Ex-President Obama's timidity hampered foreign policy

By Dania Koleilat Khatib
The problem with former President Barack Obama was that he was more of a crowd pleaser than someone determined to take the right course of action. File Pool Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI
The problem with former President Barack Obama was that he was more of a crowd pleaser than someone determined to take the right course of action. File Pool Photo by Olivier Douliery/UPI | License Photo

Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Vanity Fair published an interesting article in which it mentioned that more and more Democrats are turning against former President Barack Obama's legacy. Their rationale is that he did not deliver on the change he promised. Instead, he tagged along with the establishment previous course.

The article says, "More and more voices seem to be saying, either obliquely or bluntly, that Obama was a bad president." Some claim that Hillary Clinton lost because she was seen as a continuation of Obama's policies, whereas the American people wanted a radical change. Tough I am a vocal critic of Obama and his policies, I think it is unfair to categorically label him as a "bad." The more accurate description is "timid."


Obama could have been an exceptional president. He missed the chance because of his timidity and his lack of assertiveness, especially in the realm of foreign policy. When Obama took the podium at American University of Cairo, the Arab world had so many hopes in a new American policy. The result was no policy, but more a set of reaction and steps taken to please the American public opinion. The American public was starting to get fed up with the war in Iraq, though the situation was getting better and the surge effect had started to grow on Iraq. The country was to a large extent stabilized. However, Obama, overwhelmed by the public opinion, withdrew.


The problem with Obama that he was more of a crowd pleaser than someone determined to take the right course of action. He withdrew without getting any guarantees from the Iraqi government nor putting any pressure on Nouri al-Maliki that the policies devised by Gen. David Petraeus to stabilize Iraq will be followed through. He left the Sunnis to the mercy of the vengeful and sectarian Maliki and his pro-Iran militias. As a result of American abandonment, the Sunnis radicalized and gave the world the monster called Islamic State. The recently published two-volume Iraq war study confirms this fact.

On the other hand, everyone was hoping for a more balanced policy on the Palestine-Israel issue. However, the American president was soon bullied by the belligerent Israeli prime minister. His policy was more of a continuation of the unconditional support of Israel. Just before leaving office, he chose not to veto a U.N. anti-settlement resolution. Only when he knew that he will be soon breaking free from his position and that the Israel lobby and the Congress will not be able to catch him, he took this action. However, the single gesture had no effect on the course of the overall American Middle East policy.


On Syria, Obama raised the hope of the Syrians by asking their dictator to leave, as he is standing in the way of the Syrian people toward freedom. Nevertheless, the support did not extend beyond a lip service. If Obama stood by his word and funded the moderate defectors of the Syrian army at the beginning of the uprising, the fundamentalists would have not found the opportunity to recruit them. His indecisiveness to offer support led the defectors to join the well-funded radicals. In 2013, he also retracted in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the red lines he drew regarding Assad's use of chemical weapons.

Even the nuclear deal could have been a great deal. It had potential to solve the bitter Persian Arab rivalry. On the contrary, Obama's way of dealing with the issue fanned the flame. In order to seem that he ended the U.S. animosity with Iran, he went into a deal that had many flaws. The first step of this deal should have been to end Saudi Iranian rivalry by forcing the two parties to discuss and streamline their problems.

However, Obama sufficed by saying in an interview with the Atlantic magazine that the Saudi should learn to share the region with the Iranians. His hands-off approach did not lead the Saudis and the Iranians to sit in a conference and divide the zones of influence. It led them to unleash deadly non-state actors who shattered the region and rendered it into a blood bath, from Iraq to Syria to Yemen. His hands-off approach is due to his timid character, where he is more concerned about getting endorsement and assurance than doing the right thing.


Today, as the long-awaited Iraq report sees the light, and as the policies are evaluated in retrospect, one can see how harmful and costly the flaws in Obama's character were to the American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Dania Koleilat Khatib is executive director of the Al Istishari Al Strategy Center for Economic and Future Studies, a UAE-based independent think tank. She specializes in U.S.-Arab relations and researches sectarianism, extremism and governance. Her book "The Arab Lobby and the U.S.: Factors for Success and Failure" was published by Routledge UK and translated to Arabic.

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