From Obama to Trump: The lessons, the challenges

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Saturday 4 February 2017 12:22 UTC
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In an exclusive analysis, his first since leaving office, former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu pinpoints where Barack Obama failed on the world stage – and the dangers for his successor

There are few western politicians whose election aroused as much excitement and hope, in the west and east, in the north and south, as Barack Obama.

But there are also few politicians who have caused as much dismay and disappointment worldwide as Obama. His legacy will be controversial.

After the United States’ two catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ill-conceived strategy of the "war on terror", Obama's election represented hope and a new beginning towards recalibrating US foreign policy and rethinking its position in the world. This was particularly important in rehabilitating US relations with the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

In this vein, Obama’s impassioned and eloquent speeches in Turkey and Egypt were seen as the advent of a new era between the two sides.

His emphasis on democracy, human rights, pluralism, good governance and economic development were particularly noteworthy and inspiring, given the US’s previous tendency to sponsor authoritarian regimes in the region with almost no regard for any of these values.

By any account, the stage was well set for a new beginning in regional relations, which were to be underpinned by the shared values of democracy, human rights and economic progress, as well as the long-awaited rejection of the authoritarian-stability thesis.

Observations on, or analysis of, Obama’s foreign, and in particular regional policies, is more than a matter of political curiosity for me. It is also very personal. I became foreign minister of Turkey very soon after Obama took office: on 1 May 2009, to be precise.

The audacity of hope

Three factors in particular led me to have high hopes for his presidency and feel optimistic about the future prospects of his foreign policy.

First, the election of a black president was in, and of itself, good news for the United States and for the world at large.

I first expressed this thought back in April 2002, during a conference at Princeton University, long before the prospect of Obama’s presidency came to light. Such a choice, I believed, would reflect the inclusive nature of US politics and American identity.

The rise and embracement of these values in US politics, and their promotion through American foreign policy, would have been one of the strongest sources of support for inclusivity and diversity worldwide.



The inauguration of Barack Obama as US president in Washington in January 2009( AFP)

As the boundaries between domestic and foreign policies have become ever more insignificant, so the political spillover from such a quintessentially American domestic policy development would encourage positive change around the globe.

Second, we expected that the militant unilateralism and interventionism practiced by the administration of president George W Bush would be followed by a new multilateralism.

With the benefit of hindsight, we anticipated a responsible and consequential multilateralism, which would not have slipped into passive diplomacy and inconsequential policies of engagement as easily as it did.

Though it may be a commendable personal feature, eloquence is no substitute for political vision, courage and responsible policies

Third, as I stated above, we expected that Obama’s stress on human rights and democracy would go beyond rhetoric and form part and parcel of US foreign policy, particularly towards the Middle East and North Africa.

This was not, and is not, purely a normative or idealistic expectation: I believe that such a regional policy would also have borne more positive results for US interests in the region.

Such a policy would have enlarged the social and political constituency for American foreign policy in the region, which is, in its current form, confined to the triangle of security, foreign policy and economic elites whose legitimacy, and hence their very survival, is now at stake.

Obama fails to meet expectations

In my view, the election of Obama by the American people in 2008 was in line with the zeitgeist. I believed that his foreign policy would also reflect the values and aspirations associated with it.

These expectations have remained unfulfilled.

Failure, disappointment and dismay have characterised his foreign policy more than success or “audacious” hope. The US has alienated its traditional allies and emboldened its adversaries. The defence of democracies and promotion of pluralism, human dignity and decency have remained half-hearted at best.

To be fair, Obama began in the right way, but he never followed through throughout his term. He articulated the right statements profusely, but never matched them with the right actions.

He projected a benign vision but did not support this with deeds that have had consequences. In short, there has been a glaring gap between the rhetoric and implementation.



Israeli tanks on the northern border with the Gaza Strip in December 2008 (AFP)

Though it may be a commendable personal feature, eloquence is no substitute for political vision, courage and responsible policies. Plus, we were unfortunately never able to convert our well-functioning personal dialogue with the Obama administration into political progress on the issues and themes of common interest and concern.

