One of the great mysteries of the past four years is how Barack Obama -- who rose to the presidency, in part, on his promises to fundamentally re-think and re-orient U.S. policy in the Middle East -- has instead spent his term running away from the region.
It is difficult to remember it now, but the prospect of an Obama presidency was initially greeted in the Arab world with a mixture of relief and guarded optimism. His name and Muslim origins certainly helped. But there was something else: For the first time, here was an American president who seemed to have an intuitive grasp of Arab grievances. This grasp extended, perhaps most importantly, to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israelis may have been victims, but so too were the Palestinians. In short, Obama seemed to "get" the Middle East. This didn't sound like someone who wanted to spend three years "pivoting" to China.
To look back at Obama's various statements before becoming president is somewhat jarring. At a 2003 farewell party for the scholar Rashid Khalidi, a fierce advocate for Palestinian rights, Obama told the audience that his conversations with Khalidi had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases ... It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation." Palestinian-American journalist Ali Abunimah recounted Obama telling him in 2004: "I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." (The campaign denied that Obama made such remarks.)
It is easy to make too much of these comments, as many already have. But there is little doubt that Obama stood apart from past presidents in the way he thought and spoke about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Moreover, he understood the conflict's centrality in the broader Arab narrative. As he told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg in 2008, "this constant wound...this constant sore, does infect all of our foreign policy." Even after becoming president, Obama would go out of his way to acknowledge America's checkered and sometimes tragic history in the region. In his 2009 Cairo address, he noted that tension between the West and the Muslim world "has been fed by colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations."
The question isn't whether such sentiments are good or bad. Whatever his prescriptions, Obama evidently believed in restoring American leadership in the Middle East and, by extension, that U.S. leadership mattered and could be used for good. In the subsequent years, however, Obama seems to have gradually lost faith in America's ability to impact the course of events.
In the wake of the Arab uprisings, senior U.S. officials insisted both privately and publicly that this was "not about America." Too much U.S. involvement went against the very spirit of this moment of self-determination, they said. This was wishful thinking: Of the five Arab revolutions and the one near-revolution in Bahrain, external actors have played a decisive role in at least four. Yet, in the absence of anything resembling a grand strategy, the Obama administration seemed, and still seems, primarily animated by a desire to reduce its footprint in the Middle East.