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Fawaz Gerges discussed his recently published book, Obama and the Middle East, as well as the context of Obama’s foreign policy towards the region, his administration’s achievements and failures, and policies towards Iran and the war on terror.

On May 21, the Middle East Program hosted a book discussion of Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment with Gerges, Professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations, and Chair of the Middle Eastern Centre at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Gerges explained that President Barack Obama inherited a bitter legacy in the Middle East, the roots of which go back to the Cold War. By the time former President George W. Bush left office, the U.S. had reached its lowest point in its relations with the Middle East. American standing experienced a major setback due to allegations of torture and questions from allies and foes alike as to whether the U.S. could act as a rational player to maintain the fragile balance of power in the region. In the war on terror, America’s inability to eradicate the terrorists and its unilateral use of force led to increased animosity towards the U.S. and illustrated its relative decline.

Gerges emphasized that Obama’s approach to the region is deeply entrenched in a bureaucratic consensus on foreign policy. However, he takes a realist approach, concerned with collective security and mutual interests over solely promoting democracy, which he finds not only misguided but counterproductive. He noted that the Middle East has never been a top priority for the Obama administration which recognized that the U.S. had overextended itself beyond its vital interests in the region. According to Gerges, Obama aims to mend rifts by beginning a process of outreach towards the goal of disengagement from the region, reducing its military presence, promoting peace among Palestinians and Israelis, appealing to the Iranian leadership, and adopting an iron fist approach in dismantling Al Qaeda.

Obama’s record is mixed, and Gerges analyzed Obama’s actions given the constraints of the situation he inherited from his predecessors. Gerges claimed Obama’s greatest political achievement is the reduction of troops in the Middle East, which had greatly diminished the U.S. image by undermining its credibility and deterrence power and provided ideological ammunition for militants and radicals. The end of America’s moment in the Middle East is not necessarily negative, as Gerges sees it, since the debate in the Middle East has shifted from issues of foreign policy to domestic policy. The Obama administration has kept its distance, insisting people in the Middle East take ownership of their revolts. Gerges noted that Obama’s greatest political failure revolves around the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which he stated is vital to U.S. interests. On this issue, Gerges argued that Obama is timid, governs by consensus, and retreats when faced with major opposition on the issue.

Gerges concluded by looking at Obama’s actions toward Iran and the war on terror. The odds were against Obama when he tried to engage Iranian leaders, since he did not waver on the issue of sanctions, faced stiff bureaucratic and institutional resistance, and was pressed by the American public as well as Israel and the Gulf States to increase pressure on Iran. In the war on terror, Obama adopted a tough approach, being more effective than his predecessor, according to Gerges. Al Qaeda no longer exists as a centralized network, but worries about blowback effects remain. It is crucial for the Obama administration not to invest terrorism with civilizational and cultural meaning, especially as the Arab uprisings dealt a fatal blow to Al Qaeda’s ideology and tactics. With a second presidency, Gerges remarked that a timid Obama could rise up to meet the challenges of the U.S. political system and the crises in the Middle East.

By Joanna Abdallah, Middle East Program