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Have President Obama's Policies in the Muslim World Failed?

Updated on September 25, 2012

It's Easy to be a Critic

The widespread protest triggered by an anti-Muslim video, along with the death of the American ambassador to Libya, are strong evidence, according to some, that President Obama’s policies in the Muslim world have failed. They may be right. But if anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world is the direct result of American policies, then we need to look far beyond the Obama administration. The United States, after all, has been heavily involved in this region for decades, and violent expressions of anger against our country have been common for almost as long. The presidential election, however, is right around the corner, so it should not be surprising that the latest chaotic incidents in the Muslim world have been politicized by opponents of President Obama. And given most Americans’ utter lack of historical perspective, many will buy into the idea that these events are unprecedented examples of presidential weakness, political chaos, and rampant anti-Americanism.

But to be fair to Obama’s critics, the last couple of years have been a bit crazier than normal. Longstanding governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have fallen, and a nasty civil war still rages in Syria. In Egypt and Libya, as recent events have demonstrated, a bit of a power vacuum has been created, giving extremist groups the opportunity to gain political power or just to create chaos. And President Obama, who as a candidate continually attacked President Bush for his policies in the Muslim world, promised that he would be different. Recent polls, however, indicate that the United States is even less popular in the Muslim world today than under Bush. That obnoxious video, therefore, may have just been the spark to ignite a long simmering fuse made even worse by President Obama’s empty promises. By claiming that he would usher in a new era of relations between the United States and the Muslim world, he helped make the region even more disillusioned than before, with each American drone strike causing his promises to seem less sincere. In an attempt to be conciliatory in some cases and aggressive in others, he has both failed to deter our enemies and to improve our standing in the Muslim world.

So outside of pointing out that our problems in the Muslim world developed from policies and circumstances that can be traced back for decades, how might the Obama people defend themselves? In my view, it comes down to a simple question: what specifically should he have done differently? It is easy to criticize, particularly when discussing a part of the world that is such a mess. It is much more difficult, however, to propose concrete, alternative policies.

For instance, many people are particularly horrified by what has happened in Egypt. For thirty years, Mubarak was a loyal ally, and he honored the terms of the historic peace agreement made with Israel by his predecessor. Now, Egyptian elections have brought a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency, and Israel, understandably, is feeling a bit nervous (putting further strain on American / Israeli relations). The situation, clearly, is less than ideal, but what other options did President Obama have? He could have thrown his support behind Mubarak, freeing the dictator up to crack down on the protestors. This would have had three possible results. Mubarak and his security forces could have successfully put down the protests by arresting, torturing, and shooting people. Then, when the crackdown was complete, he would agree to some token, meaningless reforms in an attempt to stop future unrest. Second, you might end up with a situation similar to Syria, with the United States in the unenviable position of supporting a dictator in a civil war. Or third, the Egyptian military may have decided, in spite of the American position, that Mubarak was too much of a liability, and they would then kick him out of power in order to appease the masses. They would then tolerate democratic elections while retaining most of the political power behind the scenes. In other words, you could end up with a situation similar to now, only with the United States publicly on record as a nation opposed to a democratic revolution. Needless to say, all three of these possibilities would be bad, and the United States would have reinforced its position as a nation that talks about promoting democracy but consistently supports America-friendly dictators. President Obama, like his predecessors, would be just one more hypocrite.

Obama critics, however, could still propose one other course of action. The President could have called for Mubarak to step aside and then taken a more active role in shaping the makeup of the new government. The threat of an Islamist government taking over could have been reduced, order could be restored, and Egypt would remain an American ally committed to retaining peaceful relations with Israel. This sounds nice, but I am not sure how the President could pull this off. Democratic elections, if they are legitimate, are inherently unpredictable. And given the fact that the United States supported the previous dictatorship for decades, it is not surprising that many Egyptians have anti-American feelings. So do we find another dictator to support? Do we send American troops or CIA agents to protect our interests in the country? Or do we allow elections to proceed and help the Egyptian military – as quietly as possible – to maintain control over foreign policy and national security? I suspect that the last of these three options is what is happening, although the President would be a fool to advertise this too much. And tolerating a certain amount of anti-American protests can be a good way for the new Egyptian government to create the impression that it is not merely doing the bidding of the United States.

