Edited by Cheyenne Cheng
Written by Steven Spear, Jr.
The Middle East is known for being a region in near-constant conflict. This characterization was especially true in President Obama’s first term. In the beginning of 2011, the world saw the Middle East mired in protests, revolutions, and civil wars. With many countries buying oil from this region, a terrorist group forming and gaining strength, and a Syrian dictator abusing his people, Obama and the United States could not afford to turn a blind eye.
The Arab Spring
Widespread dissatisfaction over political corruption, income gaps, extreme poverty, and human rights violations led to conflicts throughout the Middle East and the Arab countries in Northern Africa. (A country is considered Arab if a majority or large minority of its citizens are descended from the Middle East and outside of Israel). These conflicts (nicknamed the Arab Spring) resulted in the ousting of several presidents and dictators and structural changes in many governments. The Obama administration gave its support, in money and weapons, to the protestors and rebel fighters in hopes of spreading democracy throughout the region.
In February 2011, Libya’s protests began over human rights violations by a government led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. At first, Obama resisted intervention, but after the United Kingdom and France agreed to join, the U.S. began to conduct air strikes against Gaddafi’s military. Over two dozen other European countries joined soon after, and Gaddafi’s military fell in August 2011. Gaddafi was later captured and killed in October of that same year.
In Benghazi, Libya, on September 12, 2012, four Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. embassy. The Obama administration initially blamed the attack on Innocence of Islam, an anti-Muslim video, and suggested that the attack was spontaneous. Later, the administration blamed the extremist group Ansar al-Sharia and clearly labelled the attack as “premeditated.” Congressional Republicans criticized Obama’s unwillingness to share information with them and the public in the weeks following the attack. Then-Speaker of the House John Boehner agreed to create a special committee to investigate the attack and its handling by the Obama administration when leaked emails revealed that officials were encouraged to publicly describe the attack as a result of the video and not a policy failure. It is worthy to note that this attack happened two months before the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. Admitting guilt to a foreign policy failure that cost the lives of four Americans would have been disastrous—but not necessarily fatal—to Obama’s hopes for re-election.
The Syrian Civil War
The Syrian Civil War is a conflict with many different sides, and many foreign supporters who cannot agree on who they are supporting and for what reasons. This is an incredibly complicated foreign policy issue that I could not describe in its entirety. The following will give you a basic understanding of what’s happening, and you can expect a full explanation within the coming months:
On January 2011, the Arab Spring protests in Syria were calling for President Bashar al-Assad to resign for human rights abuses. Under Assad’s rule, nearly every aspect of the Syrians’ lives were regulated, and those who spoke out against the government were arrested and tortured. Instead of listening and compromising with the peaceful protestors, Assad broke up the protests through arrests and shooting into the crowds. The crowd fought back: the protestors became rebels—calling themselves the Free Syrian Army—and the Syrian Civil War began.
After resisting calls to intervene for two years, President Obama brought the U.S. into the war in 2013 after Assad used chemical weapons (nerve gas, tear gas, etc.) against the rebels, and civilians were killed in the crossfire. Obama then led the international community against Assad, and the U.S. sent weapons and trained Syrian rebels. With U.S. intervention, there was discussion that the war would end soon, but the rebels had a new enemy—ISIS. Obama originally proposed airstrikes against Assad, but later backed down. When ISIS joined the war, however, the airstrikes began almost immediately. Because of this, there is confusion on how dedicated Obama is to toppling Assad’s regime—he seems dedicated enough to train the rebels, but not enough to conduct airstrikes against Assad’s military.
Assad began losing ground to the rebels, and ISIS began taking land from Assad even though it fought the rebels. Seeing Assad lose, Russia joined in and started to send money and weapons to Assad’s military. It claims that it will only conduct airstrikes against ISIS, but those airstrikes have also killed the U.S.-backed rebels.
Should President Obama have intervened earlier in the Syrian Civil War? He probably should have, but hindsight is always 20/20. Obama resisted dedicating U.S. resources to this conflict because he (and the rest of the world) expected it to be relatively mild and end quickly. They were wrong. Syria has felt the use of chemical weapons, seen the rise of a brutal terrorist group, and become a proxy war between Russia and the United States. I believe Obama did the best he could.
Continue Reading Obama’s Foreign Policy: Terrorism and Nuclear Weapons