To put it more precisely, Turkey mediated four indirect rounds of peace talks between Israel and Syria to settle their dispute between 2007 and the end of 2008.

The talks, mediated by a team led by myself, advanced smoothly to the point that, by the end of 2008, many expected the two countries to sign a framework agreement for a peace settlement.

To our dismay, the Obama administration chose not to invest any energy nor effort in reviving this initiative

Yet, the Israeli invasion of Gaza at the end of 2008 derailed the process. We naturally felt betrayed by the fact that Israel had once again chosen war at the very moment that the prospect of a peace deal with Syria was becoming attainable; also that they failed to inform us about their intention to go to war despite the fact that Israel’s then-prime minister, Ehud Olmert, had a long talk over dinner with our then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey only days before the invasion.

The timing of this derailment coincided with the commencement of the Obama presidency. A peace treaty between Israel and Syria would have had a dramatic transformative impact on the regional political scene. It would probably have set the stage for a new beginning in relations between the countries of the Levant and, later, the broader region.

Yet, to our dismay, the Obama administration chose not to invest any energy nor effort in reviving this initiative.

Washington scuppers deal

Fast forward to 2011: the Obama administration has adopted the right discursive position on Syria. It declared the Assad regime to be illegitimate in August 2011, well in advance of Turkey doing the same.

In fact, on 9 August 2011, I held six hours of long talks with President Bashar al-Assad himself. We agreed on a 14-point framework for a peaceful transition and a two-week period for him to declare this framework after necessary preparations.

We informed our American counterpart about the deal. Yet the US administration was rushing to declare the Assad regime illegitimate, which it did only a week after we agreed upon the framework deal. Needless to say, during the same time period, the Assad regime also violated the terms of this framework deal several times. Thereafter, we also cut all contacts with the regime.

Along the same lines, the Obama administration rightly condemned the brutality of the Assad regime, called for regime change and denoted the use of chemical weapons as red lines that would trigger a military response and lead to severe repercussions for the Assad regime.



Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (R) meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2011 (AFPTurkey foreign ministry)

All these publicly declared positions and red lines have since been violated by the Assad regime with more or less impunity, not least by the use of chemical weapons in August 2013.

On a more bilateral note, even though the Obama administration denoted the Assad regime early on as illegitimate and rightly accused him of committing grave crimes, including crimes against humanity, the same administration has also proven to be unsympathetic towards the difficulties, challenges and threats that Turkey has faced as a neighbour to a war-torn country nominally ruled by an illegitimate regime.

From the flow of millions of refugees into the country to Syria-induced Islamic State (IS) and PKK terrorism, Turkey has faced a myriad of hardships and threats.

In other words, this illegitimate regime was the source of these challenges and threats for Turkey, yet the Obama administration was unwilling to recognise it as such and act upon it accordingly.

On the contrary, at the end of the day, the Obama administration allowed Assad’s brutality to continue while supporting "his ally" Turkey’s foes, on the ground.

2013: When everything changed

Furthermore, just as Obama’s Cairo statements were commendable, forward-looking and encouraging, so his stance on the military coup against the first elected president in the most populous country in the Arab world was disheartening and discouraging.

The militarisation of the Syrian uprising, the coup in Egypt and the rise of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) have been three factors that have turned the tide of the movements of democracy and human dignity in the Arab world.

In this respect, 2013 was a crucial year. Obama’s equivocal responses to the breach of his red lines in Syria and the coup in Egypt encouraged dictators to commit further atrocities to retain power, fed into the narratives of extremists, and undermined the cause of democracy and human dignity.

To understand IS’s exponential expansion from 2014 onwards requires a better comprehension of what happened in 2013.



A Russian soldier stands besides an evacuation bus in Aleppo in December 2016 (Reuters)

But the story doesn’t end there: US failure in 2013 also sent signals to the adversaries and rivals of the United States that they could count on the US’s inaction. It seems that Russia has taken this message deeply to heart.

