Managing the Frontiers: The Obama Doctrine and the Greater Middle East


“The world is tough, complicated, messy, mean place, and full of hardship and tragedy. And in order to advance both our security interests and those ideals and values that we care about, we’ve got to be hardheaded at the same time as we are bighearted, and pick and choose our spots, and recognise there are going to be times where the best we can do is to shine a spotlight on something that is terrible, but not believe that we can automatically solve it. There are going to be times where our security interests conflict with our concerns about human rights. There are going to be times where we can do something about innocent people being killed, but there are going to be times where we cannot.”
— Barack Obama

Photograph by Ruven Afanador

Photograph by Ruven Afanador


Barack Obama's second and final term as president of the United States of America will come to a conclusion at 11:59 am, January 20th 2017. His eight years in office has divided opinion, nonetheless his presidency, his impact upon American society, his domestic and foreign policy has been one of the most consequential in recent American history and will impact the region for decades to comes. The Obama Doctrine and its legacy in the Middle East is inevitably one which will divide historians and be remembered by many as one which was entwined with the historic changes reverberating across the region.

In the context of the Greater Middle East, the Arab Revolutions will remembered as the most significant event to occur during President Obama's time in office. The Arab Revolutions, catalysed by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010, activated contemporary and historical grievances and resentments against governments and monarchies across the region. 

The promises and political gestures of resetting relations with the the Islamic world during his speech in Cairo was put to the test by abandoning or supporting these authoritarian governments which had crushed activists, students and reformers with lethal efficiency. The contradiction of shoring up brutal regimes with lucrative arms deals and turning a blind-eye to human rights abuses under these regimes while professing to believe in spreading equality and liberalism were once again exposed.  

The revolutions against President Mubarek's crumbling government and the sagging government of Mohamed Morsi's government led by the Muslim Brotherhood sparked a military coup and insurgency in the Sinai. In Bahrain, protests calling for greater equality and reform were crushed and activists tortured and killed by Bahraini police. The Arab revolutions, while alive and well, largely deteriorated into conflict, foreign intervention, coups, bloodshed and counter-revolution as state apparatuses cracked down on dissent and protest, often with disastrous results. The West's (including Mr. Obama) calls for the old guard of the Middle East to depart in the face of pressure from protesters demanding "bread", "equality" and "justice" were met with limited enthusiasm.

Nowhere have the Arab revolutions caused more agony than than in Syria and Iraq where Bashar al-Assad’s (while seemingly victorious after the recapturing of eastern Aleppo in 2016) crackdown in 2011 escalated into a regional war. In Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, seen as a stooge of Iranian political ambitions Iraq, fanned the flames of civil war in Iraq which has been simmering in Iraq since the outbreak of violence in Baghdad in 2006. Al-Maliki’s corrupt and incompetent leadership combined with the destabilising impact of the Syrian Civil War and the 2003 Iraq War opened up regional disorder and the opportunity for ISIS to create a caliphate in north-western Iraq in 2014. 

At times, it was clear Mr. Obama was at odds with deeply entrenched institutions and pillars of US policy in the Middle East. Mr. Obama's decision to not intervene in Syria after the murder of 1400 men, women and children in the Ghouta chemical attack (21 August, 2013) invited condemnation from liberal interventionists and human rights activists while dividing public opinion. Did the last-minute change of heart make the president weak? No.

The ‘red-line’ drawn by the president which asserted that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would face severe repercussions was not followed through and this was seized upon by regional allies and domestic critics and opponents as a sign of indecisiveness. From a military perspective, air-strikes would have provided a decisive edge to anti-Assad elements. However, as with Libya, air-strikes would have given a military edge but it would not have ended the savage conflict absent a political alternative to Assad. Alongside this, the emerging evidence that neo-Wahabbi and neo-Salafi factions such as Al-Qa’ida, ISIS and Jahbaat al-Nusra had hijacked the Syrian revolution and possessed more military clout than more moderate groups and activists in Syria had unnerved international onlookers, particularly NATO’s willingness to turn a blind-eye to them and their support from the Gulf States and Turkey. An Islamic emirate on the doorstep of Israel and in the Middle Eastern heartland would not suit American interests. 

