Obama's legacy of failure in the Middle East

Speaking to former staffers on Pod Save America at an event to celebrate the 15th anniversary of his election, Barack Obama decided to address the “complexity” of a crisis that began when Hamas slaughtered 1,400 Israelis ranging from babies to senior citizens, burned civilians, raped women, and took 230 hostages.

While Hamas’s actions were “horrific,” Obama said, “what is also true is that the occupation and what’s happening to Palestinians is unbearable.” He then went on an extended on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand discourse, before reflecting, “If you want to solve the problem, then you have to take in the whole truth and then you have to admit nobody’s hands are clean. That all of us are complicit to some degree.”

To start, the blame for October 7 and all of the events that followed it rests squarely with the terrorist group that perpetrated the attacks. But to the extent that there’s more blame to go around, it’s worth separating Obama from the rest of us. Unlike Obama, the rest of “us” did not get to be president of the United States and steer policy in the region for nearly a decade.

Obama referred to his presidency in characteristically self-aggrandizing fashion, patting himself on the back for all of his amazing effort: “As hard as I tried, and I’ve got the scars to prove it, but there’s a part of me that’s still saying, ‘Well, was there something else I could have done?’”

I have some ideas.

Obama entered office in 2009 as one of the most hostile presidents to Israel in the history of American relations with the Jewish state. Meeting with the leaders of major Jewish organizations, he said he would intentionally attempt to create more distance between the U.S. and Israel. “When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states,” he said, the Washington Post reported. All his policy of “daylight” accomplished was to convince Palestinians to demand more concessions before negotiating a peace deal, and to make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more suspicious of signing a deal based on security guarantees from Obama. Even as Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly rebuffed Obama on peace talks, his administration consistently pointed the finger at Israel as the primary barrier to getting a deal. This, even after the PA signed a unification agreement with Hamas, which ruled Gaza but was splintered from the government.

In Obama’s second term, his foreign policy was focused primarily on securing a nuclear deal with Iran. Much of the criticism of the deal has focused on what was in it — i.e., that it delivered billions in sanctions relief while allowing Iran to bolster its conventional military and preserve a glide path toward a nuclear weapon. What is more overlooked is the fact that in its desperate pursuit of the nuclear deal, the Obama administration turned a blind eye toward Iran’s malign behavior around the globe, despite its being the leading state sponsor of terrorism. This included funding, training, and transferring weapons to Hamas and Hezbollah. In fact, a 2017 investigative report by Politico revealed, “In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, even as it was funneling cocaine into the United States.” Money raised by the drug trafficking helped fund Hezbollah’s terrorism against Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and elsewhere.

This should have been no surprise given that one of the key players in crafting Iran policy was Robert Malley, who had been sidelined from the 2008 Obama campaign after it was revealed that he met with Hamas. (Malley served as President Biden’s special envoy for Iran and was trying to revive the nuclear deal before he was suspended by the State Department over an investigation into his security clearance.)

At the end of the Obama administration, Hamas was much richer, stronger, and more accepted than at the start of his administration.

Obama may have had more subtlety than Representative Ilhan “It’s all about the Benjamins” Omar, but the antisemitic rhetoric we’re hearing today was mainstreamed during his administration. He appointed Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense; Hagel had once lamented that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” and repeatedly slammed “lobbyists” and “money” for working against the Iran deal rather than considering American interests.

Obama was indeed complicit in the troubling events of our times. But if he’s going to reflect on his own failed legacy, he should leave the rest of us out of it.

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