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Obama’s Middle East Legacy: “A Complicated Disaster” Interview with Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince. KGNU Boulder. “Hemispheres Program – Middle East Dialogues.” October 25, 2016: Part One

November 1, 2016
Falluha, Iraq.

Fallujah, Iraq, before the U.S. invasion known as the “city of mosques” for the more than 200 mosques found there and the surrounding villages; today look at it – U.S contribution to Iraqi “nation building.”  In 2003, early on in the U.S.invasion of Iraq, it was bombed to smithereens so that when it was finally taken, there were only four buildings standing. Among the bombs the U.S. forces dropped on the city  were white phosphorous and Mark 77 bombs. It has changed hands several times since. 

Given the statements and record of the two main presidential contenders, Clinton and Trump, regardless of who wins the presidential contest in the next few weeks, it is highly doubtful there will be any major shifts in the overall goals and activities of U.S. Middle East policy. Many signs are suggesting that the pattern of unending war and military intervention will continue if not intensify giving those of us who have worked for peace in the Middle East a plate full in the period ahead 

KGNU – October 25, 2016 Part One

Introduction

Jim Nelson: Good evening, I’m your host for this evening and once again thanks for tuning in to KGNU community sponsored radio at KGNU Boulder-Denver and beyond at www.kgnu.org. This is “Hemispheres” and we continue our “Middle East Dialogues” and as always joining us in these dialogues is Ibrahim Kazerooni and Rob Prince.

As many of you know Ibrahim Kazerooni is a regular contributor to KGNU’s “International Press Round Table.” Ibrahim has a phd from the joint Iliff School of Theology – University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies in Religion and Social Change. Joining me in the studio is Rob Prince. Rob is a retired Senior Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. Rob is published on-line. He is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus and writes regularly for the award-winning Tunisian website “Nawaat.com” as well as for “Algeria Watch,” an Algerian human rights website published out of Berlin, Germany.

Welcome to you as well, Rob.

Rob Prince: Thank you Jim and hello Ibrahim.

Ibrahim Kazerooni: Good evening Jim and Rob

Jim Nelson: Let’s get right into it gentlemen. Later in the program we’ll be discussion the latest developments in Iraq and Syria; but first we’re going to take a look at the past eight years of Obama’s Middle East policy, his legacy so to speak.

I would just like to interject that these past eight years have been very “complicated.”

Ibrahim Kazerooni: A disaster

Jim Nelson: “a complicated disaster!” Specifically, what has stood out concerning his policy has been the use of drones. Drone technology has really exploded under Obama’s leadership – and that’s no pun intended. For the people in the region, these extra-judicial killings have not helped to decrease the jihadist threat; if anything it has increased the numbers of people who want to join.

Ibrahim Kazerooni: Jim, with due respect, they were intended to support the jihadis, not to reduce them.

Jim Nelson: Before getting into the material I just wanted to mention Rob, that you brought in a book if you want to look at the rise of the use of drones: Andrew Cockburn’s Kill Chain: The Rise of the High Tech Assassins.

Part One: Obama’s Main Legacy: Unending Middle East War

Rob Prince: OK, let’s talk about this “complicated disaster” – Obama’s Middle East legacy over the past eight years. In so doing we intend to cover several related topics today…two in particular. One is looking at Obama’s Middle East legacy – whatever that might be. The other, related, is the current situation unfolding in Syria and Iraq with great speed at the moment. As the news has shifted back to Iraq with the current military offensive to push ISIS out of Mosul, Iraq, we’ll look at Iraq in some detail.In finishing up, we want to give a few thoughts on what the current U.S. presidential contest offers in terms of the future of U.S. Middle East policy.

As Jim noted, I’ll start out, outlining the general framework, Ibrahim will zero in on developments in Iraq and Syria

It might surprise some of our listeners that the more we “scratched the surface” of U.S. policy in the Middle East – as we have tried to do over the past six years, the more we understood that at a fundamental level, the Obama policies are consist with, in line with, those of the Bush years. These consistencies far outweigh policy differences between the two administrations. Even where these exist they are more about what amount to as minor tactical differences rather than a fundamental shifts.

Given the statements and record of the two main presidential contenders, Clinton and Trump, regardless of who wins the presidential contest in the next few weeks, it is highly doubtful there will be any major shifts in the overall goals of U.S. Middle East policy. Many signs are suggesting that the pattern of unending war and military intervention will continue if not intensify giving those of us who have worked for peace in the Middle East a plate full in the period ahead.

