Published — Saturday 19 March 2016
I wish US President Barack Obama’s stormy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic magazine took place five years ago. Perhaps back then its implications would have been different.
This time his frankness has angered his friends and very little can be done in the remainder of his presidency to convince him of his mistake(s) or make them change their opinion.
After seven years in office, they have discovered that Obama has a different view previously unrevealed to them. He succeeded in angering his friends only: Saudi Arabia, the UK, Turkey and Israel. His answers were well thought out. They were not excuses given to the media, but principles he believes in. Goldberg described them as “the Obama doctrine,” which is why these important views should have been revealed in the first interview between the two in 2008. Obama does not consider terrorism a serious issue. He believes Earth’s ecological problems are far more dangerous to the world. This is an illogical trade-off, because a leading nation can tackle both challenges at the same time.
US retreats from the Middle East were key focuses during the interview. Obama did not deny them, and mentioned his predecessor Reagan’s decision to immediately pull US forces out of Lebanon after Hezbollah’s bombing of a marine barracks in 1983. However, Reagan was simultaneously fighting the Soviets in various parts of the world through a network of alliances.
The real mistake Washington committed in Syria was not that it did not fight the regime, but its lack of military support to the moderate opposition. Obama was right to refuse to send US troops to Syria and Libya, but wrong to let the war in Syria worsen until it became one of the biggest tragedies since WWII.
All the key US allies were ready to assume their responsibilities, despite Obama talking about “those who took advantage of the situation.” These allies were shocked when he abandoned his “red line” of the regime using chemical weapons against the Syrian people. Their shock increased when Washington confirmed the horrific deaths of thousands of prisoners in Syria — all documented with photos — and when millions of people fled.
Syria is a milestone in the history of the region, turning into a source of unprecedented tension despite many other crises in the Middle East. Ironically, history bears witness that the same president who killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden saw the rise of Daesh. Obama was the only US president who managed to gain the love of Arabs and Muslims during the toughest of times. He launched his presidency in our region in a friendly manner that we were unfamiliar with. He delivered two speeches from the heart of two of the most important historical Muslim cities, Cairo and Istanbul.
His speech at Cairo University was a magnificent piece of literature in which he spoke about his vision of Islam and peace, his experience in Jakarta, and his partially African and Muslim descent. He gained the love of many from among the 300 million Arabs who are usually angry at the US. Obama was undoubtedly the first to enter Muslims’ hearts. His biggest mistake relates to Syria. In his interview with The Atlantic magazine, we feel that he has probably changed a lot of his views. At the start of his presidency he appeared to us as warm, enthusiastic and wanting to communicate. In this interview, however, we feel he is cold, frustrated and withdrawn. The angry punches Obama directed at his friends included Saudi Arabia. Many of Riyadh’s rivals celebrated his criticism of the Kingdom, which has the longest stable relationship with the US in the region.
The interview revealed that Obama “developed” his understanding of extremism and terrorism, as his opinions now are opposite to what we heard from him at Cairo University. Back then; he proposed cooperation to fight extremism. He is now blaming Saudi Arabia and cooperating with Iran, about which he thinks he has discovered good traits that his predecessors had not.
Extremism is a serious ideological virus that has spread in Muslim societies as well as in the West. Obama said he lived part of his life in Indonesia, where the majority were tolerant Muslims, but when he visited it later he found extremism due to Saudi intellect.
The phenomenon of extremism in the Muslim world is complicated. In the early 1980s it appeared in Saudi Arabia and its surroundings, but this coincided with the extremist 1979 revolution in Iran, and the launching of a war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the name of Islam with Saudi-US-Pakistani partnership. Religion was politicized at that time, but before then I did not know or hear of any mosque in my city Riyadh that preached about politics.
Clerics did not make TV appearances to discuss world affairs. There were no charities or youth camps run by people with certain religious or other affiliations. What was common back then was the traditional Saudi Salafi Sunni concept that was known for being conservative regarding social affairs, but left politics to relevant figures.
The 1979 revolution in Iran, and the subsequent adoption of violent jihad, produced extremism as we see it today. These new Iranian rulers were the first to use religion in managing foreign affairs. Obama complains of extremism that reached Jakarta, but we too complain of it in Riyadh, Cairo and Casablanca. Riyadh did not used to be like that. I lived there during the same period that Obama lived in Jakarta.