Change, Sometimes: Why Bush-era Policies for the Middle East Continued under Barack Obama

Change (Terms and Conditions May Apply)

George W. Bush is not a man who will be remembered fondly by history. The 43rd President of The United States is widely considered to be an instigator of conflict, both by his own people and the international community. He embarked the US on a crusade against terrorism, following the events of 9/11—when the terrorist organization al-Qaeda managed to hijack three airliners, crashing two of them into the US’ World Trade Center thus utterly destroying its two towers, with the third smashing into the west side of the headquarters of the US Department of Defense, the Pentagon (CNN, 2016).

In retaliation to the attacks orchestrated by al-Qaeda, the Bush administration set in motion plans to crush terrorists found in all corners of the Earth. Beginning in October 7th of 2001, the US led a “coalition of the willing to” to combat terror cells with the moniker of Operation Enduring Freedom, or as it is widely known by the public, the Global War on Terror (Schmitt & Shanker, 2005). To this day—2017—the anti-terror enterprise continues, despite the dismay shown by US citizens and leaders of states worldwide (Monbiot, 2003).

The American public protested against Bush’s campaign against terrorism (Sullivan et al, 2005). Though at first they were on board with the plan, due to a thirst for vengeance caused by 9/11, the people grew tired of a military crusade which has no end in sight. Americans rightly objected against the wasting of US soldiers’ lives, the ever-increasing budget of the military, violations of Human Rights, along with countless other issues. Hence Americans began looking for a new leader, one who could perhaps bring an end to the boundless cycle of violence their nation was pulled into. Ergo the rise of former US Senator, Barack Obama.

Obama promised a number of things throughout his presidential campaign. One which struck international headlines was a vow to decrease, or at the very least alter, the US’ involvement in the Global War on Terror. One of the first things he would do, was withdraws US troops from the Middle East as quickly as possible, until none or only a minimal number would remain. Furthermore, he emphasized that he would use diplomacy, not force in order to combat terrorism—putting an end to the Bush’s continuous violations of sovereignty for to states “suspected of harboring terrorists.” Lastly, Obama assured the Arab World that the US would no longer commit humanitarian crimes, cause unceasing deaths their people, nor demolish their infrastructure (Soffen, 2017). Obama gave hope to Americans and the peoples of the Middle East of a more peaceful era, yet unfortunately it is but a pipe dream.

The seemingly virtuous president did fulfill some of his promises. The withdrawal of troops for instance, was completed by 2011 (Landler, 2011). He was also willing to negotiate with leaders of the Arab World, publicly supporting the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—where the two nations would have respective areas of sovereignty—and supporting the Iran Nuclear Deal—permitting Iran to harness nuclear energy, so long as it uses atomic power solely for deterrence and an energy source (BBC, 2016). On top of that, Obama utilized the US army mainly when Middle East nations are requesting international aid.

But is Obama as virtuous as he seemed to be? To anyone who has devoted time to studying international politics, it would not be a surprise to find the former president to be as ruthless as any of his predecessors. While Obama indeed withdrew US forces, the move did not mean the US would no longer intervene with the affairs of the Middle East.

Rather, it meant the conventional soldiers would simply be replaced by Private Military Contractors (Scahill, 2007)—essentially mercenaries—and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Scahill et al, 2016)—drones as they are commonly known, capable of constant surveillance and launching missiles at a moment’s notice without posing any risk to US military personnel. Consequently, the Bush-era War on Terror continued unabated. As what Obama did was essentially maintain the policies of his predecessor, but through a different shape.

Yet a question rose from Obama’s policies: Why? Why did Obama sustain policies that were abhorred by the peoples of the world, although having the chance to initiate a revolution regarding the US’ approach to the Middle East? Answering this question will be the primary focus of this essay, as it is a conundrum that demands further investigation. Since whatever the answer might be, its implication might be that the US’ conduct could never be altered by its leadership, thus making the concept of democracy seem like nothing but a cruel joke.