The Ghouta war crimes, while horrifying, also have to be placed in context. Air-strikes against Assad's military could have had the potential to lead to a direct conflict between NATO and Russia and China. Without a decisive outcome (and threatening regional and global order) in favour of the United States, the impact of conducting air-strikes seemed limited. The results of intervening in the Syrian War to support Assad have taken a toll on Iran, Hizbullah, Russia and backfired horrendously on major regional allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. These examples alone illustrate the folly of air-strikes and initiating a ground-war in Syria where an outcome in the West's favour is anything but certain.  

Despite this, the United States has succeeded in accomplishing its secondary objective established in 2006 (according to Wikileaks); destabilising the Syria government and what it considered to be sponsor of terrorism. According to Filiu, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) was 'one of the main partners of Assad's regime (and) was the main entry point' into Iraq for foreign jihadists from 2003 onwards to undermine the U.S occupation. However, destabilising Syria has produced dire consequences for the United States' own regional allies, Europe and the wider region while strengthening Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf. 

The United States' stuttering and contradictory Syrian policy and the attacks in Europe have convinced European leaders such as Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel to seek closer cooperation and more assertive action with the Kremlin in tackling ISIS and solving the Syrian Civil War. This closer alignment with European security interests is allowing Putin to "execute his war on revolutions both on a practical level and as a battle of ideas." The Middle East matters to European states, particularly concerns for national security and Putin has successfully exploited the fears of European citizens and politicians alike provoked by hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving on its doorstep. 

The hawks and neoconservatives in Washington who cried for regime change and taking action against Bashar al-Assad conveniently forgot their country's own record in advocating chemical warfare. Successive US administration's under Ronald Regan and George Bush Sr. alongside European allies actively armed Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons. They also did little to stop them being used against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the genocidal Al-Anfal campaign (1986-1989), the most notorious act of mass-murder being the massacre of five-thousand Kurdish men, women and children at Halabja

The Syrian War will be a stain on Mr. Obama's record. However, the staying of American airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad in Syria should not be seen as a sign of weakness. The Obama administration was ruthless in its hunt for leaders of Al-Qa'ida, the Taliban, ISIS and other affiliated extremist jihādist cells across the region. Nowhere was this ruthlessness on better display than the war in Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency campaign in the Pakistani hinterlands.

 Labelled the "Afpak" campaign, US involvement in Afghan-Pakistani theatre of war expanded during Barack Obama's tenure. The counterinsurgency surges in Afghanistan by Stanley McChrystal and his successor David Petraeus, like Iraq, saw a lull in fighting in the blighted country, only for the Taliban to return with greater force and influence and an increase in Afghan civilian casualties and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more. Mr. Obama went on TV 'to pronounce the Afghanistan surge a success, with "the light of a secure peace" now visible "in the distance" (Bacevich, 317). This narrative conflicted with reality. The raids by special operations, 'typically occuring at night - doors bashed in, inhabitants roused and searched, suspects shot or dragged off for interrogation - were deeply unpopular with Afghans.' (Bacevich, 316)

The ramping up of airstrikes and drone attacks in the Hindu Kush and the manhunts conducted were done so with relative impunity. These campaigns which included over 2000 missions and lethal operations by U.S Special Forces had, according to Intelligence Community Documents obtained by The Intercept, 'tenous strategic impacts and significant death tolls' in the provinces of Kunar and Nuristan which included an airstrike on a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) hospital which killed fourty-two civilians in October, 2015. 

Images of The Drone Papers via The Intercept

Images of The Drone Papers via The Intercept

Images of The Drone Papers via The Intercept

Images of The Drone Papers via The Intercept

'The Kunduz attack underscored an ugly reality: After nearly a decade and a half of war, more than 2,300 American lives lost, and an estimated 26,000 Afghan civilians killed, the nature of combat in Afghanistan is entering a new, potentially bloodier, phase. In August, the United Nations reported that civilian casualties in Afghanistan “are projected to equal or exceed the record high numbers documented last year.” While most civilian casualties in the first half of 2015 were attributed to “anti-government” forces, 27 deaths and 22 injuries were attributed to airstrikes “by international military forces,” a 23 percent increase over last year, most of them, unlike the air raid in Kunduz, carried out by drones.

Despite the rise in civilian casualties and the well-documented failure of drone strikes to achieve the military’s broader objectives, there is every indication that unmanned airstrikes will play an increasing role in U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, as they have in war zones across the world.' (The Intercept)

The words from an intelligence community source were chilling, yet reflected the precedence of short-term security over long-term stability: "I would like to think that what we were doing was in some way trying to help Afghans, that what we part of was actually defending the homeland or in any way to the benefit of the American public. There is no illusion of that which exists in Afghanistan, it has not existed for many years."


