Obama’s Middle East Malady

PARIS – No sooner did US President Barack Obama welcome home American troops from Iraq and laud that country’s stability and democracy than an unprecedented wave of violence – across Baghdad and elsewhere – revealed the severity of Iraq’s political crisis. Is that crisis an unfortunate exception, or, rather, a symptom of the failure of Obama’s Middle East diplomacy, from Egypt to Afghanistan?

Upon taking office, Obama set four objectives in the Middle East: stabilize Iraq before leaving it; withdraw from Afghanistan from a position of strength and on the basis of minimal political convergence with Pakistan; achieve a major breakthrough in the Middle East peace process by pushing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to freeze settlements; and open a dialogue with Iran on the future of its nuclear program. On these four major issues, Obama has clearly achieved little.

With regard to Iraq, since George W. Bush’s presidency, the United States has strived to exert a moderating influence on Shia power, so that the country can create a more inclusive political system – specifically, by passing a new law on sharing oil-export revenues among the Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish communities. Unfortunately, the precise opposite happened. 

Kurdistan has embarked on a path toward increased autonomy, while the Sunnis are increasingly marginalized by a sectarian and authoritarian Shia-dominated central government. This has implications for the regional balance of power, because Iraq is growing closer to Iran in order to offset Turkey, which is seen as protecting the Sunnis.