Putting Obama's Middle East policy in perspective
The way Barack Obama has conducted his presidency has been anything but apologetic, says Michael O'Hanlon.
September 14th, 2012
04:06 PM ET

Putting Obama's Middle East policy in perspective

By Michael O’Hanlon, Special to CNN

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. The views expressed are his own.

The partisan furor over President Obama's Middle East policy strikes me as misplaced.

While there is plenty to debate in foreign policy, and even more to debate on economic matters — themselves central to America's future global role — the allegations of supposed Obama apologies do not hold water.

I say this as someone who was dubious about Obama's big promises during his 2007/2008 campaign. The talk of reconciling with dictators, stemming climate change, making a big dent against global poverty, working towards a nuclear-free world, achieving Middle East peace and healing the broader breach with the Islamic world was unrealistic and, for me at least, overdone.

In fairness, the big vision did help Obama get elected, and it did excite the world at large about his presidency. But that also set up false expectations around the world about what he could really do. And that has led to disappointment, especially in the Middle East. (In Europe, Obama is still popular. In much of Asia, President George W. Bush was never so unpopular and the U.S. stock was never so low prior to Obama's inauguration.) Throughout the Islamic world, Obama's standing as measured by public opinion polls is similar to Bush's. That is surely a disappointment.

However, even for those of us who shared in the critiques of Obama the candidate the first time around, the way he has conducted his presidency has been anything but apologetic.

He kept Bob Gates as defense secretary. He took twice as long to leave Iraq as he had promised, giving that country a greater chance at stability. He doubled and then tripled down his bets — and U.S. forces — in Afghanistan, even as some tactical mistakes complicated relations with President Hamid Karzai. He pushed for big new efforts in Pakistan — both in hard power terms, with strikes in the Pakistani tribal areas, and in softer power terms, with an enhanced aid package.

And in relation to the matter immediately at hand — the supposedly apologetic tone of Obama's presidency — I do not see the basis for a major complaint. True, he held out too much hope for improved relations with Iran (as well as North Korea). But when the hard-line regime stole the June 2009 election there, Obama pivoted and orchestrated a tightening of international sanctions that has inflicted high cost on Tehran even if it has not yet led to a resolution of the nuclear crisis. (Obama pivoted to a harder line in North Korea after that country's missile and nuclear tests in the spring of 2009.) Obama also wisely avoided overdoing his promise to pursue détente with dictators in regard to Chavez in Venezuela or Castro in Cuba or al-Assad in Syria (more on the latter in a moment).

As for the big Cairo speech in June 2009 — the cornerstone of Obama's effort as president to recast U.S. relations with the Islamic world — it is certainly fair to argue that again, the grand expectations raised by the president have not been realized. And there is real harm in raising false hopes. But in reading and re-reading that speech, I do not detect a tone of apology. It is an effort to build mutual understanding while remaining firmly committed to American ideals, interests and allies. It is fair enough to criticize how Obama has handled Israel or Middle East peace talks, where I believe there have been ample errors. But this does not reflect some un-American or repentant world view.

As for the film that contributed to the uproar this week, it was disgusting, shoddy and inconsistent with American values of tolerance and respect for religion. Has anyone who defended it actually seen it? I put this kind of garbage in the category of Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazi propaganda. More Americans should be speaking out against it, not defending it as somehow virtuous proof of our ongoing national commitment to free speech.

Finally, on Syria: Here I believe Mitt Romney is right to want to do more. Whether arming the rebels is the right next step or not, they do need more lethal support from somewhere. Obama's approach to the region has been reasonable and unapologetic, but it does not exonerate him of the need to improve this particular policy. Nor does it permit too much premature celebration of a great victory in Libya. Gadhafi is gone and that is a good thing, but our work there, as in much of the rest of the region, has just begun. So let's get on with it, in a serious way, and leave the invective and hyperbole behind.