Grounded in Reality

It would likely be most suitable to solve the Obama foreign policy conundrum by using the theory of neorealism. Established by Kenneth Neal Waltz, Neorealism posits the notion that the behavior of states are dictated primarily by an anarchic nature of the international system; a world where there are no rules and regulations, where no actor is capable of enforcing others to abide by its bidding, basically a realm where one could do whatsoever they so wish so long as they have the power to do so (Waltz, 1979).

Neorealism’s relevance to the case of the United States of America’s aggression towards the Middle East comes chiefly from the fact that under neorealist lens, no actor is considered to be more significant than the state. That is to say, non-governmental entities have next to no effect on the behavior of nations. And as the US and Middle East countries are within the category of meaningful actors—as the interaction mainly involves the two parties—neorealist thought would be proper for the analyzing their interaction, and solving the mystery of why the Obama administration was willing to continue the unpopular Bush-era policies.

It must also be noted however, that the significant actors within the eyes of neorealism are states, not the men and women who lead them. Hence, neorealist conceptions would be of utmost use in assessing whether or not the US would maintain its behavior, no matter who the leader of the superpower might be.

To further support the ideas of neorealism, and determine whether or not the US truly is an actor that will not alter its approach, we must briefly mention the possible causes of why the US is willing to pour its resources into the Middle East. Oil is a popular candidate for accusing US interventionism in the Middle East, but the US itself is capable of producing enough fuel to support its own energy needs. Regional dominance is perhaps a more likely motive, as the US does have a robust alliance with Israel, which could allow the US to dominate the Middle East by proxy. Yet we must not ignore the probability that the US is in its very essence, an imperialist nation—as countless critics have repeatedly pointed out.

But we do not expect the reader to be convinced by our arguments from providing introductory and theoretical framework segments alone. For us to be able to accomplish this rather challenging goal, we would need to delve deeper into the policies formulated by both the Bush and Obama administrations, primarily for the purpose of unraveling why Obama and the US are consistently keen to meddle with Middle East businesses.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

 

As mentioned in the introductory section of the paper, George W. Bush began a particularly intriguing era for the United States of America; one where the US and its soldiers were sent to far-flung corners of the Earth in the name of a Global War on Terror. For the Bush administration, sending tens-of-thousands of American lives posed a significant challenge. Which takes the form of convincing the American public that it is essential to endanger their friends and families, in the name of justice and the safety for all Americans.

Hence numerous campaigns were launched under the banner of anti-terrorism. Bush made numerous speeches stating that terrorists are existential threats to America as a nation and to the ideology of democracy. He further expressed that nations who were unwilling to support the war on terror were “against us [America],” indirectly implying that Americans who were also unsupportive of the US’ battles as unpatriotic, ungrateful of the sacrifices done by US soldiers.

Despite the many efforts made by the Bush administration to advertise its War on Terror as a righteous movement, both Americans and the international community widely condemned the US’ actions. Protests repeatedly arose within the US, with anti-war groups forming on a regular basis, and academics the likes of Rachel Maddow, Christoper Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, and so on; declaring that the war is nothing but a waste of American and Middle Eastern lives with no end goal and a cover-up of actual US objectives (Chomsky, 2011)..

Bush’s critics were also right on another matter, that of how Bush utilizes force in the Middle East and towards suspected terrorists. On the home front, Bush violated numerous rights for both Americans and possible agents of terror residing in the US. In regards to US citizens, Bush granted sweeping powers to intelligence agencies to gather information on Americans by way of the Patriot Act—essentially a program designed with the aim of gathering information about everyday Americans allegedly involved with terrorism. To those detained by American forces, as suspected terrorists, torture and other breaches of basic inalienable rights were permitted in Guantanamo Bay. These humanitarian crimes were eventually publicized, throwing further fuel into the fire of demonstrations.

Abroad, Bush launched invasions into multiple sovereign territories, most notably Iraq. Bush was determined to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein, whom he accused of possessing Weapons of Mass Destruction. Yet when such weapons were not found, Bush continued the campaign under the excuse of “assuring the national security” of the United States.  Despite the US in previous years considering Iraq and Hussein as a valued ally, who was granted the honor of being an honorary citizen of Detroit.

