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President Barack Obama in 2013 finally brought order out of the chaos of his initial response to the turmoil in the Middle East known as Arab Spring. Obama, elected on a promise to end two wars in the region, made a blunt declaration that promoting democracy worldwide is not a “core interest” of the U.S and instead decreed that Washington must focus first and foremost on national security.
2013 saw considerable drama in the Middle East. Here are some of the key dates:
Obama met in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two appeared to patch up their tattered relationship — a critical step that might have paved the way for relaunching stalled Middle East peace talks.
The White House announced it would give Syria’s rebels military aid in response to strongman Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons.
Egypt’s armed forces ousted democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi. The Obama administration invited generous helpings of international ridicule by refusing to call his removal a “coup,” which would have triggered a cutoff in aid.
Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of Middle East peace efforts.
Assad allegedly unleashed chemical weapons in an attack that killed some 1,400 people. Obama’s response lurched this way and that (threatening military force, then asking Congress for permission) before settling on a Moscow-brokered plan calling for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Early steps have been promising but not without suspicions that Assad might be breaking the rules.
Obama had a telephone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the first direct conversation between leaders of both countries since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The United States announced that it was “recalibrating” its aid to Egypt, withholding Apache helicopters, F-16 fighters, tank parts, Harpoon missiles and about $260 million in economic aid in a move to push the country's military and interim government down the path to democracy. It still did not call Morsi’s ouster a "coup."
The Obama Administration announced that the United States and its partners had reached an interim deal with Iran to put that country's suspicious nuclear program on hold in return for a partial freeze of punishing economic sanctions.
Apart from the standoff with Iran, 2014 will likely dawn much the way 2013 did. Bloody civil war will still tear at Syria. The Middle East peace process will be a worthy but unrealized dream. Relations with traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt will be tense.
The six-month deal with Iran has stoked cautious optimism about the prospects that Tehran might verifiably abandon its atomic ambitions. But White House aides have emphasized that any easing of tensions with Iran would be gradual and reversible and that much work remains on the path to a comprehensive agreement.
The messy and frequently bloody status quo hides a dramatic evolution in Obama’s approach to the vital region sometimes dubbed “the broader Middle East.”
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Obama's return to form
The story of that evolution can be told largely in two of the president’s speeches. The first came on May 19, 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, when he cast his approach as an effort to be true to the nation's “core principles,” chiefly economic and political freedom. The second was in September, when he told the United Nations General Assembly he was retrenching from those principles to “core interests.”
In the 2011 speech, delivered at the State Department, Obama glowingly described the Arab Spring countries as a “longing for freedom” stirring people to revolt against “the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity.” He likened protesters against authoritarian regimes in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the region to the heroes of the American Revolution or the civil rights movement.
“We can, and we will, speak out for a set of core principles. We cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable and more just.”
By his 2013 U.N. speech, the emphasis on “core principles” had made way for “core interests” — and Obama quite forthrightly declared that promoting democracy was not among them.
Instead, he said, America’s core interests comprise: protecting allies and partners from external aggressive threats, as in the 1991 Gulf War; ensuring the flow of oil out of the region; preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon; and dismantling terrorist networks — if necessary with unilateral “direct action.”
"The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet, at least in our view, the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests."
In other words, undemocratic regimes can be America's partners against Islamist extremists, much as they were against the Soviet Union under previous presidents. Obama didn't name names, but governments in Yemen and Bahrain (as well as Egypt's military) have come in for sharp criticism on human rights grounds, yet all are seen as helping Washington battle al-Qaida and its offshoots.
It was a return to form for the president elected in 2008 on a pledge to pull U.S. forces out of Iraq and who made his plan for withdrawing from Afghanistan a centerpiece of his 2012 campaign.
[Related: Check out what was Not the top 10 news stories of 2013]
Retreat for a war-weary public
Obama has long made the argument that the U.S. must retreat from overly ambitious and exceedingly costly overseas engagements. At the same time, he’s been pragmatic or even cold-blooded about the use of American military force, notably the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden and the drone strikes that have become a defining feature of his foreign policy.
He intervened in Libya only to avert what aides warned would be the imminent slaughter of the population of Benghazi. He resisted escalating the U.S. role in Syria until President Bashar Assad allegedly used chemical weapons, stoking fears that inaction would stain his legacy and encourage other regimes to use such arms against their people. It also escalated the danger that instability could further rock American allies and partners in the region, such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
(Congress turned down his appeal for authority to use military force against Syria this year, a sign Obama miscalculated about how quickly the tea party’s anti-interventionist strain could gain influence with the war-weary public.)
Obama’s approach has drawn sharp criticism from some hawkish lawmakers skeptical of his new push for negotiations with Iran and angry that he has not done more to topple Assad.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham used a late-October op-ed in the Washington Post to denounce what they called Obama’s “abdication of a leadership role in the Middle East” and a “collapse of U.S. credibility” in the region.
“Events in the region are headed in a perilous direction, and there is little reason to feel confident that the Obama administration has a strategy to secure U.S. interests and values in this vitally important part of the world,” the lawmakers charged.
McCain and Graham’s position, though, puts them at odds with what opinion polls show to be Americans’ deep hostility toward greater intervention overseas.