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Joe

    When the Vietnam war was winding down President Lyndon Johnson was in negotiations with the North Vietnam to end the war. However, Dick, tricky dickie, Nixon opened up a back channel and ruined the negotiations. When President Jimmy Carter was negotiating the release of 13 hostages with Iran. Ronald, McDonald, Reagan opened a back channel with Iran and ruined the negotiations. Needless to say, they both won election as the GOP President. The Anti- Mohammad movie has surfaced 2 months before the upcoming election and being shown in the Arab nations. Wonder who's behind these "DIRTY TRICKS"? Could it Be..........................................................???

    September 14, 2012 at 4:54 pm |
    • MrEd

      Are you serious or do you realy believe what you just said?

      September 14, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Yes, we can read your message between the lines. Indeed it's not a decent thint to do by benefiting from tragic incidents to jockey for a better position.

      September 15, 2012 at 5:56 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Obama has to think about a long term strategy in the Middle East. His advisors urged him not to overreact to avoid lasting damage to U.S. relations with a newly empowered Arab world. The anti-American sentiments are a thorn in the administration's side. Yet Obama has adopted the right approach in the Middle East policy and has to carry on with it.

        September 15, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • Victoria

      The situation in the Middle East and in Africa are the direct result of Obama's policies in those regions. The 'Arab Spring' that he and Clinton supported and of which he was so proud put in power the Muslim Brotherhood in these countries. This past March, he gave $1.5 BILLION in military aid to the Muslim Brotherhood, and I doubt that this terrorist organization used that $$$ to buy camels and goats.
      The State Department forbade Marines who guard U.S. embassies from using live ammunition, leaving them unable to defend themselves, much less the Embassy or anyone in it. Do you suppose that the terrorists who assaulted the U.S. embassy chanted "We are all Osama!" because of the Youtube video the media is blaming this on, or could it have been because Obama's gloating about the killing of Osama Bin Laden?

      September 15, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
      • semere kifleyesus

        Victoria have you ever been to middle east or Africa? Before you claim President Obama gave 1.5 billion to Egypt you need to check your fact, the U.S has always given money to Egypt whether its Obama's administration or the Bush administration. the U.S give money to many countries that is considered an allay. for instance U.S gives 1 billion a year to which is the same thing. moreover just because you saw few hundred people acting like an idiot, that does not mean everyone in Egypt hates America. And for the record the president was in the white house when ambassador chris stevens was killed which is why he addressed the nation from the white house. so when you said he was in las vegas in the morning you are either miss informed or you are lying. He did go to las vegas but it was in the after noon. And as a president he suppose to have a composure during times like this and get all the facts before acting. what do you want him to do go to war like President Bush did even though President Bush knowingly miss informed the nation about Iraq having WMD. President Obama has killed more terrorist leaders in four years than Bush did in eight years. you do the math.

        September 16, 2012 at 8:34 pm |
    • semere kifleyesus

      it could be but even that would not help Romney lol

      September 16, 2012 at 8:59 pm |
    • Graber

      Joe.....I hope when there ends up not being a shred of evidence that suggests Romney had anything to do with this film or its release you'll admit that you really got it wrong this time.

      September 16, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
    • paul

      do you make this krapola up as you go along dude?

      September 22, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  2. Maria

    My question is: If Mitt is such an American, why doesn't he show any empathy to the our men that were killed and their families. In one of his speeches yesterday, he said that he "was" going to have a minute of silence but a heckler did not want to keep quiet. Today, he asked people to put their hand over their heart for the minute of silence. It just looks so phony to me. If this is the way he acts in this type of situation, I DO NOT want to see what he will do if we ever go to war again..... Shame on you for not given these men what they deserved and not leader the silence period over "1 man". How are you going to control thousands......