The U.S. approach to the Middle East is bipartisan and has been for a long time, since the end of World War II in fact. This will continue. The point here is that it is useless to try to separate the Democratic and Republican Party presidents and their Middle East policies is not an accurate or useful way of viewing the situation.

The U.S. approach to the Middle East is bipartisan and has been for a long time, since the end of World War II in fact. This will continue. The point here is that it is useless to try to separate the Democratic and Republican Party presidents and their Middle East policies is not an accurate or useful way of viewing the situation.

In looking at Obama’s Middle East legacy over these past eight years, giving all the promises made concerning the Middle East, it’s useful to separate out the rhetoric from the reality. Its rhetoric was quite fine, great rhetoric (verbal support for the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, with a few minor exceptions, the reality is nothing less than a disaster, a systematically insidious policy, different from the Bush policy only in minor tactical details.

If we just go back to the first election of Barack Obama in 2008 and compare the situation in the Middle East today, the contrast is striking.

a. the war in Iraq was still raging.
b. the sociopolitical movement – a yearning for region-wide change, an end to abusive government, corruption, repression and lack of economic and social progress – would explode region wide, starting in Tunisia a year later (late 2010, early 2011) – called the Arab Spring.

We would add here that elsewhere in the region:

– Iraq was still a royal mess with several hundred thousand U.S. troops there along with many – tens of thousands of paid private security operatives and mercenaries.
– There was no war yet in Syria
– Libya had not yet collapsed
– The Saudis had not yet invaded Yemen
– At the time of Obama’s election, that was the moment of the Israeli assault on Gaza, which Noam Chomsky referred to as “a hideous atrocity” was underway, leaving 1500 dead and 10,000 homeless.

Yet today, in the Middle East and Central Asia, the United States is militarily involved in at least seven countries (Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen. This does not include worldwide secret operations of the Joint Special Operations Corps – U.S. Special Forces operations). Just from that brief description we get an idea of the degree to which the situation in the Middle East has deteriorated over this period. It is a picture of unending war into the foreseeable future. The region has not experienced improvement, but to the contrary, more war and human suffering has been the order of the day.

Unfortunately, that has been the major legacy of the Obama Administration in the Middle East.

Furthermore, we do not see that there is much change in the offing after January of 2017. Regardless of who wins the presidential contest in the next few weeks, we seriously doubt that there will be any major shifts in the overall goals of American Middle Eastern policy. If anything, the signs are the pattern of unending war will continue and will intensify giving those of us who have worked for peace in the region, a full plate, once again, in the period ahead.

Fallujah before the United States

Fallujah before the United States “liberated” it

2. Obama’s Promise: Peace and Democracy

I went back to the beginning of his presidency to recall one of the “foundation speeches” of Obama’s Middle East policies. It was Obama’s June, 2009 Cairo speech which raised hopes both in the Middle East and Africa that the American policy of global domination might change from the aggressive interventionism of the Bush years.

Jim Nelson: I would assume that you would start with that speech because that is clearly given only a few months into his presidency. He also gave a speech calling for a reduction in nuclear weapons arsenals around the same time. Back to you.

Rob Prince: At Cairo President Obama called for “a new beginning”

“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles — principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

Ibrahim Kazerooni: But Rob, forgive me for the interjection but there is what I would call the more rational interpretation of these statements which would say, well this is “pragmatic,” “liberal,” “creating space for Moslems and others; we should work for the benefit of all to create a place for everyone.” But once you remove this from this context and put it into the context of a colonial mind-set, the systemic demand for controlling the world and dictating to the rest of the world, the meaning would be different. That means American policy will neutralize Muslims, neutralize Islam, neutralize X, Y and Z and only Washington would rule the world, give the orders and the rest of the world reduced to obeying the dictates.

Rob Prince: Ibrahim, I remember reading responses to the Cairo speech from different areas of the Middle East. At the time the responses went in two opposite directions. Some responded suspiciously, “what’s really going on here” – with Obama’s words. But others genuinely clung to the hope that U.S. Middle East policy would change.

Jim Nelson: Of course Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize all within a few weeks, months of the Cairo speech

Rob Prince: Yes. Concerning Cairo, last week I attended a meeting of the Ethiopian Community in the Denver metro area. They are concerned about the presidential elections given Obama’s support for the Ethiopian dictatorship. It’s a side issue for what we are discussing this evening but there’s terrible repression taking place in that country; recently there were sham elections (which Obama declared democratic) and at U.S. insistence, Ethiopian troops in Somalia, an increasingly unpopular use of those troops by growing numbers of Ethiopians.

