President Obama's policy toward the Arab world satisfies some, yet evokes the anger of others. If we put aside the issue of Palestine — because of the extent of Israel’s influence regarding this issue in Congress and the media — we see a clear contrast in Obama's policy positions toward Syria and Iran-related issues and the general struggle for power in the Arab world.
There are some in the Arab world who contend that the U.S. should directly intervene in Syria to oust Bashar al-Assad's regime, while others call for the U.S. to declare war on Iran, or at the very least would appreciate a U.S. escalation of economic sanctions against Iran. There are some who accuse the United States, and the Obama administration specifically, of being behind the popular uprisings that swept through a number of Arab countries; alleging that the U.S. closely coordinated with Islamists in order to assist them in ascending to power. At the same time, the Obama administration has been accused of abandoning its allies — Mubarak and Ben Ali — when they most needed the United States.
In contrast, there are some that believe, and I am among them, that the Arab Spring coinciding with the Obama era was a godsend for the people of the Middle East. Imagine if, for example, the American administration had facilitated the oppression of the revolting peoples of Tunisia and Egypt, whether by abetting the military leadership of the two countries, or by directly instructing its allies to oppress the revolts. Undoubtedly, we would have seen thousands of casualties in both countries — and that is if the oppression had not led to civil wars, as it has in Syria and Libya. Moreover, imagine that the United States had intervened in Syria. The regime would have surely been ousted, but the United States, as it did in Iraq, would have left behind thousands of victims, leaving Syria to be controlled by extremist groups. In this case, Lebanon and Jordan would have also become battlefields. War with Iran, as Israel and some Arab leaders want, would be insanity itself, as it would lead to an all-out war that would include not only Iran, but Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and the Gulf countries.
Obama is well aware that becoming too involved in the problems of the region would increase American obligations — in regards to both material and personnel — and his administration does not see this involvement as necessary. More importantly, the Obama administration realizes that intervention would not lead to solutions, but instead new crises.
America cannot foster reconciliation among elites in even a single country. Of course, America could invest in an "inter-elite conflict" in its own interest, but it certainly cannot impose reconciliation in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya or Egypt. This would require a willingness of the elites themselves to put aside their own interests in the interest of their countries. America can defend Saudi Arabia, or the Gulf countries, if they were threatened — not in love, but to protect America's own interests — but America cannot, for example, convince the rulers of Bahrain to hold free and fair elections, or force Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive.
American influence is limited because the resources that serve this influence are limited; the use of what influence is available is restricted to defending America's essential interests: oil, ports, free trade and, of course, Israel, should it be subject to an existential threat. Obama realizes this, and knows that the Iraq occupation was a strategic blunder of the Bush administration; not only because of the extensive human and material costs, but also because it led to an increase in the amount of influence exerted by extremist groups and induced an imbalance of power in the region.
The Obama administration is justified in not seeing Iran as a danger to the Gulf countries for two reasons. First, America provides a security umbrella to the Gulf countries that prevents anyone from attacking them. Second, the problems of these countries are with their people, not with Iran, and in this case America cannot do much to help them.
Take for example Operation Decisive Storm, which Riyadh has announced against the Houthis of Yemen, alleging that the Houthis are proxies of Iran through which Iran can directly threaten Saudi Arabia itself. Only in the Arab world can 10 million people be described as agents of a foreign country. This description is not without precedent; “foreign agents” is the exact same way Saudi Arabia has described two-thirds of the Iraqi population.
The least costly way of insuring Saudi Arabia's security is to help Yemen overcome its economic struggles and devise a power-sharing plan for those vying for rule, which is the same solution that must be enacted in Syria, not exporting terrorists and supplying them with money and weapons. This is a recipe for bloody, perpetual war and the unceasing suffering of the Syrian people. Above all this, it is a formula for a continuous security vacuum for the countries surrounding Syria.
I have read some Arab writers who accuse Obama of lacking leadership skills, and of losing the prestige of the American "empire" with his policy of refusing to intervene militarily in the region. The truth is that the people of the Middle East and the rest of the world are lucky to have an American administration led by Obama because military intervention in the region would feed extremist groups and would lead to entire countries falling into the grip of extremists. Then of course, as always, America would be accused of being allied with terrorist groups because it facilitated their rise to power.