The Obama Legacy

Until 2009, nothing seemed to have damaged the relationship between the United States and Muslims across the world more than the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed. When President Obama was first elected in late 2008, there was hope he would be the one to rebuild that relationship.

At a time when Muslims in America were under attack, being accused of attempting to build a “victory mosque” in New York, President Obama stood by the Manhattan Muslim community and supported their right to build a mosque near Ground Zero, where the 9/11 attacks took place in 2001. He said that America’s commitment to freedom of religion had to be unshakable.

“I was not commenting and I will not comment on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there,” said the president at the time. “I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding. That’s what our country is about.”

In September 2010, a Quinnipiac University poll reflected the president’s statement. Only 32% of New Yorkers said that building an Islamic cultural center two blocks away from the World Trade Center site was appropriate, while 57% believed it was wrong. Although 67% of those surveyed hoped that the Muslim developers would voluntarily move their project’s location elsewhere, 80% said that the group still had a right to build a mosque there.

We watched the young American leader fly to Cairo to address the Muslim world in one of his most powerful speeches. As an English student, listening to that speech which he opened with as-Salaamu alaykum, was one of the rare moments when I felt the higher purpose of what I was learning.

“I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” said the president. “One based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”

“As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam,” he added. “I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear. But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”

I had my own expectations of Obama’s presidency. After many decades of conflict between Syria and Israel, I thought that he was the one to put an end to that. So did many other Syrians, and I suspect so did many Israelis.

It wasn’t just us who had those expectations. The US President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, shortly after being elected, based on his intentions.

“It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama’s message of hope,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, a former winner.

Last September, Geir Lundestad, the ex-secretary of the Nobel Committee, expressed that he regretted the Obama peace prize. The American people today are terrified more than ever of Islam, believing the worst of stereotypes about this giant religion. Muslims of all sects are battling to the nail in the Middle East but they agree on one thing: that everything is a conspiracy by an American self-interested empire.

As for peace between Syria and Israel, it’s not even on the table anymore; not one of Obama’s “all options”. Instead, the United States is now involved in the world’s bloodiest ongoing conflict in Syria, and is tolerating Israel’s repeated unjustified airstrikes against the exhausted country. This is fueling people’s hatred towards their historical rivals, making peace appear even further away.

When Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes asked President Obama whether President Putin of Russia was challenging his leadership in the Middle East by moving troops into Syria, President Obama answered that what Russia was doing was no leadership.

“Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region,” argued Obama. “And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally.”

“This is not an indication of strength,” said Obama, and he might be right.

Until the end of 2010, Syria was a debt-free country of mighty military forces, diverse economy with foreign reserves at $16-$18 billion. Syria managed to expand its industry, establishing four industrial cities across the country in one decade. The country’s GDP growth soared to nearly 6% by 2009. That success largely triggered Russia’s interests in reestablishing its historical ties with Damascus.

In 2005 after the Bush administration conquered Iraq, Syria became America’s potential second target. Russia still cancelled nearly ten billion dollars of Syrian debts owed to Moscow, marking a new era in the relationship between the two countries. They wanted to invest in their major Middle Eastern ally, a country that seemed to be stable, strong and indispensable. Ten years later, Russia is dragged into a quagmire to fight for what’s left of Syria and its establishment.

Somehow, President Obama doesn’t think of what has happened in Syria as a failure in his leadership. Our country after all is a Russian ally. Until 2011, no US administration would even dream about conducting major air campaigns above a sovereign Syria. Today, the United States and its allies get to make decisions on how to draw our future borders.

When I watched President Obama’s interview on 60 Minutes, it was once again a rare moment when I felt the higher purpose of the English that I have learnt.

‘All that glitters is not gold’ once wrote Shakespeare. Great thoughts and elegant words don’t count unless tested. President Obama’s Cairo speech was glittering but the Arab Spring was his test. The protest movement that spread across North Africa and the Middle East was an opportunity to use his influence to transform the region into a better place, establishing new ties based on respect and trust. Instead he opted to destroy traditional US geopolitical foes at any cost, undermining everything he said he stood for.

President Obama will check out of his office in one year. He will leave behind many challenges, including a failed state in Libya, an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Syrian rebel groups who are linked with al-Qaeda who happen to be the strongest on the ground, and hundreds of thousands of unwelcomed refugees flooding across Europe. He might as well leave behind an unpredictable Donald Trump, who has emerged partly out of the fear of all that.

After two Obama presidencies the world looks much worse than it did after 9/11. The good news, however, is that Russia is losing, or so we think!

5 thoughts on “The Obama Legacy

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  1. I enjoyed reading your well balanced insights, Abdo. I learned in one of your paragraphs more about Syria then in all BBC World News that I happened to watch for a few years now (circumstances-not my choice!) . I am just puzzled by the last sentence. Russia is losing (the article is over a year old) and that’s the good news, you concluded. Good news to whom? To US? Anyone else? Who?

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    1. Hello Lena,
      Thank you for your comment, I’m glad to hear you find the piece interesting.
      What I wrote was meant to be sarcastic. President Obama told 60 minutes at the time that Russia was the one losing the Syrian conflict, which was a statement that I disagreed with. That was why I added “or so we think” in the very end. And now after all this time, clearly Russia seems to have succeeded in securing its interests and even expanding its influence in Syria and beyond. However, my main criticism was that President Obama, and the entire community behind him, had been so fixated on a presumed enemy, Russia in this case, instead of addressing the failures that contributed to the real decay in US politics. Up till now, America’s established political class continues to blame Russia for what’s happening in their country, not because it is necessarily true but rather because the real reasons behind the decay are too complex for American politicians to deal with. So, for example, Obama was fixated on the idea that Russia was losing influence in the Middle East, as if that was his accomplishment (which doesn’t even make sense in a post-Cold War era, in which there are no serious ideological conflicts between the two countries). Of course what he said was still not true because Russia wasn’t really losing, but even if it were true, it wouldn’t have counted as an achievement of any sort because Russia’s loss didn’t necessarily mean America was gaining anything. In fact, the new crises in the Middle East have so far led to the rise of religious fanaticism and the influx of refugees to Europe, and as a result, that has greatly contributed to political destabilization of the West, whether we’re talking about the rise of “right-wing” politics and populism, Brexit, or electing Trump as president. From Obama’s perspective, all of these developments are signs of decay, but instead of admitting his failures, he chose to emphasize Russia’s loss, as if that was the point. The good news, from what I understood from Obama’s interview back then, was that the people that we didn’t like (Russia) were not doing well, instead of focusing on the bad news, which was the fact that we were not doing any better. We’re talking about classic Schadenfreude here.

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      1. Thank you for clarifying it, Abdo. Brilliant. Nothing to add or ask you now since I agree with your assessment completely. Hope that more people will hear your voice. Best regards.

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      2. Thank you for clarifying it, Abdo. Brilliant. Nothing to add or ask you now since I agree with your assessment completely. Hope that more people will hear your voice. Best regards.

        Like

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