Obama's true legacy: Trump
In just 48 hours, the keys to the world’s most powerful off-road vehicle will drop into the lap of one Donald J Trump, a driver with road rage. On the most dangerous roads - the Middle East, global warming, China - he has no idea where he is heading.
As the premiere of this road trip movie draws closer, people have already started to look back on Barack Obama with nostalgia. They should know better.
It is no mean feat for a president-elect to make the fifth series of House of Cards redundant, but this Trump has already achieved
Judging Obama by no less a standard than his own words, his term of office proved, in so many ways, to be a cruel deception. Cruel, because millions allowed themselves to believe in the dreams he spun. Deception, because it was he who set himself the task of becoming nothing less than a transformational figure after eight years of George W Bush. It was he who promised to "heal this nation and repair the world”.
No one put these words into his mouth. He uttered them. It was he who promised the Muslim world a new deal in Cairo. It was he who promised to face down Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
As things turned out, however, Obama was not the agent of change, but its object. He did not transform. He was himself transformed. Confronted by regional bullies, he stepped to one side, observing the action from a new vantage point in the annals of US foreign policy - from the sidelines.
This happened with Benjamin Netanyahu, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad. Syria was not a case of "damned if you do intervene" and "damned if you don't". If Obama had learned the lessons of two decades of military misadventure in the Middle East, he should have made sure that neither Russia, nor Iran intervened either. He had the tools to stop both. He never used them.
If Obama had merely been inactive in Syria, that would have been one thing. He, however, actively prevented the rebels from getting the weapons they needed to stop barrel bombs falling on their hospitals, markets and schools. In his last months, Obama attempted to spin this as policy.
Obama’s work on his own legacy began with an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, which ends with following judgement: “George W Bush was also a gambler, not a bluffer. He will be remembered harshly for the things he did in the Middle East. Barack Obama is gambling that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.”
That was penned in April last year. In December, East Aleppo fell and how differently those words read now.
Obama was a president on whom accolades were showered before he had even started, and one who persistently fell short of earning his own praise. This may seem harsh on the man, who gave millions of Americans health insurance and who had the right response to the Great Recession.
But America’s first black president was as irrelevant to the lives of Black Americans as Britain’s first woman prime minister was to British feminism.
Cause and effect
Obama’s real legacy is Trump. Centrists like Obama, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and David Cameron should not duck their responsibility for creating the conditions in which right-wing populists, if not outright fascists, thrive.
Clinton, Bush, Obama are all walk-on parts in the same drama - the decline and fall of Western leadership
The nationalism sweeping through liberal democracy is a direct result of a system failure. Be that failure in the form of embracing the retreat of the state and being supremely relaxed about extreme inequality or in the creation of economies which globalise insecurity and nationalise debt.
Clinton, Bush, Obama are all walk-on parts in the same drama - the decline and fall of Western leadership. Yes, there are outside forces at work, but primarily, we are witnessing an implosion, a weakening of the pillars which support Western hegemony in the post-Cold War world, the EU, the UN, Nato. Michael Moore is not alone in planning the first 100 days of resistance. The CIA is too. That is what makes Trump's insurgency so interesting. With the best of intentions, Obama’s presidency played its part in that collapse.
And so, on to the next actor in this drama, Donald Trump.
A move to the right
For Israel, Trump has appointed David Friedman, an ambassador who supports Israeli settlements, advocates annexation of West Bank territory and questions the citizenship of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Advised by his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump has opposed the UN Security Council resolution on settlements and the Paris Peace conference.
Trump has already moved well to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu and is in the territory of Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, who believes that the new US president will bury the Palestinian state, a logical consequence of Trump’s wish to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Under Trump then, Israel could well expect to see a green light to annex Area C of the West Bank, and continue the work of cleansing the Jewish state of its non-Jewish citizens. Ethnic cleansing is back in vogue, after what Assad and the Iranians have been allowed to get away with in Daraya and Aleppo. Israel could well feel free to do the same.
Each and every move outlined above would be enough to trigger a third Intifada.
Boon for al-Qaeda
For Syria, Trump’s answer is security zones, for which he intends to get the Gulf states to pay. Whereas Obama at least clung to the rhetoric of human rights and democracy promotion, Trump has no qualms about overt support for dictators such as Sisi. Trump’s administration not only will support dictators, but will listen to them as well.
Evidence for this is contained in the testimony of Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive who is Trump’s nominee for secretary of state. Tillerson, in his opening statement, warned that the US must be honest about radical Islam, and that once the Islamic State is defeated, the US then should move on to address other “radical” Islamic groups in which he included al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tillerson’s inclusion of the Brotherhood in his list of radical Islamic forces was not a slip of the tongue. Trump’s Middle East adviser, Walid Phares, a Maronite Christian from Lebanon, has already said the incoming president plans to outlaw the group.
Phares has a murky past, for his support of a far-right Lebanese militia which committed war crimes in the Lebanese Civil War, and has himself been denounced by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee when he joined Trump’s election campaign.
There is already a draft bill in Congress, the Muslim Brotherhood Terrorist Designation Act, outlawing the Brotherhood, which Obama refused to sign. If Trump does, he would be consigning millions of Islamists, who form the largest political party in most Arab countries, into the hands of al-Qaeda. Trump would be giving al-Qaeda the biggest possible eid the group could have ever dreamt of, far bigger than the boost to their ranks provided by Sisi’s military coup.
The Dubai connection
The bill in Congress was the result of heavy lobbying from the Emiratis, for whom the Brotherhood remains an obsession. Trump’s link with the Emirati regime is through businessman Hussain Sajwani, chairman of Damac Properties Dubai Co. The company already has two golf resort development deals with Trump in Dubai. Trump told his first press conference since his election that he was offered $2bn in Dubai with this "very, very amazing man, a great developer from the Middle East”. He turned it down, but as he kept repeating, he did not have to.
It is, therefore, not true to claim that Trump enters the White House as an unknown quantity. His cards in the Middle East have already been marked: by Israel, by Russia, by the Emirates, by Egypt - all the regimes battling to suppress the forces which will eventually bring free elections, democracy and transparency to the governments of the Middle East.
It is no mean feat for a president-elect to make the fifth series of House of Cards redundant, but this Trump has already achieved. Tighten your seats belts. It's going to be a rough ride.
- David Hearst is editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He was chief foreign leader writer of The Guardian, former Associate Foreign Editor, European Editor, Moscow Bureau Chief, European Correspondent and Ireland Correspondent. He joined The Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Obama meets with President-elect Donald Trump 28 December 2016 (CNN)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.