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A Gulf Perspective of the “Obama Doctrine”

Published 09 Jul 2015

In his recent interview with US journalist Tom Friedman, US President Barack Obama explained what is characterized as the “Obama doctrine” that has guided recent US foreign policy moves on Iran and Cuba. He stated that: “We will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities.”

For the Arab world, such words are far from reassuring especially considering the track record of the Obama administration in the Middle East so far. Instead of the “new beginning” as outlined by the President in his much discussed Cairo speech in 2009, US policy in the region remains mired in a contradiction between principles and action on the ground.

For example, the President asserted in the interview that, “the US’s core interests in the region are not oil, are not territorial … Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace, that it is orderly, that our allies are not being attacked, that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place.”

Yet, at the very moment that the President was offering this assessment, US allies found themselves under serious threat and attack in Yemen, the Syrian regime was continuing to relentlessly bomb its own citizens, and the Middle East was faced with the biggest refugee crisis in its history. If the core US interests in the Middle East are those outlined by President Obama, the policy to implement them is clearly not working.

There exist grave doubts about whether the current US administration is indeed ready to deploy the mentioned “capabilities.” It seems that the US will only use such capabilities when its main national security interests are at stake. And those core interests are limited dealing with terrorism and nuclear proliferation only and not the broader aspects mentioned by the President. The use of drone technology, the military strikes being conducted against the Islamic State, and the framework agreement on the Iranian nuclear programs are cases in point. A region “living in peace” or as the President also stated “our interests … are really just making sure that the region is working” are clearly not instances in which those capabilities will be deployed and they are not part of the so-called Obama doctrine.

In the same vein, the Arab world looks at the recently announced framework agreement with Iran with a sense of suspicion and trepidation. Having directly experienced the problematic interventionist Iranian policies for decades, the Arab world is simply not ready to give Tehran the benefit of doubt on any regional issue. But neither is it ready to trust US assurances that outside a nuclear agreement, the US will indeed put forward a concerted strategy to contain Iranian influence throughout the region or to defend the GCC states against any Iranian threat. Instead, the fear is that as long as Iran abides by any agreement that might come into force later this year, the US will negate, downplay, or simply ignore those Iranian actions that the Arab world considers as direct threats. Here, actions speak louder than words and unfortunately one sees only the latter coming from Washington.

At a time when the region is faced with unprecedented turmoil and transition, the President even shifted the blame and directed his criticism toward the Arab world. When he referred to “our Sunni Arab allies” the President gave an exaggerated picture by saying “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.” What the US President failed to do is to highlight that this statement is in fact also applicable to Iran. In his interview, he never questioned Iran’s appalling record on human rights, treatment of the political opposition, and minorities’ rights, among other disturbing issues. Moreover the reference to Saudi Arabia being one of the “Sunni Arab allies” ignores the fact that there are non-Sunnis living in the Arab Gulf and adds to the existing destructive sectarian tensions as well as the sensitivity of the non-Sunni Arabs.

Equally, the assertion that “the biggest threats that they [the Arab states] face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries …” is another example of the detachment from reality. When there are 48 militia groups supported by Iran operating in Iraq and tearing apart the very social fabric of that country, it is simply naïve to suggest there is no Iranian threat.

The bottom line here is that US and Arab national security interests are no longer on the same page. Ever since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, those interests have increasingly diverged to the point that the Arab world is tired of false promises. The ongoing operation of ten coalition countries to protect the legitimate government of Yemen is simply the latest move that underlines the determination of Arab countries to take matters in their own hands.

The GCC states may accept the invitation by the US President to come to Camp David and have an honest discussion with him about the situation in the region. But they question the value of being invited for purposes of being reassured when they are already being informed beforehand what is wrong with them. The truth of the matter is that “the region is not working” and that misguided US leadership and policies are among the reasons for the enduring tragedy in this region. Unfortunately, the so-called Obama doctrine does little to change this and may in fact make matters worse.

Dr. Abdulaziz Sager is Chairman of the Gulf Research Centre. This article was originally published on by the Gulf Research Centre on April 19, 2015. It is republished with permission.