Arguably, Russia would not have been so defiant and groundbreaking in Crimea and the Ukraine in 2014, and later in Syria from 2015 onwards, if the Obama administration had been able to match its discourse with deeds.

In other words, Russian activism from Ukraine to Syria, from Crimea to Libya, is all the direct result of the fading away of the deterrence that has been built on the US commitment to upholding the rules and principles of international law and its declared goals, be it by default or by design.

Perhaps future historians will treat 2013 as the year that shaped the course of ensuing decades, reversed the tide of region-wide change and redefined the dynamics of global power relations.

A failure to read events correctly

Even more tragically, Obama’s ineffective strategies seem, after a while, to have culminated in his reconceptualisation of issues and rereading of events.

Obama easily fell into the trap of trading symptoms for causes. The Syrian crisis has been progressively reduced to yet another war on terror - this time in the form of IS - plus the need for humanitarian assistance. Iran has been reduced to the nuclear file.

Russian activism from Ukraine to Syria, from Crimea to Libya, is all the direct result of the fading away of the US commitment to upholding the rules and principles of international law

Such a reading misses the true source of tension between Iran and its neighbours: its regional policy. Even on the nuclear file, the US had to settle for a less favourable deal than the one we, in partnership with Brazil, negotiated with Iran in May 2010.

I still remember the last day. Our tough negotiations with the Iranian team, together with my colleague Celso Amorim, foreign minister of Brazil, lasted 17 hours without break. We had informed the US about our efforts and intention to settle the dispute.

After long and cumbersome negotiations, we reached a deal on 16 May 2010. We expected a positive response from Washington, but the Obama administration rebuffed the deal, only because it wasn’t achieved by the P5+1.

At that time, Iran’s level of enrichment capacity was relatively low. Five years later, the P5+1 had to settle on a deal at a time when Iran had achieved a much higher level of enrichment.



Iranians celebrate the nuclear deal in northern Tehran on July 14, 2015 (AFP)

On Iraq, the policy of “getting out of Iraq” took precedence and priority for the Obama administration over “getting Iraq right”.

Most of the malaises associated with George W Bush’s half-baked and short-sighted policy of interventionism, particularly but not exclusively in the Middle East, were mirrored in Obama’s misplaced policy of withdrawal from the Middle East.

The idea and mindset of “withdrawal” from the Middle East seems to have afforded the Obama administration the space to pursue inconsequential, ineffective and irresponsible policies towards the region.

This mentality of withdrawal was not solely confined to the Middle East: instead it seemed that the US was withdrawing from its responsibilities worldwide.

For instance, one reflection of this “withdrawal” was that the Obama administration preferred to invest its time and energy into relatively comfortable issues rather than dealing with the root causes of the real troubles.

Rather than becoming a transformative global foreign policy figure, and in spite of his rhetoric, Obama chose to be a prisoner of the status quo.

To put it more concretely, the Obama administration largely reduced the nature of its relationship with Europe to that of negotiating over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, at a time when the European integration project was facing its severest crisis since its launch in the aftermath of World War II.

This, in return, has left America’s allies between a rock and a hard place.

Arguably, Obama winning a Nobel Prize early on in his presidency did damage his future foreign policy. It encouraged him to stick to diplomatic passivity and to not undertake foreign policy decisions that would have required tough choices and using hard power.

This crippled his foreign policy. With the benefit of hindsight, he should have won a Nobel Prize based on a real achievement, instead of being given one in advance. This Nobel Prize came too early and too easily for Obama.

History will pass its own verdict on Obama’s foreign policy. In all likelihood, it will be a damning one. Rather than becoming a transformative global foreign policy figure, and in spite of his rhetoric, Obama chose to be a prisoner of the status quo.

Lessons for President Trump?

Though the early signs aren’t encouraging, President Donald Trump has four years ahead of him, which represent a new opportunity to get US foreign policy towards the region, and the world at large, right.

Good policies require a sophisticated analysis of what is happening in the world, particularly in the MENA region. Since the region is passing through one of its most transformative periods, it is important that the Trump administration begins to work on a more sophisticated regional policy, starting from the first day in office.