By the way, the Ethiopian Community is the second largest immigrant community in Colorado, somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 people in all, second only to that of Mexicans. They are in the process of meeting with the two main congressional hopefuls in their district (which includes Aurora), Mike Coffman, the incumbent Republican Congressman and the Democratic Party challenger, Morgan Carroll. I was surprised, at a meeting with Morgan Carroll at the Nile Ethiopian Restaurant, the number of times that several of the participants referred to Obama’s Cairo speech, of the hopes it stimulated followed by a generalized disillusionment after seeing how his Africa policy has played out. Colorado’s Ethiopian immigrants repeatedly mentioned not only how the Cairo Statement given hope for positive change in the Middle East, but that Obama’s words were also taken seriously in sub-Saharan Africa.

I mention this because when an American president as articulate and poised as Barack Obama give people hope, it raises their expectations for change as well. If in the aftermath, that hope is not turned into concrete actions, ie, the president failed to deliver on his promises, what results is even greater cynicism than before. That is what has happened among Ethiopians in Colorado and it very well will have repercussions here, especially in the Congressional race mentioned above.

Summing up on these points. Obama’s Cairo Speech were “nice words” to the Islamic world, that raised hopes, hopes that soon their after came crashing down, be it in Egypt or Ethiopia.

3. Obama: No Messiah

Ibrahim Kazerooni: Remember Rob in August 2008 when we had a panel discussion at the United Methodist Church on Ogden St. (in Denver). What was the name of the minister? God bless her soul – Tony Cook. The panel consisted of myself, Vincent Harding and a few others. At the time Vincent Harding was celebrating the fact that now we have an African-American president coming forward. At the time I said, “Look, it’s not the color that matters; it’s substantive concrete change in American foreign policy which I doubted either Obama or anyone else is prepared to deliver. Unfortunately, again, after eight years, we have come back in the circle to the same point; nothing was done.

Remember Rob in August 2008 when we had a panel discussion at the United Methodist Church on Ogden St. (in Denver). What was the name of the minister? God bless her soul – Tony Cook. The panel consisted of myself, Vincent Harding and a few others. At the time Vincent Harding was celebrating the fact that now we have an African-American president coming forward. At the time I said, “Look, it’s not the color that matters; it’s substantive concrete change in American foreign policy which I doubted either Obama or anyone else is prepared to deliver. Unfortunately, again, after eight years, we have come back in the circle to the same point; nothing was done

Rob Prince: Not only that. At that time, Ibrahim, we were also already talking together frequently on Middle East subjects, we suggested that people should be careful not to treat Obama as a kind of political messiah who was going to save America – and the world – from the excesses and recklessness of the George W. Bush years, that he was going to solve the problems. We emphasized that Obama was simply the manager of a system. Given the problems of the Bush years, people were quite excited about the prospect of an Obama election. In a way though, they lost track of the issues, as is happening in this election where so much gravitates around the personalities and ethical make up of the candidates (or lack there of).

Ibrahim Kazerooni: At the time (2008) the narrative was – it’s the messiah (Obama), the anointed one that has come!

Rob Prince: That was one side of it, the hopeful speech at Cairo. Unfortunately the hope of Cairo morphed into the invasion of Libya and Syria with all the human suffering and damage that they entail.

But if one probes more closely…all the nice words are a little more than what I would call “razzle-dazzle” – the same goals, here and there slightly different tactics and vocabulary – like the so-called for humanitarian intervention – that cloud a policy in place since the end of World War II to control and dominate the region’s resources – and as such, as these are oil and natural gas – control America’s economic and political partners worldwide by controlling oil and gas supplies.

The policies pursued by the Obama Administration are indicative of not a new beginning but only new tactical shifts in achieving long-held U.S. goals. If the rhetoric was hopeful – it did raise hopes throughout the Middle East and Africa for a shift in U.S. policy (I heard as much from local Ethiopians in Denver a week ago), it proved to be little more than a public relations cover for new forms of aggression

If we look at what actually happened – or in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, what didn’t happen – in terms of it being resolved – Obama’s record is one of continued war and subterfuge against the legitimate aspirations of the Arab people of the region as expressed in the goals of the Arab Spring for a new beginning.

Indeed, the whole of the Obama policy has been to freeze, roll back and control the social forces released by the Arab Spring, nothing less.

