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A prospective ally? Protesters burn the US flag on this year’s annual “Day Against Global Arrogance” in Iran, despite the nuclear deal (© Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)


In his first presidential election campaign in 2008, Barack Obama singled out the Middle East as the top foreign policy priority for his hoped-for administration. He wanted to extricate the United States from both Iraq, which he dubbed “the wrong war”, and Afghanistan, which he labelled “the right war.” He promised “a new beginning with the Muslim world”, and soon after his election made spectacular trips to Turkey and Egypt where he made lengthy speeches crediting Islam with achievements that surprised many Muslims. Believing that most Muslims were unhappy to see their brethren wearing orange jumpsuits in Guantanamo Bay, he also promised to abolish the notorious prison camp with a stroke of the presidential pen. Recalling the sympathy he had nurtured for the “Palestinian cause” in his youth, he promised to make the two-state slogan, a Bush administration diplomatic concoction, a reality.

His most ardent desire, however, was to make a deal with the Islamic Republic in Iran, stretching the hand of friendship to adversaries who had waved a clenched fist at the world for three decades. No sooner had Obama entered the White House than he started an epistolary courting of Tehran’s Khomeinist leaders, writing first to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, when he was ignored, to the “Supreme Guide”, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Since then, the story of Obama and the Middle East has been a Dutch auction of lowering aims and failure to meet them. The flatter-Islam exercise in Istanbul and Cairo, where Obama even almost credited Islam for having invented the cinema, boosted the Islamist groups that instantly boasted about having “humbled the last superpower”, in the words of one of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Kamal Halbawi. Soon, the Brotherhood was invited to a “dialogue” with the new US administration, thus securing a degree of legitimacy it had never previously enjoyed.

In Turkey, Obama’s flatter-Islam policy encouraged factions within the Justice and Development Party (AKP), built on the debris of several Islamist parties that had always been unhappy about hiding their movement’s religious aspirations. Obama’s stance weakened the position of moderates such as the then president, Abdullah Gul, and the finance minister, Ali Babacan, strengthening the position of then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with his more in-your-face Islamist attitude. Erdogan would make a full comeback this past October by winning a fourth term in power for the AKP, albeit without obtaining the two-thirds majority he had hoped for and needed to change the constitution.

In Egypt, Obama’s flirting with Islam and Islamism was interpreted as a sign that the United States was prepared to ditch its long-time ally President Hosni Mubarak just as the first clouds of the Arab Spring were beginning to appear above Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

Obama’s Islamist tilt was to lead to an objective, though not officially sanctioned, alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and, when Egypt was plunged into crisis, Washington sent senior diplomat Frank Wisner to “advise” the Egyptian military to force Mubarak out. However, when the Muslim Brotherhood did come to power and plunged Egypt into an even deeper crisis, Obama had become nothing but an embarrassed spectator of events he did not even understand. By the time the Egyptian military had returned to power with a coup, the US had lost credibility with both the army and the Brotherhood not to mention the pro-democracy groups of Tahrir Square and the urban middle class.
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