In an interview in October, the former president Barack Obama admitted that he made “a mistake” in not backing the 2009 Green Revolution in the Islamic Republic, in light of the more recent protest movement in that country. Mark Dubowitz argues that the Obama administration’s decision instead to pursue a strategic reorientation with regard to the Middle East (and Russia), which culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal, has made it difficult for the current administration to find a way forward. To Dubowitz these mistakes were rooted in a deep-seated opposition to what President Obama saw as Western imperialism.
[I]n retrospect, there is something disturbing about what Obama did in 2009 that looks even more troubling from the vantage point of Syria, Crimea, and the Donbas, and America’s continuing inability to forget about the [nuclear deal].
It is possible from one angle to see Obama’s support for the Arab Spring as support for democracy in the Middle East. Yet as his decision to turn his back on the Iranian pro-democracy protesters suggests, Obama was hardly a supporter of regional democrats. Nor was he particularly interested in supporting Iraq’s struggling democracy, which he saw as a tar pit that would only prolong U.S. engagement in the region—which he strongly opposed. In place of U.S. engagement, Obama supported anti-Western, “one election” Islamists who, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Ali Khamenei in Iran, used and abused democratic mechanisms to gain and keep power. His preference was not for democrats per se, but for anti-imperialists who overthrew or sought to overthrow autocratic U.S. allies.
Anti-imperialist narratives were clearly important to Obama. . . . The fact that they utterly failed to correspond to regional realities caused multiple problems on the ground in the Middle East. Obama’s policy of trying to put the United States on the side of his own preferred client states created a slaughter in Syria that in turn led to multiple other slaughters throughout the region. The rise of Islamic State (IS) was fueled partly in response to vicious Iran-backed attacks against Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis. The shocking rise of IS required Obama to send U.S. troops into Syria and back into Iraq. It also emboldened Vladimir Putin, who invaded Ukraine for the third time in 2022.
Obama’s ongoing and catastrophic policy failure, which has blocked the Biden administration from developing any kind of workable strategic vision for dealing with current realities in Iran and throughout the region, demonstrates that substituting American narratives about purity and guilt for hard-power realities is a dangerous business.