Indeed, the whole of the Obama policy has been to freeze, roll back and control the social forces released by the Arab Spring, nothing less.

Granted this required certain tactical shifts.

What have been these tactical shifts?

Most KGNU listeners are well aware of them:

a. a reduction of U.S. troop concentration on the ground, greater reliance on private security firms
– otherwise known as mercenaries; greater reliance on U.S. special forces operations – mostly secret – to do the dirty work, assassinations, kidnapping
b. greater reliance on drones for political assassinations, – otherwise known as murder “targeted intervention”
c. greater reliance on regional allies to carry out military operations – two recent glaring examples: Libya and Syria. Such operations give the United States “plausible deniability” – while Washington is orchestrating and controlling the process that proxies are carrying out.
d. new pretexts for going to war, shallow rationalizations in the name of “humanitarian intervention” – which sound innocuous, going in to help civilians in the midst of war – but it is really little more than a new cover for aggression, only credible to those ignorant in the ways of power.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before a meeting in Geneva January 14, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif before a meeting in Geneva January 14, 2015. The deal was finalized in August, 2015. There are currently more than 80 resolutions before the U.S. Congress introduced by AIPAC and different neo-conservative elements to undermine or dissolve the agreement, so it is far from safe, even after the signing formalities have ended.

4. Obama’s Positive Middle East Achievements – Few and Fragile.

There were a few, very few positive achievements – among them

• The Iran Nuclear Deal, which threatens to come undone – now more than 80 resolutions before the U.S. Congress to undo the agreement, its future is in doubt.
• Obama’s refusal, at the time, to increase U.S. military involvement in Syria in the aftermath of the gassing incident – an incident the source of which remains still not clear. He did not take the neo-con bait (then) to escalate the U.S. military role
• Obama’s refusal to support Ben Ali and Mubarak, long time U.S. regional allies, despite being corrupt dictatorships. At the time Obama’s Secretar of State at the time, Hillary Clinton urged Obama support for Mubarak and Ben Ali. Again Obama did not take Hillary’s suggestion. He supported the wave of change, but what he reasoned was that the Arab Spring could be contained and controlled in such a way as to preserve and protect U.S. regional interests, supporting all the change necessary to maintain the status quo.

Having said that, the overall policy has not changed. What, then, is the overall policy? True for the above points, Obama gets some credit for having done what amounts to damage control.

Ibrahim Kazerooni: If I could ask a more pertinent question Rob, is there a policy? When you examine it more closely, I don’t believe that there is a policy. I think the United States is betting on the fact that nobody is going to challenge it and that they can go ahead redefining, reshaping everything. We saw this kind of paralysis that took over as soon as Russia took a strong position. The United States really had no clue what to do. One can say that there is a policy but I don’t believe there is a coherent one; we couldn’t interpret it. There is just a “day by day” survival approach until somebody stands up.

If I could ask a more pertinent question Rob, is there a policy? When you examine it more closely, I don’t believe that there is a policy. I think the United States is betting on the fact that nobody is going to challenge it and that they can go ahead redefining, reshaping everything. We saw this kind of paralysis that took over as soon as Russia took a strong position. The United States really had no clue what to do. One can say that there is a policy but I don’t believe there is a coherent one; we couldn’t interpret it. There is just a “day by day” survival approach until somebody stands up

Rob Prince: Yes you are right, they are just “flailing around”; the typical ways that they defend their interests I’ll explain in a moment. What those interests are, and how they defend them has changed little over the years. When we talk about Iraq and Syria we can get into this in more detail. But the Obama Administration’s position on Syria is like a yo-yo: negotiate, war, negotiate, war. They can’t make up their minds.

Ibrahim: When I speak of policy there are certain interests in the Middle East that the United States, since World War II has tried to protect and maintain. Their “policy” has the following aspects:

a. Continued control of oil and gas production and distribution…a great deal of what might be called “pipeline” politics to which we will return in our discussions of Syria and Iraq
b. Partial withdrawal of large U.S. troop presence (in Iraq) combined with greater reliance on the military role of regional allies (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and in N. Africa, Algeria)
c. An attempt to “manage chaos” – ie, to accept that the day was done for old U.S. allies such as Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt as they were swept aside. The U.S. attempted however to manage the sociopolitical changes – to limit the region from undergoing deeper going changes in the political economy of the region.

The goals were clarified early on to be:

– limit the changes in places like Tunisia and Egypt to be mostly “cosmetic” in nature – ie, change the players at the top but retain as much of the old economic and political systems as possible, continue to maintain U.S. strategic relations and interests.

