The BLOG: Politics and Law

The spread of Islamism and Obama’s legacy in the Middle East

President Obama’s foreign policy has been a subject of intense debate over the past eight years, particularly concerning his actions in the Middle East. While his decisions have earned praise from some and scorn from others, there is one curious aspect of his foreign policy that has gone unnoticed by many; the president’s harsh rhetoric and actions concerning secular dictators in the Middle East, and his willingness to tolerate and even cooperate with Islamist regimes.

When the Egyptian protests began in January 2011, the president gave the protesters very vocal support. “Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day,” he said in a statement on the day that President Mubarak stepped down amid protests. He praised the election of Mohammed Morsi, even though the party Morsi represented had close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, Morsi’s promise to release terrorist Omar Abdel-Rahman from American prison and his statements calling Israelis the descendants of apes and pigs showed that he was more than a merely nominal Islamist.

But these remarks left the president unfazed, as he promised Morsi’s government four F-16 fighter jets, a move that was questioned by befuddled critics for giving military aid to an ardently anti-Zionist (and, indeed, anti-Semitic) regime.

In 2013, when Morsi was overthrown in a military coup, the White House was very critical. A press release urged the military “to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government as soon as possible.” As Spencer Case observes in his article, “How Obama sided with the Muslim Brotherhood,” the White House gradually slowed its financial aid to Egypt, even rescinding its delivery of the fighter jets to Egypt, clearly showing its disapproval of the military dictatorship of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Why did the White House show such disapproval? Because Morsi represented “democracy” while el-Sisi represented autocracy? While el-Sisi is certainly a brutal dictator, we must remember that one of the main reasons for the military coup was that Morsi passed a law in November of 2012 that gave him almost unlimited executive power. If Morsi remained in office any longer, he would have become just as, if not more, autocratic than el-Sisi is now.

But this seemed to be lost on the president, as he harshly and repeatedly condemned el-Sisi for his crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood members in the aftermath of the coup. In fact, Case also observes in his article that Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Egyptian government to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood, even going so far as to say that they were not a “security threat” to Egypt.

Considering the fact that they have been consistently trying to overthrow the Egyptian government since the 1950s, it is unclear how Kerry could see the Muslim Brotherhood as anything other than a security threat.

But perhaps even more bizarre: Where are Kerry’s pleas to the government of Islamist Turkish President Recep Erdogan, whose recent political purge in response to July’s failed military coup is even more far-reaching than El-Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood? While the secretary urged Erdogan to resist the use of violence and torture, his response wasn’t nearly as strong as the purge of El-Sisi. Considering Erdogan has shut down more than 1,000 private schools and 15 universities, as well as 45 newspapers, it would seem appropriate for Kerry to give a more forceful response.

Obama’s troubling foreign policy doesn’t stop there. Perhaps his most controversial move in the Middle East was the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. This move stunned many, as Iran has been viewed as one of America’s most threatening enemies.

So why was the president so willing to cooperate with the Iranians, but much more reluctant over negotiations with President Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin over the Syrian Civil War? While Assad is a harsh tyrant, he is certainly no worse than the theocratic Iranian regime, or many of the Islamist Syrian rebels who oppose him. Wouldn’t a deal with Assad seem more practical than a deal with Iran? Even when he finally agreed to talks with Russia and Syria, President Obama still demanded that Assad leave office, showing that, as much as many on the right accuse him of not doing enough in Syria, Obama is still more willing to play hardball with Assad than with Morsi or Iran.

When looking at these four examples: Egypt, Turkey, Iran, and Syria, a strange pattern begins to emerge. The president takes a relatively hard stance against the secular dictators of the Middle East, such as El-Sisi and Assad, while simultaneously playing nice with Islamist leaders (Erdogan, Khameini) who have taken similar, if not worse, actions than their secular counterparts. Whether or not the president is doing this intentionally, this pattern eventually will prove dangerous. The problem isn’t that President Obama is making deals with the bad guys, as this is inevitable in foreign policy. The problem is, he’s making deals with the wrong bad guys. As awful as El-Sisi is, an Egypt led by him is ultimately better than one run by the Muslim Brotherhood. As tyrannical as Assad and Putin are, negotiating with them would prove more practical than negotiating with Ayatollah Khamenei, who is ideologically committed to the destruction of Israel.

While the president’s policies can be the subject of endless debate and discussion, one thing is clear: Islamism has spread like a contagion throughout the Middle East, and the president has been ineffective at stopping it.

Shant Eghian

Shant Eghian

Shant Eghian is a current history/political science double major at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.