In Libya, however, you had a different situation. In this uprising, the dictator was not an American ally. Sure, some steps were taken in recent years to normalize relations with Libya, but Gadaffi was still a tyrant with a past history of openly promoting terrorist attacks. So when he announced that his troops were going to march into Benghazi and slaughter every rebel in sight, the President could either step back and watch the slaughter, send in American troops and air power to topple Gadaffi, or select a middle ground of providing the air power for a NATO-run “no fly zone.” Obama, of course, chose the last option, and this played a significant role in the ultimate collapse of the Gadaffi regime. Many have argued that this is a good thing, but critics have pointed out that Libya, a country that essentially has no functioning political institutions, has an enormous power vacuum that might be filled by religious radicals and anti-American extremists, with the recent attack on the American embassy reinforcing this criticism. So like in Egypt, they argue that Obama should have played a more active role in both the military operations and in the shaping of a post-war government. But once again, I would respond with the questions that I rose regarding the post-war situation in Egypt. And given the fact that nation-building has not gone as well as we hoped in Iraq and Afghanistan, do Obama critics really believe that the American people have any desire to give it another try?

But if Obama intervened in Libya, then why has he kept our nation on the sidelines in Syria? This is a fair question. But it is also fair to point out the inconsistency of some of Obama’s critics. If Obama’s efforts, according to critics, to topple Gadaffi contributed to potential instability in Libya, then why would he want to make the same mistake in Syria? No one knows, after all, what a post-war situation in Syria would look like. It might even resemble the post-war situation of its neighbor Iraq. There were also some basic, practical problems at the beginning of the uprising. There was no single group of rebels to support. Unlike Libya, there was no equivalent of Benghazi where the rebellion was centered. Also, Syria has retained strong support from Russia and China, and the United States is not thrilled with the prospects of a major conflict with them. Still, as this conflict has transitioned from street protests to outright civil war, it is hard to imagine the United States sticking merely to economic sanctions forever. The upcoming election, in fact, may play a significant role in our future policy. But at the moment, the President has apparently concluded that the costs of American intervention currently outweigh the benefits. And based on past experience, he may be right. Apparently, Assad has a stronger hold on power than Gadaffi, and most Americans are unwilling to pay the costs necessary to finish him off. As with Libya and Egypt, years of wars, military occupations, and not so successful attempts at nation building have left Americans with little appetite for investing heavily into the Middle East.

This brings me to Iraq and Afghanistan, the places where I find the criticism of Obama to be particularly annoying. In Iraq, President Obama inherited both the post-war mess and the plan for withdrawal from President Bush, and short of a military occupation with no end in sight, I’m not sure what else could be done. Most Americans want out, and the President ran on the promise that he would fulfill their wishes. The best that we can hope for, in my view, is that Iraq does not degenerate into complete chaos.

In Afghanistan, however, President Obama has actually been more aggressive than Bush. He not only increased the troop presence with an Iraq-style surge. He also stepped up the program which employed drone aircraft to conduct targeted assassinations of suspected terrorists, greatly expanding the number of attacks in Pakistan and extending these operations into Yemen. But in spite of these efforts, some conservative critics have described him as soft on terrorism. If these actions are soft, then I would hate to see what they define as “tough.” If anything, Obama’s policies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen should be criticized by those on the left, not his typical critics on the right. You could make a good case, after all, that the anger resulting from “collateral damage” has created more potential terrorists than the drones have destroyed. But many people accept without question the notion that all “liberal” Democrats are soft, and when it comes to politics, people rarely allow facts to interfere with ideology.

