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Studies 21 April, 2013

US Goals and Strategies toward the Arab World

Marwan Bechara

He is an Editor and Presenter of Empire, a current affairs program focusing on the agendas of global powers broadcast on Al Jazeera International. Previously a lecturer at the American University in Paris, Dr. Bishara’s works are available in both Arabic and English.

This essay tries to delineate US interests and goals in the Arab region by trying to answer two fundamental questions: First, in light of its promise for change and following the dramatic transformation taking hold of the Arab region, how is the Obama administration different from its predecessors?  Second, how far does the administration's strategy mirror its public diplomacy regarding democracy, freedom, and justice in the region?[1]

Obama has set the bar high when he promised to change US foreign policy and "end the mind-set" that gets Washington to war; however, this promise has remained largely just that: a promise.  In spite of vowing to steer the US away from the reckless policy of the Bush administration that led, among others, to the "stupid war" in Iraq and the "under-equipped war" in Afghanistan, and despite its different style and methods, the new administration's macro goals and regional strategies remained in line with traditional US doctrines toward the region. Like its predecessors, the foreign policy of the Obama administration suffered from the same discrepancies between its public diplomacy versus the actual strategy toward the region and the Arab revolutions. While it is true Washington's methods changed under Obama, its strategy and core interests remained largely unchanged. The latter can be summarized in three core interests: securing free and privileged access to the region's energy supplies; maintaining a "number one" status for the United States over all other international and global powers, and containing all non-compliant Arab powers to ensure domination of the Arab region's strategic agenda. Added to these core interests is Israel's security.

Introduction

 At the outset of his first term, Obama's policy sharply contrasted with his predecessor's geostrategic orientations, particularly on the question of deploying ground troops and using firepower in the Greater Middle East to affect change through coercion and occupation in the Arab world.

Except for Israel, people and governments throughout the region, and the world, welcomed the promise of change in the foreign policy arena and the end to the Bush Doctrine, which stipulated that the US acts unilaterally when it can, multilaterally if it must. The Arabs were no exception. Many were eager to see the end of the Bush era and were impressed by Barack Obama's journey as a black man who rose from working as a community organizer in poor communities to becoming president of the world's only superpower.

President Obama's three major speeches directed at the Arab and Muslim world during his first year in office were viewed in Washington and elsewhere as a departure from the Bush era, as well as an affirmation of a new administration's readiness to open a new chapter with the Arab and Muslim world based on respect and mutual interests. These lofty words, however, didn't add up to anything specific or tangible. While Bush was known for his major policy blunders, President Obama came into office lacking any discernible policy and the needed clarity to articulate it.

By the end of 2010, the Arab world looked evermore stagnant, leaderless, polarized, and downtrodden, and Arab dictators continued to outdo one another in appeasing the United States, as the latter folded them into its chaotic regional order. Having long looked at the region through the prisms of oil, Israel, and the "war on terror," Washington was completely oblivious to changes on the ground. However, that did not prevent the Obama administration from audaciously claiming credit, in the beginning, for the peaceful Arab revolutions. When uprisings began to sweep through the Arab world, the Obama Administration even leaked to the Washington press corps that they were in the midst of putting the final touches on an official democracy agenda for the Arab world. Many influential pundits credited Obama's "non-interference strategy" and his "inspiring oratory skills" with the rise of youthful democratic movements.


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*This study was originally published in the first Edition of Siyasat Arabia (March, 2013, pp. 45-57). Siyasat Arabia, published by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, is a refereed bi-monthly journal focusing on public policy, international relations and the political sciences. The original Arabic version can be found here.



[1] The politics behind the policies, including the role of the lobbies, is not within the domain of this essay.