In his State of the Union speech of 2013, President Barack Obama addressed several crises in the Middle East and on the front of fighting terror. On Afghanistan President Obama assessed the outcome of his policies as a weakening of the Taliban and committed to a sustained withdrawal from the country while helping the Afghan Government to take the lead in military missions. The role of the US after withdrawal in 2014, according to Obama will be to assist the fight against al Qaeda. There was no mention of a fight against the Taliban after 2014. Does that mean that there will be a political engagement or even a partnership with the Taliban while pursuing combat with al Qaeda? How will that be so, short of having the Taliban and al Qaeda splitting off? The Taliban are a Jihadist organization which is projected to make advances inside Afghanistan upon US and NATO withdrawal. It is to al Qaeda what bone is to flesh, cemented by ideology.
On al Qaeda, President Obama continued to assert that “the organization that attacked us has lost significantly and is on decline.” The Administration has maintained over the past two years that the elimination of Bin Laden has crumbled the network. Reality on the world stage is otherwise. The al Qaeda commanders and trainees are now leading Jihadi combat groups from Benghazi to Yemen, from Syria to Iraq. However, President Obama admitted that the “offshoots of al Qaeda are getting stronger” in Arabia, Somalia, Mali and the rest of the Sahel. He then announced that the US will support local forces and allies in their fight with these groups, such as for the French campaign in Mali, which is the right policy to adopt. But a wrong assessment of al Qaeda’s connection to its own branches and allies is a strategic mistake. For “the organization that attacked us on 9/11″ has morphed into an international one that is wider, stronger and more determined that the one that launched the initial attacks. We are still fighting an al Qaeda that derived from the Bin Laden constellation which thanks to US neglect to counter its ideology, has become a universe of constellations on four continents.
On the Arab Spring President Obama committed to ensure “universal rights to all people in Egypt.” Which means that these rights are under attack, two years after the revolution. Indeed daily images from Cairo, Suez, but also Tunis and other Arab cities are showing a greater discontent by civil societies against the ruling Islamist regimes. The President remained abstract by not mentioning the abuse of these rights by the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and its comparable regime in Tunisia. It is unfortunate that the state of the union address missed an opportunity to speak to the American people about the struggles of peoples in the region, validating further America’s role in the Middle East, as an ally to freedom seekers. As in June of 2009 in Iran, President Obama missed a historic opportunity to speak to the youth, women and minorities in countries undergoing a massive change affecting a large part of the Planet.
On Syria, President Obama said he will continue to put pressure on the Assad regime and that he would be working with opposition leaders. Here too, it was an abstract position with no practical measures announced. What types of pressures will Assad be under and what kind of opposition we will be partnering with? We didn’t hear new ideas, different from 2011 and 2012.
On Iran the President invited the Iranian leadership, one more time, after three previous times, to negotiate with the international community. President Obama spoke of a wide coalition to isolate Iran while reality is that Tehran can count on two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and is threatening more countries than ever before in the region.
In sum, President Obama remained abstract on Egypt and Syria, maintained the status quo with Iran’s regime and committed to a disengagement from the battlefield with the Taliban while admitting that al Qaeda has grown stronger in the world. Washington has decided not to change its foreign policy in the Middle East from what it has been in the previous four years. Hence the opportunity to confront the strategic challenges in the region may fade away for one more year, at least.
Dr Walid Phares is a Congressional advisor and the author of ‘The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.