The support of rebels in Libya according to Obama was his “worst mistake” as president as he conceded that the intervention "didn't work". Operation Odyssey Dawn, initiated on March 19, 2011 by NATO, which provided the catalyst for the deposition of Muammar Gaddafi

According to Andrew Bacevich, 'Obama's hopes came to naught. It was Iraq all over again...An intervention justified by the imperative of protecting civilians and averting instability produced the precise opposite of the results intended (Bacevich, America's War for the Greater Middle East, 329).' Gaddafi's beating and execution by Libyan rebels did not bring peace.

Libya slid into civil war, state institutions collapsed and refugees have swiftly become abstracts and instruments of policy to be used as political and economic bargaining chips for smuggler and militia groups alike. Refugees arriving in Libya are largely unprotected by Libyan authorities from terrorist and militia groups, smugglers and criminal gangs. Terrorist and insurgent groups operating in Egypt's Sinai peninsula and bases in Libya, including the ultra-violent Islamic state group have thrived in the disorder, threatening stability in Tunisia, the one success story of the Arab Revolutions. 

Militias such as the Nawasi Brigade have exploited the refugees plight for economic and political leverage in the battle for Libya's future. This war economy, fuelled by forced labor, exploitation, trafficking and smuggling networks, has thrived in the environment produced by the civil war. An equally troubling fact is that many of the militias and smugglers perpetrating these abuses are directly funded and contracted by National Salvation Government because of the authorities' inability to provide for the refugees pouring into the country.

The exhausted refugees and asylum seekers placed within militia-run detention compounds face the threat of starvation, malnutrition, dehydration, disease, separation from family and loved ones, exposure due to inadequate provision of clothing, arrest, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, and death as accountability has significantly decreased with the disintegration of the Libyan state. 

Concurrent to this, refugees live in desperate living conditions and face mistreatment by security personnel within the detention compounds such as Tarik as-Sikka. Numerous witnesses have reported that authorities and guards have separated families, raped women, withheld food and water, chained people, and beaten men, women and children. Those who attempt escape from these various compounds and detention centres. The tens of thousands who have fled across the Mediterranean have been at the heart of scenes of chaos and tragedy as thousands have drowned in their desperation to reach European shores. 

The British and French bear equal responsibility in the Libyan tragedy. The European powers did not commit to a stable, democratic Libya in the wake of Gaddafi's fall and when the security of the rebel's capital in Benghazi was reassured. In an interview with the Atlantic, Mr. Obama said: “I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.” The failure of European and American politicians to follow up on its "responsibility to protect", the main principles upon which they intervened, from the perspective of many bear similar parallels to 'the Bush Doctrine of preventive war in humanitarian drag.' (Bacevich, 328)

The fallout of the US and United Kingdom's secret war and black operations in Yemen have not just carried ethnical, moral and philosophical implications associated with drone warfare. Despite being cheap and easy to deploy, the impact on Yemeni civilians has been profound. Anti-Western sentiment has increased and anti-US protests haven take place across several cities in Yemen for a number of years as the death toll of remote-controlled warfare has increased. These targeted killings troubled policymakers in the higher levels of Yemen's government. As Rajeh Badi, an advisor to Yemen's prime minister, told RT in August 2013: 

There is no way the targeted strikes alone could be a viable solution to the problem of terrorism. It does not simply come down to how many deaths have been caused by drones...A successful strategy cannot rely on sheer military force alone, because it is much more than a security threat...The underlying causes of terrorism are in political, social, education, and economic problems of our country...Bloodshed can only lead to more bloodshed."

The familiar story of flawed military blueprints being deployed to contain political problems has created the same outcome in Yemen; a horrible cycle of bloodshed and instability. While drone strikes have been effective in eliminating several high-profile figures of Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula, including founder Nasir al-Wuhayshi, they have allowed Al-Qa'ida's message to proliferate across Yemen and open up space for them to conduct their military campaigns against domestic Yemeni opposition groups and sell their war against Western states to local populations. This is illustrated by a Arab Barometer survey carried out in 2007 which found that 73.5 percent of Yemenis believed that U.S involvement in the region justified attacks on U.S citizens everywhere. This was before the expansion of the drone wars by the Obama administration, Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen and British military support for Saudi Arabia's military in Yemen. In Yemen, thousands are starving to death and dying under the bombardment of Saudi weapons delivered by U.S and UK companies. 