    September 14, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • Victoria

      How about asking Obama how he dared to give $1.5 BILLION in military aid to the Muslim Brotherhood last March? Or why his State Department ordered Marines who guard the U.S. Embassies not to carry live ammunition, leaving them unable to defend themselves, much less any one else? How about asking him why the terrorists who killed these men why they chanted "We are all Osama, Obama!" (Hint; could they be a little upset about Obama's constant gloating about the killing of Osama, not about a film hardly anyone has seen, and which was made by an Egyptian, not an Israeli?). How about asking Obama to explain why he has missed over 60% of the national security briefings that are prepared for him every morning, and which no other president ever missed? How about asking him why he did not take any action to secure the U.S. Embassy in Libya in spite of the fact that there was warning 48 hrs. in advance that there was going to be trouble? Could it be that he missed the security briefing because he was too busy campaigning in Las Vegas? Why not ask him how he felt about the fact that he was sleeping comfortably in the Presidential suite in a luxury hotel while the Ambassador was being sodomized and murdered, along with the 3 other Americans who were murdered?
      Your judgment about what is important is as good as Obama's..

      September 15, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
      • semere kifleyesus

        Victoria sounds like someone who has been watching too much of FOXNEWS. When the U.S is under attack like this past week we as a nation suppose to rally around the president and show our suppose no matter what our parties are. However people like you tend to put blame on someone before they even check the fact.

        September 16, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
      • Gene

        Surely Vicky, you can understand that everyone needs a chance to prove their worth?

        September 16, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
    • Gene

      Who cares what Mittens says or does. Go ahead, lie all you want about him.

      September 16, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  3. Puzzled

    I am puzzled that we, as a country, have to apologize for everything perceived as "insulting Islam" or "insulting their prophet"! Soon enough they will consider an insult that the west does not believe in his teachings and an insult to their religion if we do not adopt it without questions! Freedom of speech is just that, speaking freely what's on one’s mind and being free to argue with other people that have different opinions. That means exchanging words not killing each other. No country or government should get involved! Also, where is the "peace loving Islam" when all this violence is happening? I assume that killing should be a much greater offense than some misguided words, drawings, or even worse, thoughts! What am I missing?

    September 14, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • semere kifleyesus

      I completely agree with you, its stupid how some people would go crazy over a movie even though it is offensive, Islam is the biggest religion in the world and yet some people are easily offended when it comes to their religion. I wish we can all get along but as long as few bad people find a way to stir the pot for their own benefit we would never find the peace we are looking for.

      September 16, 2012 at 8:57 pm |
    • Talib

      If you believe the anger is simply a manifestation of hostility towards the denigration of religion, then you truly do not understand the dynamics at play. The historical realities has its origins from Western colonialism, mass murder, support for dictators, and Arab humiliation. The Western countries have carved up the Middle East and created artificial borders and nation-states without the consultation of the Arab population, often separating families and tribes, attacking their lands, killing millions of innocents (pre-911) and stealing valuable natural resources. The only source of strength remaining among this ethnic population is their religion and now the West does not even spare them from attacks of that sanctum, hence it's a sense of emasculation, feeling powerless, and humiliated. Interestingly, Americans speak about Freedom of Speech, yet are extremely offended at the burning the American flags, even discussing santions, embargos, bombing or "nuking" them. I've never heard an American say, "well, they're simply exercising their freedom of speech." On the contrary, it's just the opposite. Moreover, the Muslim world, as a matter of principle generally abstain from insulting or denigrating Christian and Jewish religious beliefs, unlike Christianity, nor do they burn Bibles (unlike some Jews do in Israel). So, of course it sparks outrage when the Muslim population has a hands off approach to offending something as sacred as other people's religious beliefs and texts, while the other get a proverbial "hard-on" by displaying the opposite degree of decency. Having said that, there is no justification for murder (those people are nothing less than murderers and the Qur'an's instructions in dealing with those who insult Islam contradicts their actions completely) and the majority of the Muslim world disapproves of such actions, but 80% of Muslims reside outside of the Middle East, therefore we have a different conceptual construct concerning the Qur'anic burnings due to our disparate histories. I know, I'm an American-Muslim Middle East political scientist, who has spent a considerable amount of time in the region in spurts, as well as residing in Cairo, Egypt from 2008-2011, along with countless other American Muslims striving to improve US-Arab-Muslim relations by destroying stereotypes and establishing common grounds. Religion in the Middle East is taken far more seriously among Arab Christians and Muslims. I can assure you that if Muslims were to burn the Bible, Arab Christians would commit similar acts of aggression. There's very little difference between the two demographics, many Christians in Palestine even committed terrorist actions against Israel, among the most notable was the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian, George Habash-an Arab Christian. Indeed, in the majority of instances, you cannot differentiate between an Arab Christian and Muslim unless you have an indept religious conversation, as both religious groups use the name "Allah" to reference God. Again, I am not attempting to justify such actions, nor do I expect you to agree with the assessment, rather I'm simply providing a scientific explanation to this unfortunate phenomenon. Hence, I apologize if this response appeared obtruse, as this is far from my intentions.