Donald Trump is sworn in as US president in January 2017 (AFP)

In this respect, three factors are particularly important for the new administration to take into account while formulating a new foreign and regional policy.

First, the underlying causes that led to uprisings across the Arab world are still there. If anything, these causes have deepened and gained further salience. Two weeks ago, there was a peaceful transition of power in Washington. No tanks were on the streets. The military personnel that were visible were only there for ceremonial purposes.

The people of the MENA region deserve the same as well. And until and unless they acquire this opportunity, then the dust of the region is unlikely to settle.

This picture stands in stark contrast to what was attempted in Turkey on 15 July 2016. The failed coup attempt perpetrated by the Gulenist terror cult (FETO) aimed at the bloody transfer of power from a democratically elected civilian government to a secretive cultish terrorist organisation.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration did not show sufficient level of solidarity with Turkey in the face of the coup

Unfortunately, the Obama administration did not show a sufficient level of solidarity with Turkey in the face of this. What we expect from the new US administration is to show solidarity with its ally, Turkey, by handing over the coup leader Fethullah Gulen, who is residing in Pennsylvania, to Turkey to be held accountable for his deeds.

Second, there is a new and consequential political psychology prevailing among people, and particularly young people, across the region which will shape future political trajectories. Despite all the trauma that they have been through, this new political psychology refuses to condone their being ruled by this “new” and more brutal form of authoritarianism or treat it as their fate.

Third, the interconnected nature of today’s world means that the crisis in the Middle East is no longer a regional but a global one, with far-reaching consequences.

The more the West consents to the authoritarian comeback in the region, the more it risks the erosion of democracy in their own national contexts. Europe doesn't appear to realise that it has only a fluid border, in the shape of the Mediterranean Sea, between itself and the MENA.



Civilians clamber onto army vehicles during the 15 July coup attempt in Turkey (AFP)

As the great but tragic human migrations of recent years have shown, this fluid border is passable, no matter how much investment Europe makes in border security and fences. The human tragedy on this side of the Mediterranean engenders political calamity in the form of the rise of political populism and the decline of democratic standards in Europe.

Putting aside the effort of political leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President of the European Council Donald Tusk and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker - with whom we spearheaded a process in 2015-16 that culminated in the signing of the EU-Turkey Refugee Deal on 18 March 2016 at the EU-Turkey summit and which in return has prevented the death of the refugees in the Aegean Sea - Europe's political leadership underestimates and underappreciates the inter-connected nature of the political destiny of the people of the Mediterranean basin.

Europe's political leadership tend to forget that Europe is a peninsula between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic

They tend to forget that Europe is a peninsula between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.

Along the same lines, the destiny of Europe, one component of the Atlantic community, will inevitably shape the destiny of the other, North America (and particularly that of the United States). Therefore, it is in the immediate interests of US and European political elites, or the community of democracies, to search for real and sustainable solutions for these Middle Eastern crises.

The danger of a tragic beginning

Here, extreme caution is warranted. While the expectations that we had had vis a vis Obama remained unfulfilled, the political discourse of Trump prior to the election, and his performance and decisions since then, carry worrisome elements and are in complete contradiction of our expectations.

First, exclusivity, instead of inclusivity, has become the defining feature of this new administration’s major decisions since the election.

Trump’s campaign rhetoric about immigrants and people of different identities - but particularly Mexican immigrants, Islam and Muslims - were toxic or problematic at best.

Such an exclusionary turn of US domestic policy towards its citizens, residents and people living on US soil sets a dangerous path and precedent for the far-right parties to pursue elsewhere and will tarnish the US image globally, and destroy the foundation of its soft power, which has formed a significant chunk of the US’s overall power and standing in the world.

Second, instead of multilateralism, an unproductive unilateralism has once again become the order of the day. From the ban on the citizens of seven Muslim majority countries to the decision to construct a wall along the US-Mexico border, the new administration has opted for a counter-productive unilateralism.



