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The Powerlessness Excuse: Debunking the Claim that Obama Could Not Influence the ‘Arab Spring’

While the U.S. had only so much influence over the Middle East during Obama’s term, that does not change the fact that it did have considerable influence.
Barack Obama at Cairo University

Barack Obama at Cairo University

The reason for this was the view held by the White House, National Security Council, CIA, and to a limited extent in the State Department that al-Qaida was the enemy but that other Islamist groups did not pose a threat because they did not seek to attack the United States directly. Out of ignorance in some cases and their own radicalism in others, Obama appointees claimed they could moderate hardline anti-American Islamists or at least the prospect of being in power would mellow them.

The second thing Obama did was his romance with the Islamist regime in Turkey. He constantly portrayed that government as his best friend in the region, despite its anti-American, anti-Israel actions. This conveyed the message that the United States could be easily suckered. Looking at Turkey, Arab Islamists concluded that the “Turkish model”—pretended moderation combined with continued but patient radicalism—could bring them to power. And that’s what happened in Egypt and elsewhere.

The way the Turkish regime broke that country’s army which, despite its long friendship with the United States, received no help from Obama was also a model for radicals in the Arabic-speaking world. I have it on good authority that when the Turkish generals explored the idea of bringing down a government they saw as destroying the republic, they got no sympathy in Washington. Hence, they gave up and patiently awaited their decapitation.

The third way Obama affected the regional situation and “Arab Spring” was by his clear expressions of weakness, his proud outspokenness about surrendering leadership, his apologies and criticisms of America. This translated into a belief by the radicals that the United States was collapsing and that it would no longer support the existing regimes. Thus, the moment for revolution had come and the radicals need not fear being put down by local governments deprived of U.S. backing.

Finally, there is the shocking strategy by which Obama turned over management of the Syrian civil war to the aforementioned Turkish Islamist regime, which wanted a Muslim Brotherhood government in that neighboring country. The United States thus threw its prestige behind an exile leadership dominated by the Syrian Brotherhood. If the group had not stumbled and been rejected by the internal revolutionary forces, Obama would have been parent to a Muslim Brotherhood government in Syria.

And afterward, Obama and his government made no effort to channel weapons to the anti-Islamist forces in Syria—defected officers, Kurdish nationalists, liberals, and apolitical instant warlords. Qatar and Turkey were allowed, under U.S. supervision, to arm the Brotherhood; Saudi Arabia gave weapons to the Salafists. No doubt if and when a Muslim Brotherhood regime takes over in Syria we will be told that this was beyond Obama’s control.

There are many other examples. Obama stood silent as an Iranian opposition arose, took to the streets, and was crushed by the Islamist regime there. He did not lift a finger to help the moderate opposition in Lebanon. And when pro-Hamas activists launched a flotilla he pressured Israel to reduce sanctions on the radical Brotherhood regime in the Gaza Strip, thus ensuring it would stay in power.

In Libya, Obama basically determined the overthrow of the Muammar Qadhafi regime and the rebel victory in the civil war. He was father of a regime which is certainly not Islamist or anti-American but may either significantly appease or be overthrown by such forces. As the Libyan government’s patron, Americans will become the target of revolutionary Islamists who blame the United States for their rulers and understandably believe that attacking America is a necessary part of overthrowing them. That, of course, is why the U.S. ambassador was murdered.

While, of course, we should acknowledge that the United States had only so much influence over the Middle East during Obama’s term, that does not change the fact that it did have considerable influence. And it was largely used in the service of extremists, not moderates, of America’s enemies and not America’s friends.

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About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.


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