Hopefully, there are enough rational people out there who realize that the President of the United States is not an omnipotent being. On some level, people must know that neither he nor any other political figure on earth can be held responsible for all that is going wrong in the world. Sometimes, outbursts of anger and violence are random and completely senseless, particularly in the Muslim world. But even those who recognize a President’s limitations are often guilty of a more serious fallacy: they expect him to fulfill contradictory goals. He must promote real human rights and democracy while ensuring that America-friendly politicians come to power. He must capture or kill terrorists while improving our standing in the places where these anti-terrorist operations occur. He must shape the events in foreign countries while not paying too high of a cost in terms of American money or human lives. And he must be able predict with perfect accuracy the consequences of his actions in a world where no one knows the future. It is no wonder that Obama, like his Presidential predecessors over the past several decades, seems to have no coherent strategy in the Muslim world. When trying to fulfill goals on opposite ends of a spectrum, you tend to float around somewhere in the middle.

Of course, if Romney wins in November, the Democrats and Republicans will reverse roles, with Democrats becoming the critics and Republicans the people defending decisions (and making excuses). And Romney will quickly find that it was easier to be a critic than a formulator of policy. Talking tough and describing ideal outcomes does not cut it in the real world, and since I believe that Romney still has a decent chance of winning, the sooner he realizes this, the better.

As I said at the beginning of this little essay, the Muslim world has been a mess for some time. And if real reform is to come out of the Arab Spring, it is going to be a painful process. The region is torn by ethnic, tribal, economic, sectarian, and ideological conflicts, with many traumatized by years of dictatorship, economic hardship, and war. So when in doubt, the United States should play as little a role as possible. If the goal is to defend the American people from threats, then it is in our interest to let people in the Muslim world unleash their frustrations on one another. In the end, the people of these nations need to fight their own battles and hopefully make their own compromises. Most of the groups that we label as “terrorists,” after all, care far more about the circumstances in the Muslim world than about the United States. And the real terrorists are doomed to failure because their repeated attacks on their fellow Muslims will alienate everyone who does not share their crazed ideology.


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    • ib radmasters profile image

      ib radmasters 5 years ago from Southern California

      Freeway Flyer

      Unfortunately the content of this hub doesn't define the problems in the Middle East.

      1. The basic common denominator of the cause is the two political party system. The US can't run itself much less try to run a totally different culture.

      2. The other factor involved in the Middle East problem is the CIA. The CIA has been run by its own codes through many presidents. The President and the State Department have the global visibility, but the CIA is clandestine.

      3. The Middle East is a critical part of the globe because of its Oil. Neither political party has tried to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. Even though we don't get our oil directly from the Middle East, OPEC sets the world wide prices. They are a de facto super monopoly. We knew we had a foreign oil dependency problem in the 7os when the Middle East caused artificial shortages to teach us a lesson for supporting Israel.

      4. Dictators actually kept the Muslims under control, and now that most of these dictators are gone, the Muslims are out of control. Democracy means nothing to Muslims, they have their own culture and their own laws.

      5. The problem with Libya was that Obama lied or was incompetent on the attack. First he said that the film was the cause of the attack, and no terrorists were involved in it. Then he changed it to say it was a terrorist attack, but it was not planned. Then finally he said it was a planned terrorist attack. Every one knew this from the beginning.

      His mistake was that he first had no knowledge of the cause of the attack. This means that the CIA had no intel on it, which means that we were back to 9-10-2001. Or he knew about it and he lied.

      6. He refused to meet with Nethanyahu concerning Iran. Iran is now like Cuba was in 1961, but Obama is no JFK, he is Jimmy Carter.

      7. He isn't doing any better with North Korea.

      8. He handing of Osama Bin Laden created more questions than answers. Also releasing the information about the raid while it was still going on jeopardized the team and the support group that brought the information on where Osama was to make the attack. This was an irresponsible act by Obama.

      Also the fact that the Seal Team didn't have helmet cams is an issue. Why weren't there helmet cams to see the actual mission? Why did a stealth helicopter go down, so much like the helicopters that failed Jimmy Carter's rescue of the hostages in Iran. There was no contingency for Osama to be taken alive, these decisions have to be made at the time of planning the raid.

      Osama as a live asset was worth more than a dead one. Bush took Saddam Husein alive.

      7. Neither Obama nor congress is doing anything but waiting out the election.

    • Freeway Flyer profile image

      Paul Swendson 5 years ago

      It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if the American response to 9/11 had not been framed as a "War on Terror." By thinking in terms of war, the response to potential threats tends to be military in nature. But it seems likely that invasions of countries and drone strikes create as many enemies as they might destroy, and they are also very questionable on moral grounds.

