The Obama Doctrine: Eight years of Orientalism

The Obama Doctrine: Eight years of Orientalism
4 min read
24 May, 2016
Comment: The US president's outdated agenda in the Middle East has been exposed as divisive and dangerous, writes Dr. Tamara Kharroub.
President Obama seems to miss the most basic principles: actions speak louder than words [Getty]
In a lengthy narrative collection of conversations and interviews with President Obama, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg's tedious tale of Obama's political philosophy, now known as "The Obama Doctrine", was recently published in The Atlantic.

While providing unique insights into President Obama's principles and decision-making, these informal private conversations reveal the president's true attitudes towards the Middle East.

The Obama Doctrine, in Obama's words

According to President Obama, his political philosophy is marked by realism.

"I suppose you could call me a realist in believing we can't, at any given moment, relieve all the world's misery," Obama said. "We have to choose where we can make a real impact."
Obama believes that foreign policy achievements can be made through diplomacy


President Obama also considers himself an internationalist dedicated to international cooperation and norms, and an idealist in his beliefs in promoting the values of democracy and human rights. Obama is also self-professed anti-"free riders", insisting that European and Arab states must share the global agenda and its responsibilities with the US.

Obama believes that foreign policy achievements can be made through diplomacy, taking pride in his diplomatic accomplishments - the Iran nuclear deal and opening up to Cuba - and in breaking with the "Washington playbook" which tends to prescribe military responses to most international challenges.

According to Obama, "real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence". However, Obama insists, when there is a direct threat to US national security, he is the first to wage wars.

A Middle East reading of the Obama Doctrine

Obama's positions towards the Middle East started out optimistic and tolerant, with his famous Cairo speech in 2009.

However, as it turns out in Goldberg's account, this was a classic arrogant performance by Obama to "persuade Muslims to more closely examine the roots of their unhappiness" and to "trigger a discussion… for Muslims to address the real problems they are confronting".

President Obama initially promised to help advance a "successful Arab agenda that provided a better life for ordinary people", then went on to support dictators and oppressive governments across the region - from Egypt’s Mubarak and Sisi to Israel. President Obama seems to miss one of the most basic principles: "actions speak louder than words."

While Obama's public statements regarding the Middle East remained very carefully calculated, a more nuanced understanding of his true positions and confessions, revealed through The Atlantic, sheds light on his real Middle East doctrine.

Although in recent public statements, Obama reiterates his famous avoidance of creating anti-Muslim xenophobia and his opposition to viewing the Middle East through the Clash of Civilizations prism, in private conversations Obama's true feelings become clear.

Reading between the lines exposes Obama's orientalist views. His "realist" policy of "retrenchment" is in fact an expected natural response to failed militarism in the Middle East, but his xenophobia is shocking.

Obama explicitly expressed his views that people of the Middle East are inferior to others around the world. In discussing the Middle East, Obama remarked: "Contrast that with south-east Asia, which still has huge problems - enormous poverty, corruption - but is filled with striving, ambitious, energetic people who are every single day scratching and clawing to build businesses and get education and find jobs and build infrastructure. The contrast is pretty stark… They are not thinking about how to kill Americans."
Dismissive xenophobic rhetoric about - and towards - the Middle East is very dangerous


For someone who often makes the effort to distinguish between Islamic extremists and ordinary Muslims, and regularly publicly asserts that "radical interpretations of Islam [are adopted] by a tiny faction within the Muslim community", such false generalizations about what he perceives as the homogenous group of "people of the Middle East" are problematic at best.

This dismissive xenophobic rhetoric about - and towards - the Middle East is very dangerous. In Goldberg's account, Obama goes on to call for connecting with young Asians and Africans and Latin Americans, who, according to Obama, are thinking, "how do I get a better education? How do I create something of value?" - instead of wasting time with Middle Easterners in "figuring out how to… control the malicious, nihilistic, violent parts of humanity".

Today, Edward Said's Orientalism rings truer than ever.

"So far as the United States seems to be concerned," Said wrote in 1980, "it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world."

Obama has finally shown his true colours; demeaning orientalist perceptions of the Middle East and arrogance towards its people.

The Obama Doctrine from a Middle East Perspective: Orientalism, Inaction, Contradiction, and Lack of Accountability can be found in full on the website of the Arab Center in Washington DC.

Dr. Tamara Kharroub is a Middle East Analyst at the Arab Center, Washington DC.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.