concrete steps, announcing a serious and committed negotiator to work on the Middle East peace process and declaring the closure of the notorious Guantanamo bay prison, undeterred by immense domestic pressures and the economic crisis.

By making the closure of Guantanamo the subject of his first executive order, President Obama affirmed that his administration would be a bold departure from the pattern of the Bush years. However, with only eight months left to finalise the transfer of the detainees and many countries resisting taking responsibility, this move could still falter.

Obama and the Middle East

In another ‘first’ of his presidency, President Obama chose to make the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the recipient of his first phone call to an international leader. It was a smart and calculated move; whatever happens with regard to the thorny question of peace in the Middle East, no one will be able to accuse President Obama of not being committed to the issue or of sidelining it until the end of his presidency, as his predecessor did. The appointment of Senator George Mitchell to the position of Special Envoy for the Middle East was another indication of how seriously Obama takes the issue; Mitchell is someone of international standing, with a track record of delivering peace in Northern Ireland.

King Abdullah II of Jordan’s visit to Washington on 21 April and the announcement of talks to be convened by President Abbas and Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by June are further evidence of the new administration's commitment to tackling the problems in the Middle East. While many elements in this difficult task lie outside the control of the American president, nothing is more crucial than American input and a guarantee to hold all sides responsible for ending the violence raging in the region.

Handling Iraq and Afghanistan

Undoubtedly, it is the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that will prove the greatest challenge for America’s security and relations with the Muslim and Arab world. President Obama has spoken of ‘respect’ repeatedly in referring to Iraq, and has, crucially, assured Iraqis that the United States will not be an indefinite presence in their country. However, choosing Christopher Hill, a respected diplomat who has no connections to the region and no prior experience in Iraq, to be ambassador to Baghdad is a sign of the Obama administration’s desire to distance itself from the country. The decision to end the position of Iraq coordinator at the State Department and amalgamate the Iraq desk with the rest of the Near East bureau at the department are further signs of this detachment. When one observes that special envoys have been appointed on numerous issues, from Darfur to eurasian energy, the failure to appoint a special envoy to Iraq looks like one step too far, a move from detachment to disinterest. President Obama cannot wish away his country’s crucial role in the country and its future. Already the 30 June deadline for American troop withdrawal from Iraqi cities is under review with violence escalating in the country.

However, the most dangerous area for the Obama administration is Afghanistan. While 'Af-Pak' has become a term widely used in Washington, many Muslims are concerned that a sovereign Pakistani state, however dysfunctional, may become just another site of American military intervention. Near-daily attacks on the treacherous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan have not yielded results. Moreover, violence is raging in Afghanistan without an end-game in sight. While his comprehensive policy approach was welcomed by his NATO allies, President Obama needs more Arab and Muslim commitment to helping resolve this conflict. The meeting in the first week of May between Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, while significant in itself, must not be just another high-profile talking shop without results.

President Obama has put in the ground work, proving that he is listening and working on issues that are both crucial to his country’s security and impact in many ways on the llives of Muslims and Arabs. However, as highlighted by his decisive action in rescuing the American hostages taken by Somali pirates and the continuing American drones over Pakistan’s tribal areas, he will not hesitate to use his Commander-in-Chief powers. Moreover, while he has been keen to affirm his desire to listen to those from the region, he will have to make concrete decisions that may reverse the tide of abundant goodwill that has so far flowed toward him. Iran will prove to be the ultimate test. President Obama’s invitation for an unclenched Iranian fist has yet to be heeded, which may push his hand in a direction he wishes to avoid.


Mina Al-Oraibi is a journalist for Asharq Al-Awsat, the international pan-Arab daily.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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