Barack Obama’s legacy in the Middle East: Six things we learned from ‘A Promised Land’

Alex MacDonald

Middle East Eye  /  November 17, 2020

In his latest memoir, the former president discusses being pressured by the Israel lobby, Bahrain’s assault on the pro-democracy movement, and the vagaries of having 12 wives.

Former US President Barack Obama released the first instalment of his presidential memoir, which chronicles his early life in politics, running first for congress and then later for president, and his first few tumultuous years in the White House.

The Middle East, in particular, changed dramatically during Obama’s time in office, seeing first the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the descent into conflict in Syria, Libya and Yemen and the rise of the Islamic State group.

With that in mind, Middle East Eye has trawled through A Promised Land for any interesting new details relating to the Middle East and North Africa:

He found himself subject to a ‘whisper campaign’ by pro-Israel figures

While campaigning for the Democratic nomination for president in 2007 and 2008, Obama found himself being targeted by Israel lobbyists who viewed him as being insufficiently supportive of the country.

“I’d been on the receiving end of some of this during my presidential campaign, as Jewish supporters reported having to beat back assertions in their synagogues and on email chains that I was insufficiently supportive of—or even hostile toward—Israel,” he wrote.

“They attributed these whisper campaigns not to any particular position I’d taken (my backing of a two-state solution and opposition to Israeli settlements were identical to the positions of the other candidates) but rather to my expressions of concern for ordinary Palestinians; my friendships with certain critics of Israeli policy, including an activist and Middle East scholar named Rashid Khalidi; and the fact that, as Ben [Rhodes] bluntly put it, ‘You’re a Black man with a Muslim name who lived in the same neighbourhood as Louis Farrakhan and went to Jeremiah Wright’s church.’”

He added that the influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was such that those “who criticized Israeli policy too loudly risked being tagged as ‘anti-Israel’ (and possibly anti-Semitic) and confronted with a well-funded opponent in the next election.”

Joe Biden opposed the operation against Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan

Joe Biden, then Barack Obama’s Vice President and now president-elect of the US, came out in opposition to the 2011 operation in Pakistan that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

He wrote that Biden “weighed in against the raid, arguing that given the enormous consequences of failure, I should defer any decision until the intelligence community was more certain that bin Laden was in the compound”.

A similar criticism from Biden came earlier during Obama’s campaign to become the Democratic nominee, where he said that if he located Bin laden within Pakistani territory and the Pakistani government was “unwilling or unable to capture or kill him”, then he would be willing to “take the shot”.

“My statement threw Washington into a bipartisan tizzy, with Joe Biden, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Republican presidential candidate John McCain both expressing the view that I was not ready to be president,” he wrote.

He admits diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia trumped defending Bahrain’s democracy movement

Writing about the Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain, when a major pro-democracy movement pushed for reform in the small Gulf kingdom, Obama said the risk of damaging relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Bahrain was too great to take a firm line against the Saudi military intervention.

He argued that the close relationship with the Bahraini government could allow the US to “privately pressure” for reforms.

“Still, Bahrain’s ruling establishment viewed the protesters as Iranian-influenced enemies who had to be contained,” he wrote.

“In concert with the Saudis and the Emiratis, the Bahraini regime was going to force us to make a choice, and all were aware that when push came to shove, we couldn’t afford to risk our strategic position in the Middle East by severing relations with three Gulf countries.”

Abu Dhabi’s Mohammed Bin Zayed warned him the old order wouldn’t let the Arab Spring force them out

During a meeting with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed Bin Zayed, Obama was “warned” against being too supportive of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movements across the region following a statement calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down in the face of protests.

“The public message does not affect Mubarak, you see, but it affects the region, MBZ told me. He suggested that if Egypt collapsed and the Muslim Brotherhood took over, there would be eight other Arab leaders who would fall, which is why he was critical of my statement.

“‘It shows,’ he said, ’that the United States is not a partner we can rely on in the long term.’

“His voice was calm and cold. It was less a plea for help, I realized, than a warning. Whatever happened to Mubarak, the old order had no intention of conceding power without a fight.”

He feared a ‘civil war’ in Libya if action was not taken against Gaddafi

Obama describes discussions he had with his top advisors about how to react to threats by Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi to crush opposition forces in the city of Benghazi.

“‘All right,’ I said. ‘I’m not ready to make a decision yet. But based on what I’m hearing, here’s the one thing we’re not going to do – we’re not going to participate in some half-assed no-fly zone that won’t achieve our objective.’

“I told the team we’d reconvene in a couple of hours, by which time I expected to hear real options for what an effective intervention would look like, including an analysis of the costs, human resources, and risks involved.

“‘Either we do this right,’ I said, ‘or we stop pretending that we’re serious about saving
Benghazi just to make ourselves feel better.'”

He explains of his eventual decision to launch air strikes against Gaddafi, as he feared if the late leader laid siege to Benghazi, “at best, a protracted conflict would ensue, perhaps even a full-blown civil war”.

“At worst, tens of thousands or more would be starved, tortured, or shot in the head. And at the moment, at least, I was perhaps the one person in the world who could keep that from happening,” he wrote.

He discussed the difficulty of having 12 wives with late Saudi King Abdullah

During a dinner in Riyadh, Obama and the late ruler of Saudi Arabia King Abdullah discussed the problems involved in maintaining multiple marriages.

“The king asked about my family, and I described how Michelle and the girls were adjusting to life in the White House. He explained that he had twelve wives himself – news reports put the number closer to thirty -along with forty children and dozens more grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

“‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, Your Majesty,’ I said, ‘but how do you keep up with twelve wives?’”

“‘Very badly,’ he said, shaking his head wearily. ‘One of them is always jealous of the others. It’s more complicated than Middle East politics.'”

Alex MacDonald is a reporter at Middle East Eye and has reported from Iraq, Turkey, Qatar and Bosnia; examining the seemingly endless social and ideological struggles of the region