      March 9, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  4. deniz boro

    So called Elite are under cover all over. This includes all muslim, chrischian and jewish people of the said lands. I do think they do go underground. And Rightly so...

    September 14, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  5. JOhnmac

    After this past weeks events it is clear that Mr. Obama does not have a clue about what is happerning and what to do. They ONLY thing on that small mind is campaigning and raising money. I was quite surprised when he appeard at Andres AFB for the return of the 4 heroes

    September 15, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Victoria

      He would never miss a photo op.

      September 15, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • semere kifleyesus

      JOhnmac please explain to me how president Obama doesn't have any clue or what to do?

      September 16, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
      • semere kifleyesus

        so you thing governor Romney would be a better president for foreign policy because the last i checked, Romeny mange to offend the people of Great Britain, the Palastin people, the Russians and China. you might not like Obama for a reason i do not want to know, but when it comes to Foreign policy not only Romeny doesn't measure up to Obama is not even close because Romney not only he doesn't have any clue about the rest of the world but he doesn't even have any clue about the average people in America. So please don't make your self look bad when you say the president doesn't have a clue because you clearly don't know what your talking about.

        September 16, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  6. Victoria

    Obama gave $1.5 BILLION in military aid to the Muslim Brotherhood this past March, the State Department ordered that Marines defending U.S. Embassies cannot carry live ammunition, Obama has missed over 60% of the daily security briefings prepared for the President, and he has been busy campaigning and gloating about the killing of Osama Bin Laden as one of his greatest accomplishments. The terrorists who killed the U.S. Ambassador in Libya chanted "We are all Osama, Obama!", yet we are supposed to believe that the violence against Americans in the Middle East and in Africa are due to an obscure You Tube film. Good grief!

    September 15, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  7. Victoria

    How many of the high power weapons being used against Americans in the Middle East and Africa today were paid for with the $1.5 Billion in military aid which Obama gave to the Muslim Brotherhood?

    September 15, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • hesea

      Fast & Furious on steriods

      September 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
  8. Victoria

    Obama's greatest achievement: Restoring the good name of America in the Arab world. I can see how much more they respect Obama and the U.S. now.

    September 15, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • semere kifleyesus

      Whether Obama is the president or not there will always be some people int he middle who hate America but I certainly believe America would get a better result with Obama's approach than the way Republican party thinks which is go ahead and bomb everyone in the middle east who don't like us or don't seem to have the same interest as we do. So I got a couple of questions for you one do you believe the war in Iraq was wrong? and two you think President Obama should send troops to Iraq and Egypt?

      September 16, 2012 at 8:46 pm |
    • Gene

      Vicky, it is well known that muslims, no matter how much they dislike each other, will always stick together when faced by an Infidel enemy.
      Some, not all, muslims are richer than you can imagine and who is to say that they are not buying their fellow muslims arms?
      Who is to say that these "nice" "friendly" muslims are not stabbing America in the back?

