Obama’s Arab and Muslim Strategy

Obama’s Arab and Muslim Strategy

As Barack Obama settles into his presidency, each day brings further evidence of one of the main goals of his foreign policy — namely to build bridges to the Arab and Muslim world in order to restore America’s battered image and tarnished international standing, and make it safe from terrorist attack.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent criticism of Obama’s decision to close Guant?namo and improve the treatment of prisoners gave the new President an opportunity forcefully to restate his views. The occasion was an interview on “60 Minutes,” the widely-watched CBS television programme, on 22 March.

Cheney’s philosophy, Obama declared, had been “a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment.” It had led to a “constant effective recruitment of Arab fighters and Muslim fighters against U.S. interests all around the world.”

“How long are we gonna go?” he asked rhetorically. “Are we gonna just keep on going until you know, the entire Muslim world and Arab world despises us? Do we think that’s really gonna make us safer?”

In shorthand terms, one can say that Obama has chosen to focus on four interconnected subjects: the deadlocked Arab-Israeli conflict; the fraught relationship with Iran; the tangle of problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the urgent need to restore respect for America’s system of justice.

Interestingly enough, Iraq, which had been an all-engrossing American preoccupation for the past six years, seems to figure hardly at all on Obama’s agenda. The Iraq war was not his war. He is ending it. The Iraqis must now rebuild their shattered country as best they can. America is on its way out.

On the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama seized the initiative in the first hours of his presidency by restating his belief in a two-state solution and announcing the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell, a veteran negotiator, as his special envoy to the region. Now there is evidently a pause. The Obama administration is waiting to see the outcome of two key processes — Binyamin (‘Bibi’) Netanyahu’s efforts to form an Israeli government, and Egypt’s attempts to persuade the fratricidal rivals, Fatah and Hamas, to form a joint Palestinian government.

Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud, has already signed up the ultra-right Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteiunu, as well as the ultra-Orthodox Shas. But in order to avoid the damaging charge of forging a narrow right-wing coalition — which would incur American displeasure and risk international isolation — he has also managed to persuade the Labour leader Ehud Barak to join his coalition. In the words of Amir Oren, a journalist on the Israeli daily, Haaretz, “Barak is afraid of being left outside, and Bibi is scared of being left alone inside.”

By joining Netanyahu, Barak has thrown principle to the winds. No doubt his wish to retain the Defence Ministry overrode all other considerations. The upshot is that Israel will continue its decades-long deception of talking peace while grabbing Palestinian land. Will Obama have the courage to call Israel’s bluff and insist on a settlement freeze? This is the key question because without a freeze, talk of peace would be a mockery.

As for the Palestinians, they seem unaware that their greatest gift to Netanyahu would be to continue their vicious squabbling. Unless they close ranks — and fast — no one, not even Obama, will be able to help them. Their cause, already in extreme danger, will simply go by default.

Obama’s most dramatic move so far has been his opening to the Islamic Republic of Iran. In an evident attempt to end thirty years of sterile hostility, he has told the Iranians, in a video message on the occasion of the Persian New Year, that he is seeking “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.”

The response of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to this overture has been cautious, but by no means negative. If the United States changed its behaviour, he said, Iran would do so as well. But he wanted more than words from America — the lifting of oppressive sanctions, the release of blocked Iranian assets, the end to accusations that Iran was seeking nuclear weapons, the recognition of past mistakes.

In reaching out to Iran, Obama has faced strident criticism from America’s pro-Israeli neoconservatives for being weak and “defeatist.” Undeterred, he has already hinted that more measures to court Iran are on the way. Iran has been invited to attend a conference on Afghanistan at The Hague at the end of this month. Contacts with Iranian diplomats, prohibited so far, are expected to be allowed. The beginning of a U.S.-Iranian dialogue now seems inevitable — in spite of Israeli attempts to wreck it and the worries of Iran’s Arab neighbours that their interests will be passed over.

Obama seems determined to heal the rift with Tehran. He is well aware that the United States will need Iran’s help if Lebanon’s fragile internal harmony is to be secured; if hard-line Palestinian factions are to be moderated in the interests of an Arab-Israeli settlement; and, above all, if the Taliban in Afghanistan are to be curbed and Al-Qaeda isolated and weakened. Iran would be well advised to grasp his outstretched hand.

Obama has signalled that he understands the need for a regional approach, including India, China and Iran. He is also seeking to reassure Tehran when he says that “there’s got to be an exit strategy.” There is nothing Iran would like better than the removal of American troops from its borders. Afghanistan, where the United States and Iran have common interests, could prove to be the real test of the budding relationship.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.

The Source