      I see no indication, however, that Mitt Romney will change our nation's course. And if nothing else, at least drone strikes are superior to invasions and occupations. But still, in typically American fashion, large numbers of people think that violence is the most effective response to violence.

    • junkseller profile image

      junkseller 5 years ago from Michigan

      When it comes to foreign policy, regarding American actions, the President almost is omnipotent, isn't he? The State Department is his mouthpiece and Congress is basically a Yes Man. I can't remember the last time Congress went against a President regarding foreign policy. They grumbled about Libya, but I think that was more about spurning Obama no matter what than it was about policy.

      Obama was supposed to be different. A man worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize different. He hasn't been, and that has probably partly led to the increased dislike in the Middle East. For example, I think many thought something meaningful would take place with the Palestine/Israel issue and it hasn't.

      Mostly, I think the increased dislike is from drone strikes. I don't think Americans have any idea how distasteful most of the world finds them. And Obama has expanded their use (both in quantity and areas used). Our relationship with Pakistan is soured partly due to drone strikes but also our unilateral assassination of Bin Laden on their soil. Obama deserves all of the blame for those actions.

      We make unilateral decisions, we make decisions based on our own interests, we don't consider the interests of others, we put military boots on foreign soil all over the world, and we drop bombs that sometimes blow up innocent people. There's no great mystery why people don't like us. Nor do I personally think there are difficult competing interests to weigh. We are either a good neighbor who respects civil rights of all humanity or we are not.

      The President has an enormous responsibility to help the American people understand our actions. Why we do them, their costs and benefits, etc. To champion the assassination of Bin Laden (and other Al-Qaeda leaders) while completely ignoring the real and significant costs of unilateral assassinations, whether by drone or SEAL teams, is a massive (and to me unforgivable) failure on his part.

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      After reading this and I did...I am not sure if it was always a catch 22 situation. It is easy to think what is best from the armchair at home. We all just want to have peace in our lives. Great and in depth hub and I vote up for all the information you have provided.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      A very good assessment thank you with some very pertinent points.

      Successive American administrations have made one major mistake in foreign policy. They are addicted to trying to foist versions of their own system on countries where it is not suited and it always ends in disaster.

      They did it in Europe in 1918 and the most recent time was in Afghanistan in 2005.

      Also, if they really want to get Muslim opinion on their side, they must cease their blind support for Israel. This country is regarded throughout the Muslim world as an oppressor and America is regarded as its chief supporter.

      That's my take on it anyway.

    • steveso profile image

      Steve 5 years ago from Brockport, NY

      The US, no matter which party was in power, has had a history of backing dictators. When their citizens rebel against them, the US is like a deer caught in the headlights, and does a 360. Look at Vietnam,Iran,Egypt and what is happening in Iraq. It is interesting to note that the only countries in the Middle East where there weren't any violent protests are those countries controlled by dictators, our allies, for the present. One wonders what would have happenedifBush left Saddam alone!

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub, Freeway Flyer. The Middle East always holds options that are bad, very bad, and terrible. He needed to get behind the democracy movements because they were the right things to do in terms of human rights. They were also ultimately inevitable. You are correct that these momentous political changes will have many fits and starts. President Obama did the best he could with a rough hand. The neo-Cons policies of running roughshod over everyone is also ultimately damaging to our foreign relations and thus our national security.

    • junko profile image

      junko 5 years ago

      The president's policies was and should have mostly been reactive and not proactive in the Middle East and North Africa. Except for Drone Attacks in Africa, Pakistan, and Afganistan against America's declared enemies he has not did nothing but react. He could have and some say should have been proactived and attacked some country and shock and awe them again at this point in his Presidency. I think not. In the Middle East Persia is no more on the map and some Muslims are still hostile about history. The history of India and Pakistan in the Far East have many of those in the "stan" lands, angry with the West. Historic policies put in to place before the President was born can be accessed on the internet today and everyday people read and weep. Don't blame Obama for not bombing Persia, I say.