Fawaz Gerges's verdict on the Obama administration's work in the Middle East is harsh: soaring rhetoric and failed delivery. In this critical study, Gerges points out the potential that existed for America to reset relations with the Muslim world after the 2008 elections. He argues it has since been squandered by the president for many reasons, not least of which is the Obama pivot towards Asia and the failure to produce forward momentum in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In a thorough and clear manner, Gerges takes the reader through each of the major challenges the Obama administration has had to face in the Middle East, highlighting where the man of "hope" and "change" failed, and where the president has simply been a prisoner of history.
Gerges reminds his audience that the Middle East is undergoing a seismic shift, driven by a desire for freedom and dignity. As a result, he argues, the stable protectors of American interests no longer exist and the American sphere of influence is waning. To further his point, the author highlights the troubles Mr. Obama inherited domestically while pointing out the prospects of the imminent rise of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China). For Gerges, these factors have weighed heavily in the decline of American influence in the Middle East and, more specifically, in the failures of the Obama administration in the region.
The author succinctly details the history of American involvement (or lack thereof) in the Middle East since the end of World War I, beginning with President Wilson's push for Arab sovereignty. Gerges points out that during the time of Wilson, American influence was more cultural than political, creating in the region a romantic view of the United States. The honeymoon ended, however, during the "Palestine Tragedy" as the author terms it. Gerges reminds his readers that the beginning of the end of the idealistic relationship between the United States and the Arab world was the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, with the issue haunting every president since then. After explaining how the issue of Palestine has affected the relationship between the United States and the Arab world, Gerges performs a brief overview of U.S. Cold War geopolitics in the Middle East, underscoring the fact that every president — with the exception of JFK and Jimmy Carter — viewed the Middle East as a key battleground against the Soviet Union, shaping how American might and influence were projected and utilized in the region. Using the Eisenhower Doctrine as an example, Gerges explains that the United States looked to fill the void left by the retreating European powers in order to prevent Soviet encroachment.
After his brief, yet substantive, summary of the Cold War era, the author turns to the unipolar system that followed the fall of the USSR: "America's moment." For the author, the verdict on U.S. policy in this period is not positive. He points out that the policy dominating the American mindset during the Cold War has persisted. Gerges explains that the United States was no longer constrained by an opposing superpower and, as a result, America acted aggressively to preserve this new system. For the United States, Gerges argues, the Middle East remained a battleground. This time, though, the enemy was not another superpower, but rather, challenges to the status quo and American hegemony. To close out his introductory chapters, Gerges describes the river of "blood and tears" left by President George W. Bush, contrasting it with President Obama's arrival on the scene. He cites Mr. Obama's promises to distance the United States from neoconservative foreign policy and pledges to usher in a new era of engagement and cooperation. But Gerges's hope in this president was dashed: "Through 2012 in the Obama administration, the pragmatist trumps the idealist, the record shows. Institutional continuity is the hallmark of the first Obama administration, even though the rhetoric gives the impression of a rupture in the dominant narrative" (p. 67).
Gerges dedicates the next chapter to the Bush Doctrine, criticizing the Texan for every action taken in the Middle East, from his "social engineering" to his blundering response to 9/11. In Gerges's mind, America lost its moral imperative during this time and will continue to suffer for it. In addition, the highly ideological doctrine of the Bush years has proven to be a detriment to American interests in the region.
In contrast, Gerges defines Obama's "doctrine" as "antidoctrinal," pointing to the hopes of President Obama to model his foreign policy on the greats of American history, including JFK. Gerges highlights the fact that the president has been criticized by both the right and the left, satisfying neither. He describes Obama as looking for results and what best serves American interests in the region, namely cooperation, partnership and the creation of a Palestinian state. Describing Obama's foreign policy is not that simple, Gerges asserts:
As previous analysis has shown, Obama's foreign policy defies simplistic ideological and conceptual labeling and characterization. To understand the full story of Obama's Mideast policies and its complexity, we need to examine his position in various case studies, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, the war on terror and pivotal regional states — Turkey, Iran and Egypt (p. 114).
Mr. Gerges dedicates the rest of the book to these three case studies, portraying a man in office who has produced a wide gap between word and deed, both as a result of outside forces and calculations of political risk at home.
Looking at Israeli-Palestinian peace first, Gerges describes Obama as a pragmatist working within a dysfunctional American political system. The author asserts that President Obama dared to take on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and has failed to create an atmosphere that would facilitate the birth of a Palestinian state. In chronicling the Obama administration's handling of the Palestine issue, Gerges makes it clear that he believes the president has no stomach for the issue and has pushed a peace plan to the back burner because of political survival instincts — fear of the Israeli lobby in Washington. For the author, the promises of breaks with the old way of doing things have not come to fruition.
Gerges continues to criticize the lofty rhetoric and failed response in the second case study, the Pivotal States, arguing Obama's claims of transcending the Bush years have been backed up by "more consistency than difference with traditional U.S. strategy" (p.161).
Despite belated efforts by President Obama to ride the Arab democratic wave, his inspirational calls have fallen largely on deaf ears. As noted earlier, in his Ankara and Cairo addresses, Obama raised Arab and Muslim expectations to a fever pitch only to disappoint by failing to bring an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, the war on terror, and U.S. support for local autocrats (p. 152).
The author supports his argument by presenting the failures of the Obama administration to back the Green movement in Iran in 2009 while pursuing a sanctions-centric approach to the regime.
The author saves the most dramatic case study for last: the war on terror. Gerges here provides the strongest argument for his thesis. Lambasting the Bush policy, the author immediately notes that the Obama administration has done very little to change the counterterrorism strategy he inherited. In fact, Gerges asserts, the president has done more to further Bush-era strategy than to move away from it. To support this, Gerges cites the drone program and the case of Guantanamo Bay. There has been a fourfold increase in drone strikes since the beginning of the Obama administration, according to Gerges. The use of drones was not initiated by President Obama, Gerges argues, but he ramped up the program to strike out at al-Qaeda, an enemy the author makes clear he believes is getting more attention and credibility than it deserves.
For Fawaz Gerges, Obama has been handcuffed by personal timidity and political survival instincts, maintaining the status quo rather than becoming a transformational figure in American history:
Since Obama's presidency began, he has had to do damage control on the Bush administration's failed policies; because of this, his successes have been less apparent, and his failures clearly evident…but the test of this president will be whether or not he can realign U.S. foreign policy with progressive and democratic voices in the region and translate his words into concrete policies (p. 247).