Mr. Obama recognised the limits of full-fledged military interventions yet adopted familiar patterns to the previous administrations before the radical Bush Doctrine (2000 - 2009) which envisaged sweeping democracy into the region with American military might. 

Airstrikes, counterinsurgency, assassinations and special operations were no-brainers on the frontiers of the Middle East and Central Asia after the disastrous occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. As David Patrikarakos notes: "In conflicts from the Vietnam war to those in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US always had to contend with its soldiers returning home in body bags. Dead Arabs are an acceptable consequence of war; dead Americans, not so much." Drone warfare, assassinations (extra-judicial killings), and expansion of special operations was the answer to reducing the costs of war to the American military and people and shoring up domestic support. 

According to Samer Abboud, an associate professor of international studies at Arcadia University interviewed by Al-Jazeera, while ground-warfare has been avoided these options deployed. 'Washington has engaged in sustained aerial intervention throughout the region, including in Iraq and Syria. "Because this type of warfare is not as spectacular or widespread as military interventions, we have largely ignored the normalcy that this breeds and the exceptionalism it engenders," Abboud told Al Jazeera. "The US has basically gone around the world bombing and droning at will, all in the name of combating terrorism."'

Has it worked? Have American citizens become safer? The Orlando shooting, the San Bernardino shootings, and the Boston Marathon bombings all of which culminated in the deaths of sixty-seven and wounding of three-hundred and sixteen indicate not. However, it has been easy for Republicans and right-wing critics to label Obama's policies as the key behind the surge in terrorist attacks across cities in the United States' and Europe. Yet, the explicit focus on the external threat of ISIS-led terrorist attacks have ignored wider problems within American society and often how ISIS, like most insurgent groups, entwine themselves with local challenges and issues.

 This was seen in the attacks across Paris, Brussels, and Berlin and the numerous plots which were curtailed across Europe by intelligence and security forces. The question was not why foreign jihādists are penetrating Western society, but why European and American citizens (though a small minority) are pledging themselves to radical movements such as ISIS who are the exploiting the disorder in the Middle East, the chaotic upheaval in European politics and the refugee crisis afflicting both regions. The United States' has proven itself that it is not impervious to the global crisis.

The election of Donald Trump laid bare the impact that economic dislocation has had, the rage and fury with crime, police brutality, terrorism, economic stagnation, social and demographic changes, proposed gun controls, and the cost in blood and treasure the foreign wars in the Greater Middle East has had upon American democractic traditions. 

The disappointment in Obama's Doctrine in the Middle East was that it did not fundamentally challenge the core pillars of US policy in the region. Despite the horrendous belligerence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud Party's open-embrace of apartheid,  the explicit rejection of the two-state solution, the expansion of settlements and colonising the West Bank, and the establishment of the most right-wing government in Israeli history, the Obama administration rewarded Netanyahu's government with a record $38bn arms deal. These armaments will be used to further crackdown on the Palestinian people in the West Bank and potentially bring death to Lebanon and Gaza in the years to come. 

Actions spoke louder than words, despite the bullish rhetoric of Secretary of State John Kerry in the wake of the UN resolution condemning the illegal construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands. The U.S veto, after eight years of delay, seems too little to late to prevent the death of the two state-solution and the emergence of a one-state reality. 

Despite the war crimes of the Saudi Arabia in Yemen, $1.15bn in arms sales were approved by the Senate (September, 2016), an agreement which was dwarfed by the record 60bn arms sale to Saudi Arabia in September, 2010. Human rights activists have riled against Saudi Arabia's flagrant disregard for basic human rights, its suppression of women's rights, democracy and the Shiite minorities. However these concerns, while abhorrent, are not new phenomenons and have regularly been disregarded by the considerations of Western governments single-minded focus on geo-strategic political and economic "balance" in the Middle East, much like the United States' alliance with Israel which remains largely unquestioned in the halls of power, despite the occasionally rhetorical criticism by spokespersons. 