Protest in Seattle against President Donald Trump's travel ban, in January 2017 (Reuters)

It is something of a paradox: the new US administration has ordered the Pentagon to devise a plan to deal a death blow to ISIS in Iraq and Syria, yet is also instituting a Muslim ban. There can be no stronger gift for IS than such an ill-conceived Muslim ban.

Also, it is a twist and irony of history that Trump signed the Muslim ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The guiding principle for this remembrance should have been to never again stigmatise any people, religion or societies collectively.

Likewise, the idea behind the 9/11 attacks was to drive wedges between different people, religions, societies and civilizations. The events of 9/11 attacked first and foremost the inclusivity of societies, the idea of co-existence and the phenomenon of multiculturalism.

If persisted with, this Muslim ban will reward these perpetrators with a gift that they could never have previously imagined. This Muslim ban will see the institutionalisation of Islamophobia as government policy by a superpower.

This Muslim ban will see the institutionalisation of Islamophobia as government policy by a super power

It will increase polarisation worldwide and activate socio-political fault lines among societies, religions and civilizations. Fears shouldn't be operationalised to score political gains.

Inclusivity, respecting human dignity and upholding rights and liberties are the most powerful means to counter the twisted ideology of the perpetrators of 9/11 and the cowardice of IS. Defaulting to these principles and values will, in contrast, be tantamount to breathing life into these perpetrators’ decaying and dying ideology.

The securitisation of Islam and Muslims will drive a further wedge not only between the US and its own Muslim population, but also between the US and the wider Islamic world.

Third, the US policy towards MENA should be premised on a sophisticated understanding of the region. In this respect, Trump’s declared intention of moving the United States’ embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, if implemented, would be a tragic beginning and a fatal mistake.



The US embassy in Tel Aviv, which Donald Trump has signalled he wishes to move to Jerusalem (AFP)

It would be inimical to US interests, cause tension and almost-certain bloody conflicts between Palestine and Israel, and torpedo any chance of a two-state solution.

It would ignite a further cycle of violence and bloodshed, and provide fertile political ground for extremism of all sorts to thrive in the region. Jerusalem is not only Jerusalem. It is not only a disputed issue between Israel and Palestine, or even the Arabs as a whole, but a much bigger potential source of friction.

The combined impact of these three points will be the further diminishing of the US role and presence in the region and on the world stage. This, in return, will provide further opportunity for other powers, be they Russia or China, to exploit the void created by the fraying of ties between the US and its traditional Middle Eastern allies. It will marginalise the United States in the region, and, by extension, the rest of the world.

Fourth, if not reversed, Trump’s belittling of the European integration project and downplaying of the significance of NATO will shake the bond between the transatlantic community, which again will be counter-productive to US national interests.



Nigel Farage and supporters celebrate winning the Brexit vote on 24 June 2017 (AFP)

In particular, Trump’s praise for Brexit, and encouragement of its repetition in other contexts, as well as courting populist movements across the continent, invite security challenges of all sorts, be they political, economic or social.

The reversal and undoing of the European integration project would be one of the gravest mistakes since World War II, and its consequences would be deep and far-reaching.

This process may once again give rise to the long-buried question of the balance of power in Europe. This would not only be tragic news for Europe, but it would also directly and immediately undermine the global standing of the United States.

The Trump administration, therefore, should strive to regain the trust of its traditional allies, be they in the Middle East, Asia or Europe, and solidify its existing bonds.

The reversal and undoing of the European integration project would be one of the gravest mistakes since World War II

Obama’s lacklustre foreign policy legacy should motivate the new US administration to devise a new democracy and human rights-oriented, people-friendly foreign policy. It should strengthen its ties with its current allies and search for new ones.

It is for the whole world to shoulder the burden of preventing further destruction and halting the global drift towards authoritarianism.

The need of humanity today is obvious: a more inclusive, more multilateral and more humanitarian international order.

- Professor Ahmet Davutoglu was prime minister of Turkey from August 2014 until May 2016; and foreign minister from May 2009 until August 2014 of Turkey. He is a member of parliament for the AK Party.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Donald Trump and Barack Obama meet at the White House, Washington in December 2016 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.