It was only when Hussein began to show indications of disobedience to US whims that the Bush administration considered him to be a threat. Thus portraying him to be a danger to US national security. This move drew remonstrations from the international stage, as they begin to perceive the Bush administration’s objectives as not a hunt for terrorists, but a method to encroach US influence to the Middle East (Pressman, 2009).

We can see that Bush’s publicized aims were designed to essentially persuade the American peoples and the international community that his policies were devised to protect all citizens from the globe. Yet this is plainly untrue, as the Americans and the international community have noticed. The US likely has multiple, immoral motives—oil, regional dominance, imperialism, etc.—that aren’t shared to the public. These probable objectives on Bush’s mind are perhaps ones that are shared by Barack Obama, contrary to the latter’s presidential campaign promises.

Noticing how Americans abhorred the War on Terror and the deaths it brought to their loved ones, Barack Obama used the Americans’ outrage as a platform from which to launch his presidential campaign; Vowing to bring home American troops, forming alliances with Middle East nations to combat the terrorist threat—ensuring that less and less American lives would be lost—all in an effort to signify that Obama would not be following the steps of George W. Bush

Furthermore, Obama ensured the international community, particularly the Middle East countries that he would minimize US involvement and abate collateral damage caused by US forces in the region. He would use means that are far more precise than those utilized by Bush, affecting the rate by which innocent Middle Easterners perished at the hands of the US military. But did Obama actually follow through with these pledges? Indeed he did, but at a very limited level (McCrisken, 2011).

Obama did encumber the use of force in the Middle East, by way of withdrawing American soldiers from the region. As exemplified by the reduction of US troopers in Iraq from tens of thousands to practically none (Landler, 2011). The move seemed to indicate that the US would actually, for once, be willing to reduce its influence in the Middle East.

Then were the anti-terror coalitions Obama erected with Middle East partners. Around 10 nations were persuaded into an alliance to crush the terror-organization Daesh, otherwise known as the Islamic State (Reuters, 2014). The move to consort with states—such as Iraq—formerly considered to be threats to US security was a convincing sign of a US that perceived nations of the Arab world as equals, and not hazards that demanded subjugation.

On the non-military side of things, the US promoted and showcased its approval of a controversial deal involving Iran obtaining and harnessing nuclear power. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it came to be known, permitted Iran to use nuclear power; provided that it would only do so for deterrence and energy production, as it would undergo repeated examinations by the International Atomic Energy Agency (BBC, 2016). Again, another Bold move by the Obama administration for demonstrating that the US is willing to do whatever it takes to triumph over chaos in the Middle East with minimal use of violence.

But are these aforementioned indicators legitimate proofs that the US would no longer excessively intervene with Middle East affairs? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

In spite of the rhetoric of peace uttered by the Obama administration, the US proceeded to unduly exercise force throughout the Middle East. The withdrawal of US soldiers was not a sign of peace, but nothing more than a change in the US military’s approach. Deaths of Americans did lessen to a significant degree, but the more than one million dead people of the Middle East weren’t so lucky (Lazare, 2015).

Instead of risking American lives, the US military simply replaced its conventional soldiers with PMCs and UAVs.

The benefits being that the US military would not be held accountable to the actions of PMCs—they are not, after all, American troops—nor would the methods used by the soldiers of fortune need to be revealed to the public, corporate secrets and all that—although contractors the likes of Blackwater have been found guilty of allowing its employees to use mind-altering substances, assaulting civilians, and other humanitarian crimes.

While UAVs, in the eyes of most US citizens, are nothing more than expensive toys of their military. Each drone deployment did not risk the safety of any American, only those deemed, by both the public and the US government, to be targets. Even though each “successful kill” done by drones are somewhat imprecise, more often than not having their missiles not just blasting their target(s) but also innocent bystanders from caught in the blast radius.

Thus, should a drone be shot down, PMC squadrons be annihilated by Middle East militias, innocents Middle Easterners be maimed or murdered for no reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, there is minuscule risk of inciting the ire of everyday Americans (Maddow, 2012).