      September 16, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  9. Tyrone


    I was disappointed with the “Democrat Convention”! I was praying they expose the Republican terrorist that plotted against the country. I wanted someone at the “Convention” to expose the Republican that plan to sabotage democracy! To vote “NO” even if it benefited the country just to win the “White House”! The Internet has pictures of the 15 Republican that plotted against the country. Just like the terrorist that on 9/11 plotted against the country and murder over 3,000. These Republican were JUST AS EVIL! The Democrats had a opportunity to name the Republican responsible for the slow recovery! Paul Ryan was part of that meeting to sabotage democracy!

    Exposing the Republican terrorist would had brought reason to the American people! Like former President Clinton stated” no President could had corrected all the mess create in 8 years by Bush/ Cheney! I would add “ON TOP” of dealing with Republican obstructionist! Mitt Romney picked one of the obstructionist as his Vice President! Exposing the Republican obstructionist would had explain to the American voters. HOW TO VOTE AND HOW TO FIX AMERICA! Re-elect President Obama and give Democrats the house majority! Republican are the problem recovery America from the mess Republican create!

    The 15 Republicans were in a sombre mood as they gathered at the Caucus Room in Washington, an upscale restaurant where a New York strip steak costs $51. Attending the dinner were House members Eric Cantor, Jeb Hensarling, Pete Hoekstra, Dan Lungren, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Ryan and Pete Sessions. From the Senate were Tom Coburn, Bob Corker, Jim DeMint, John Ensign and Jon Kyl. Others present were former House Speaker and future – and failed – presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and the Republican strategist Frank Luntz, who organized the dinner and sent out the invitations.

    These so-call American politician should be on every Sunday Morning news show explaining their treason to the American people! Newt Gingrich has been interview several time and never asked about the anti-American meeting! Paul Ryan has been interview several time and never asked about the anti-American meeting! Mitt Romney picked a Republican obstructionist to be his Vice President! Why aren’t there question to Mitt Romney about his pick for a anti-American Republican obstructionist? Where are the interviews with the organizer Frank Luntz? He put together a group of men to destroy the recovery! Not because of President Obama’s policy he had not made a policy yet. These men base their obstructionist mentality on HATRED of President Obama!

    After 9/11 it was say Americans came together! So what happen after the greatest financial downfall in the history of America! WHERE WAS THE COMING TOGETHER? Why did the Republican terrorist pick that period in time to be obstructionist? Democrat had a opportunity to expose the reason behind the slow recovery!


    September 17, 2012 at 8:32 am |
    • Some Random Guy

      Not really that hard to figure out why Democrats didn't do that... it would have ended up exposing the treason they've been engaged in for years. We know that Democrats won't do anything to benefit the American people, that's been true for quite a while now.. but recently they've moved into actively sabotaging our nation.

      By throwing around baseless accusations Democrats would only end up putting the spotlot on their own efforts to prevent job creation and economic recovery. And that wouldn't have been a very effective way to stay in power.

      September 20, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • hesea

      Even the reporters on CNN & NBC who are in the tank for Obama can't make stuff up they need facts. The Dems and Repubs meet regularily to discuss startegy where's the story? Hey I saw 10 chief Dems meeting do you know they plotting,,blah blah blah

      September 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  10. hesea

    Doesn't anybody wonder why the White hosue were the last people to amit this was a terrorist attack, even NBC couldn't hold out as long as the White House claimiung this was spontanious attack, what a joke.

    September 21, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
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  12. Talib

    Libyan Pro-American Protests following US Consulate bombing: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/pro-american-rallies-benghazi-libya-gallery-1.1158457 and http://www.businessinsider.com/libyans-hold-signs-apologizing-to-america-2012-9 Though, I've never personally met Ambassador Chris Stevens, I have the upmost respect for him. He was well respected and loved by Arabs across the Middle East. He was a "once in a lifetime" individual and I'm pleased to see that he received the proper acknowledgement throughout the Middle East that he deserved. RIP Chris Stevens, you were indeed a friend to the Arabs and you are missed dearly.

    March 9, 2013 at 8:34 am |

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