– Use the momentum of the Arab Spring to bring down governments that refused to submit to U.S. diktats in what today con clearly be considered nothing less than counter-revolutions in Libya, Syria – with elements in these countries long cultivated, the political coups long and carefully planned for.

– Where democratic upsurges did take place and gained popular support, as in Bahrein and Yemen, they needed to be crushed by force,…misdefining what were legitimate national uprisings of broad-based social forces as Iranian puppets (which they weren’t).

– the strategic goal here was to fragment and partition what had become strong centralized states (Iraq, Libya, Syria) into smaller units that could be more easily manipulated by U.S. and other corporate interests.

Jim Nelson: And as you both have maintained, I would say that the policy has been to withdraw as many troops as possible while increasing the mechanized, high-tech warfare to keep U.S. casualty rates as low as possible in the region. The Obama Administration doesn’t want “a big footprint” but this has happened with mixed results, it’s not really working out, and in this effort the United States finds itself increasingly isolated from its so-called allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with Turkish President Erdogan - two U.S. Middle East thanes

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with Turkish President Erdogan – two U.S. Middle East thanes

Ibrahim Kazerooni: Jim, we have to be realistic and distinguish between tactics and policy. The overall desire and policy of the United States is to go back to 1992 and to be the sole world power as the neo-cons at the time defined it. The United States dictates to the rest of the world; that is the overall goal.

But the tactic has shifted, as Rob indicated. In the past they relied on so-called regional allies, stooges and so on. But a shift took place. The shift took place by now breaking down these countries into smaller enclaves. Rob indicated Syria, Iraq, Libya and other places to make them, for the United States, “more manageable” than larger centralized entities. If there will be future crises in the different countries of the region, because of their reduced size, they can be more easily managed.

But the tactic has shifted. In the past they relied on so-called regional allies, stooges and so on. But a shift took place. The shift took place by now breaking down these countries into smaller enclaves. Rob indicated Syria, Iraq, Libya and other places to make them, for the United States, “more manageable” than larger centralized entities. If there will be future crises in the different countries of the region, because of their reduced size, they can be more easily managed

This is a tactical shift, but the overall policy is the control of the rest of the world and this is why as soon as a country stands up to Washington and says “no” they just get confused. You should have seen (U.S. Secretary of State, John) Kerry as he talked to (Russian Foreign Minister Sergey) Lavrov. As soon as Lavrov said something that Kerry did not expect, he began to stutter; Kerry couldn’t say anything.

Jim Nelson: I just wanted to make a point. There was a caller who just wanted to make a point; he defined himself as a British citizen, a white man married to a Black woman, also from Britain, they wanted to point out that Obama, although he may consider himself Black, is mixed race as well; he is the child of a white woman and a Black man.

Ibrahim Kazerooni: Yes, the classic book for this, is Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. It’s not the darkness of skin color that tells us much, it’s the mind-set and he is right. If we look at the mind-set, the mind-set is white. Skin pigmentation should not be used as criteria to indicate one thing or another.

Rob Prince: Before turning it over to you Ibrahim, and looking in more detail on what is happening in Syria, when I use the term “policy” – and it’s fair that you comment on it and question it, but still, there is one: it is to control the energy sources, oil and natural gas, coming from the Middle East. To control the flow of these resources is to give the United States a lever, a powerful lever over those who are dependent upon those sources, be it Europe and East Asia. Despite minor modifications, ie, oil discoveries in Africa and elsewhere, that the theme, the bedrock of U.S. Middle East policy since the end of World War II. The country that controls the oil, the energy sources for most of the world regardless of all the attempts to change that, maintains leverage, another word for “power” over the rest of the world.

That is the policy; the emergence of a social movement like the Arab Spring, threatens those interests. In none of the cases where it appeared that radical social change was in the offing was it clear that the countries involved would nationalize their oil or natural gas industries, but it was the unknown factor, a more generalized fear that they might do so and that the flow of oil and gas was not going to be determined by the United States and its allies that came into play and therefore the social movements involved had to be stopped in their tracks or reversed.

Ibrahim Kazerooni: And by the way to support this, there was a report out a few days ago in which (former U.S. Secretary of Defense) Dick Cheney and a few of his bankers in which they were proposing that the eastern side of Syria which is currently under the control of mercenaries, influenced and controlled by the United States, that U.S. firms should start drilling for oil in that area.

__________________

Part Two

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