However it is Saudi Arabia's current conduct in foreign policy and the grave instability it has helped create across important parts of the region which is making many policymakers' uncomfortable. Saudi Arabia has overplayed its hand in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and been directly linked with funding explicitly sectarian organisations including ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula. During the occupation of Iraq, the Saudi Arabian monarchy would have covertly oppose the democratic project of the Bush administration despite the removal of Saddam Hussein as a military threat. According to the Combating Terrorism Centre at Point in December 2007 analysis of 700 records of foreign fighters who entered Iraq during the Iraqi insurgency against the U.S occupation, 41% were from Saudi Arabia while another US ally Jordan was the backbone of economic power of the insurgency in the "Sunni-Triangle" where Saudi Arabia and Jordan had historical tribal and economic ties to the Al-Anbar province. 

Furthermore Hilary Clinton wrote in 2009 that private donors are a key source of funding for Al-Qa'ida and neo-Salafi/Wahabbist movements according to leaked U.S diplomatic cables: “It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority…Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”. Five years later and two months after Baghdadi's declaration of a caliphate in June 2014, Hilary Clinton wrote in an email:

"While this military/para-military operation is moving forward, we need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the government of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistical support to ISIS and other radical Sunni groups in the region."

Furthermore, Mrs. Clinton wrote in 2009 that private donors are a key source of funding for Al-Qa'ida and neo-Salafi/Wahabbist movements according to leaked U.S diplomatic cables: “It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority…Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” 

Washington is playing a distancing act while funnelling billions of dollars worth of armaments into Saudi Arabia as a counter-balance and deterrent to the expansion of Iranian military and economic power.  The Obama administration behaved in a similar manner with the Israelis on the Iranian nuclear issue. It is not a coincidence that the United States pledged to increase military support for Israel a day after the Iranian nuclear deal (14th July, 2015) and the lifting of sanctions against Iran. This deal was ratified by an unprecedented military package worth $38 billion on 13th September, 2016. 

The tilt towards the Iranian regime by the West, the opening of Iran and the transformation of the energy markets in the U.S by the fracking revolution may invite transformative change in the balance of power and regional order as the United States reduces (not withdraws) and reforms its military footprint in the Middle East. Ensuring that legacy, including the historic Iranian nuclear deal, and protecting these new developments from a bullish Trump administration will be essential to sustain the multilateral engagement by major powers across the world in curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions. 

It must also be recognised that before triumphantly entering office, Barack Obama was hostage to historical forces that ultimately no amount of American political power can control. That he respected these historical forces and the limits of unilaterally enforcing American military solutions to multilayered conflicts deserves some acknowledgement. This humility, when compared to the hubris dripping from the Reagan and Bush administrations and the plain ignorance of the inbound Trump administration, will be missed in the years to come when 'America may appreciate the lack of drama in Obama. It had an adult in the room' who was finely tuned to global political currents, highly internationalised, and consistently carried himself with respect and civility (something abundantly lacking in politics at the moment). 

Equally it must be remembered that it is not all about the Middle East. Political and military priorities are shifting to East Asia and eastern Europe where Putin and Xi Jinping's sabre-rattling have reawakened anxieties of a showdown with both powers in the South Asia Sea and Baltic States. In hindsight, his prioritisation of tackling global climate change will be he most enduring legacy. Mr.Obama responded by 'taking a series of critical steps at home - including unprecedented investments in clean energy, the largest protections of public lands and waters in history, and the first-ever national carbon pollution standards for power plants - which served as a foundation for international action such as the bilateral agreement with China and the Paris Agreement.' The Middle Eastern wars, without diminishing their importance, remain a piece of a wider global crisis and as such must be placed within this frame. 

However, Mr. Obama's unwillingness to challenge the limitations placed upon him by the deeply entrenched norms of national policy in the region, which have wrought more tragedy and death upon his own people (yet alone the thousands of men, women and children across the Middle East) than any other since the end of the Cold War, was the greatest disappointment.

Image via Christina Hägerfors

Image via Christina Hägerfors

His predecessor sought to revolutionise the Middle East and it produced catastrophic and major changes to the region. Repeating those mistakes, "walking into a trap—one laid both by allies and by adversaries" would have smeared Mr.Obama's political legacy. In response to these setbacks political pragmatism, managing established policies practically and entrenching contemporary norms in Washington became policy in the Middle East. The military framework has shifted dramatically, but the political attitudes prevail. In a region where politics changes rapidly and nation states' internal and external conflicts almost always overlap with one another, Barack Obama's continuation of yesterday's game in the Middle East and commitment to a largely outdated Washington political playbook was not enough. 

Matthew Williams