Of course, the Obama administration concealed their deployment and modus operandi for PMCs and UAVs from American eyes. Quite successfully too, as protests against the War on Terror began to wane. The ones who are still against the anti-terror crusade are mainly interested in the amount of money the US spends on military operations, not so much with the deaths of innocents in the Middle East.

But here we must remind ourselves of how the US is capable of doing whatever it wants in the Middle East. To neorealists, it is no surprise at all for a nation as mighty as the US to act however is so wishes due to the anarchic nature of the international system. More so due to neorealism’s central notion that any and all states would be willing to do whatever is necessary to further enhance their prowess—without regard for abstract concepts the likes of justice and morality—be it by increasing their wealth, bolstering their military might, et cetera. The US is of course no exception to these rules, as will be shown with why Obama resumed the policies of his predecessor in spite of his slogan of “Change.”

Obama had the incredibly rare opportunity for drastically changing how the US viewed and treated the Middle East. So why didn’t he take that chance? Sadly it is impossible to answer such a complicated question with a single answer, as the US has many reasons for continuously intruding itself into Middle East affairs.

It is perhaps an impossibility to demand the US to leave the Middle East alone. The region is, after all one of the wealthiest areas of the globe in terms of oil. Dominating such a sought-after and increasingly scarce resource—let’s not forget about Hubbert’s peak oil theory (Peak Oil Barrel, 2013)—would allow the US to attain riches beyond what we could imagine, and leverage over all countries incapable of producing their own fuel—i.e. nearly every developing nation on Earth (Yergin, 1991).

Control over the Middle East’s oil would mean energy security for the United States, ensuring that it would be capable of developing its industries without limit. And in terms of militaristic needs, the US would be free to employ their forces without having to worry over the costs required to do so. Since, after all, they would be the ones who own the fuel required to execute military operations.

Yet energy security is not the only advantage the US would attain should it manage to take control of Middle Eastern oil. A combination of US and the Middle East’s oil production capacities would mean an entity unrivaled in its capacity to generate fuel, and thereby control its supply. In other words, the US would be able to wrest control of global oil prices, away from OPEC—Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries—or significant oil producers the likes of Russia, Latin American and Asian countries.

Control of the globe’s largest oil supply would grant the US enormous power. An ability to do whatever it so wishes, without necessarily having to use force. Dare to disobey US demands? Say hello to inflating energy costs and maybe even a reintroduction of the pre-industrial era.

Thus would be born a superpower whose might originates not just from its military’s strength, but also from the pull it has over others as provided by oil (Yergin, 2011). An achievement that would impress anyone who adheres to the notions that the international system is an anarchic one, and that any actor with sufficient power would essentially obtain a permission slip for anything and everything.

Yet for the US to be able to attain the Middle East’s oil supply, without an outright military invasion on all of the region’s countries, it would need a partner already operating in the area. Luckily for the US, such an ally already exists in the form of Israel. We previously glanced at how the US stated that it would be willing to support a two-state solution to resolve The Israeli-Palestinian conflict; an outcome Israel would in all likelihood despise, as it considers Palestinian territories to be rightfully Israeli. Obama is aware that providing actual assistance to Palestine would mean alienating Israel.

Therefore, what did the US do about the two-state solution? Nothing, really. The US seems to be turning a blind eye to whatever Israel is doing in Palestinian territories—including the latter’s construction of illegal settlements. The US’ effort for a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine essentially amounts to “let them sort it out themselves.”

Unless the US does wish to form new, equally concrete alliances in the Middle East, it would be the wisest move for them to not meddle with Israeli affairs—and if possible, provide support for Israel’s actions. Should the US commit to a path opposing Israel, it would also be losing its only Middle Eastern ally with nuclear weaponry. Needless to say, access to nuclear energy equates to Israel being one of the likeliest candidates of reaching hegemonic status in the Middle East—the ultimate objective of the US in the region, as it would be granted the similar levels of power to Israel but by proxy (Chomsky, 2016).

