Obama takes a cue from Clinton era

Obama takes a cue from Clinton era

During her first Middle Eastern tour, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced from Ankara that President Barack Obama will be visiting Istanbul next month. Obama”s forthcoming visit to Turkey is seen as a major shift in US policy towards the Middle East. It is quite unusual that a US president visits the region without stopping in Israel or meeting Israeli officials.

Instead, Obama made Turkey, a major Muslim country, one of his first foreign destinations. It is also significant that the US president will be taking part in a UN-backed meeting of the Alliance of Civilisations (to be held in Istanbul on April 6-7). One must also remember that Turkey is ruled by an Islamic-oriented government and that it has strong ties with other Islamists in the region, including Hamas and Hezbollah.

Obama”s visit to Turkey is, hence, seen as a major development and many will be monitoring its implications for both the Middle East and US policy in general. More pressing will be the issue of “terrorism” and how America will be dealing with political Islam and its different manifestations in the coming years.

Historically, one must say, the US has never been interested in culture, religion, ideology or ethical questions in the Middle East. US policy towards the Arab-Islamic world, since the end of the Second World War, has been determined by strategic and economic interests and its trademark was flexibility and pragmatism. This was the secret of Washington”s success in the Middle East during the Cold War, especially in dealing with political Islam.

After the Cold War, US policy towards Islam remained, with various degrees of interest, the same. Until the coming of George W. Bush, the official policy in Washington was, as president Bill Clinton once put it: “Islam, like Christianity, has its moderates and its extremists. We do not see Islam as some monolithic, hostile new “-ism”. Nor do we regard Islamist extremism as the wave of the future. The terrorists are always a deviant minority.”

Previous US administrations had also recognised that Islamists in power or around it are much more pragmatic and less dangerous than they are outside it. In Turkey, for example, Washington watched closely the rise of Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey”s first Islamist prime minister, to power through the ballot box, accepting the western secular system and working through it. And when in power, Turkey”s Islamists did not try to challenge the long-established pro-Western stand adopted by the country”s secular elite since the end of Second World War. More important for Washington perhaps, the alliance with Israel was not affected; Turkey retained its membership in Nato and continued to permit the US to use the Incirlik air base in the south to attack Iraq.

Similarly, the Ikhwan (Muslim Brethren) of Egypt, Jordan and even the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria have all tried – through formal and informal channels – to let it be known to Americans that they were willing to recognise US interests in case they were allowed to rule over their countries.

Previous US administrations recognised the socio-economic factors, which contributed to the rise of extreme religious tendencies in the region, and tried to handle them accordingly.

“People made desperate by poverty, unemployment, repression, and corruption in their societies turn to their cultural and religious roots for solace and guidance, and a few of these find their capacity for faith twisted into violence for political ends”, Robert Pelletreau, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, stated during a visit to Egypt in 1993.

In one way or the other, former US administrations had demonstrated not only their awareness of the nature, origins and diversity of the Islamic currents, but also acknowledged that the US could not afford the cost of confusing between a majority that sought political solutions to their problems and a minority that resorted to violence to achieve their ends.

The rationale behind this policy was, as the US State Department once put it: “The existing regimes in the Middle East are bound to disappear in the future because change is inevitable; one of Washington”s major policy objectives is to manage the transition to a new Middle Eastern political order with minimal cost.

The US views Islamists as integral players among the broad social forces operating in the region. Thus, to survive, the dominant ruling elite will have to broaden their social base by integrating Islamists into the political field.”

This logic explains why the US was capable of handling the Islamist phenomenon with a great deal of success during the Clinton era. It also explains why the Bush Jr administration failed.

Obama seems to have realised that Islamism is an important political force in the Middle East and that it cannot be eliminated in one stroke. Otherwise the US runs the danger of antagonising the entire Islamic world. Therefore, Obama”s call for dialogue with the “moderates” of Taliban is a first step in the right direction. 

* Dr Marwan Al Kabalan is a lecturer in Media and International Relations at Damascus University”s Faculty of Political Science and Media.

The Source