The anarchic nature of the international system allows the US and Israel to accomplish any objectives they set out for themselves, provided the two nations possess enough power to do so. If they wish to rule over the Middle East, then by all means do so. Non-state actors would also have minimal effect on the relationships between the US, Israel, and Palestine. As despite the countless militia campaigns launched by Palestinians, Israel looks to be unfazed and remain dead-set on conquering as much Palestinian land as possible.

George W. Bush has showcased that the US’ War on Terror is not entirely honest. The campaign cloaked itself under the guise of vengeance and justice. But in truth, it is nothing more than a quest for the wealth of the Middle East and for dominance over the region. Fortunately, no matter how much the Bush administration tried to sell their anti-terror campaign as a righteous endeavor, neither the Americans nor the international community bought their pitch. Hence diminishing domestic and international support for the War on Terror.

Barack Obama picked up on how the Bush administration failed to garner the necessary support for continuing the US interventionism in the Middle East. Thus his campaign platform and administration portrayed him as a bringer of peace, one who would not needlessly risk American lives, and a man who would rather fight with a pen in his hand instead of a sword.

Yet from the cases we have reviewed, we can clearly see that Obama always has his sword at the ready. Should Middle East states resist the demands of the US, then Obama would send in his cadre of mercenaries and drones. He was essentially able to avoid the publicity of deploying military force without actually having to employ conventional US soldiers, but achieving the same effect nonetheless.

Why did two different administrations, with seemingly distinct leaders have and conjure up policies with essentially identical aims? The reason isn’t as philosophical as “there is no such thing as individuality.” The root cause of the similarity between the Bush and Obama administrations concerning the Middle East stem from the imperialist nature of the United States.

From the period of the Cold War, the US has repeatedly engaged itself with obtaining control over territories that it does not strictly own—though back then it was for legitimate security reasons (Dobbs, 2008). During Obama’s time in office, this particular habit of the US seems to have embedded itself on US foreign policy. The US does not wish to be rivaled by any nation on any front: economically, militaristically, et cetera. The main problem being, for non-Americans and non-allies of the US, the superpower does have the capability to do so; therefore permitting the US to behave in manners that should draw international interventions, though as no nation could stand up against the might of the US—at the time of writing—then the US can proceed to go on its merry path of sowing chaos wherever it goes and whenever it pleases (Chomsky, 2004).

 

Change (Minus the Terms and Conditions)

 

Is it possible to one day see a United States of America that does not freely interfere with the affairs of other nations? Perhaps.

The American public nearly managed to halt the US’ War on Terror during the Bush Era. Their protests did not go unnoticed to their peers, the international community, and US politicians. Barack Obama successfully acquired control of the White House from his slogan of “Change,” with one of his main propositions being less US militaristic interventions in the Middle East. But Obama, either willingly or otherwise, lied to the American public as he basically only modified the approach of the Bush administration. Though because of how Obama deployed not US soldiers, replacing them with PMCs and drones, American anger subsided and Obama could continue the legacy of the Bush administration without much fear of public protests.

Another possibility for altering the US’ approach on international matters would be if another state could rival the power of the US and be willing to interfere with the superpower’s actions and decisions. For now, the likeliest candidates seem to be Russia, China, and maybe India. Although they have traded diplomatic blows with the US on occasion, it does not yet look that either of the three are in a position to directly challenge the US’ global hegemony.

Presently, there are not enough factors for the US to do a one-eighty on its foreign policy, nevertheless on the ones it designed for the Middle East. The American public lie in slumber as they are no longer perturbed by the constant bombardment of news concerning the deaths of US soldiers. The international community is either too fearful of the US or structurally restricted to affect US actions—it needs to be remembered that the US is a permanent member of United Nations Security Council, granting it dominion over international, interventionist actions by way of veto power. Simply put, there isn’t any method in existence for inhibiting US desires as anarchy reigns and the US revels in it.

Until the time comes, when a solution that we the writers cannot imagine arises, the US is as free as a bird. The atrocities it commits on a regular basis, its leaders who promise peace and democracy for but never bring these vows into reality, are all parts of life that we as citizens of Earth must humbly accept.

 

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