Obama’s Middle East challenge

Obama’s Middle East challenge

At the start of his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama told the audience at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC: “We are not at war with Islam … [and] we will stand with those who are willing to stand up for their future.” 

The challenge before Obama now is whether he is prepared to act on those far-sighted words. 

He used his first morning as president to halt prosecutions at Guantanamo Bay, has indicated his willingness to speak at a “major Islamic forum” within his first 100 days in office, and repeated his desire to “redefine our struggle” against Islamic extremism.

He has already demonstrated that he understands the importance of changing the symbolic vocabulary the US uses with the Muslim world.

However, symbols can be dangerous, especially when it comes to the Middle East not because the people of the region are too easily taken in by them, as Western Orientalists and viceroys have for two centuries claimed about the “Arab mind”.

Rather, it is because the West, and the US in particular, has a habit of taking symbols too seriously.

It is assumed that because Western leaders claim to stand for democracy, peace and development, the policies supporting these goals are naturally derived of these ideals.

Obama will now have to navigate a tightrope of competing agendas and hypocrisies, which have long been the stock and trade of foreign policy-making for great powers.

By sending George Mitchell, the US special envoy, to the region, he has demonstrated engagement, but not the fundamental rethinking of US policy that is necessary.

Hope” to reality

Bill Clinton, Obama”s Democratic predecessor, was also a “man from hope,” promising to refocus US policy towards our highest ideals.

Yet he caved in to powerful institutional interests – backing down from his pledge to push China on human rights, allowing Israel to greatly expand its settlements during the peace process he was supposed to shepherd, and allowing Pakistan to build the Taliban into a formidable force.

He also allowed the Middle East”s autocratic leaders to maintain their grip on power, many of them helped by continued US aid.

George Bush, the former US president, pushed his “freedom agenda” until his final days in office. Most people stopped listening years ago precisely because his policies so clearly vitiated his noble rhetoric.

Herein lies Obama”s problem: His view that “America must show – through deeds as well as words – that we stand with those who seek a better life” is contradicted by half a century of US policy towards the Middle East.

During this time the US has almost always stood not with the people, but with their leaders, regardless of how corrupt, repressive or autocratic they have been.

Americans might be, as Obama eloquently declared, “a compassionate nation that wants a better future for all people”.

However, like most wealthy countries, the US has rarely helped the world”s poor and oppressed obtain a better future if doing so would have cost its corporations profit or interfered with its strategic interests.

Similarly, Obama”s desire to focus US support on “helping nations build independent judicial systems and honest police forces” will quickly come up against the harsh reality that most of our allies in the Middle East and North Africa remain in power precisely through shackled judiciaries and corrupt and repressive police forces.

Obama”s dilemma

There is some evidence which suggests that the new president understands this dilemma.

In his inaugural speech, Obama explained that “our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age”.

He is likely aware of America”s failure to understand that the US, which makes up six per cent of the world”s population, consumes 24 per cent of its resources, and that this is inevitably going to breed hatred among the remaining 94 per cent.

Well over a century of occupation, imperialism, support for undemocratic leaders and control of local resources, have earned Western governments the opprobrium of the peoples of the Muslim world, and the developing world more broadly.

If Obama wants to work, alongside the world”s poor “to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow”- he must be prepared to take on major global companies who, aided by US-run institutions like the World Bank and USAID, are gobbling up the world”s supplies of fresh water and agricultural land for their own profit.

Hard choices ahead

The US president has made the Middle East and larger Muslim world the primary foreign policy issue for his first 100 days – the newly updated Whitehouse.gov website lists only Middle Eastern countries, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, and Israel-Palestine, as his main objectives.

In his inaugural address, he said: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

The words are eloquent, but the reality will not be easily changed. 

According to the White House”s first press release, the president “appreciated the spirit of partnership and warm nature” during his calls to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, Jordan”s King Abdullah, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

A Middle East policy based on the principles Obama outlined at his inauguration will find few partners in the region and if Obama”s pre-inauguration silence about Israel”s conduct of the Gaza war was troubling, his refusal since to offer any criticism of Israel”s actions, is deafening.

If this silence continues, it will drown out the administration”s calls for reform, democratisation, or moderation in the Muslim world.

Limited impact

More positively, Obama”s executive orders to shut down Guantanamo Bay and other CIA-run prisons are extremely important measures. 

However, their closure will affect only a few hundred prisoners at most.

Far more impactful will be the substance of the Obama administration”s relations with key allies and adversaries in the region, which will impact hundreds of millions of people.

Here the president”s call for “direct and unconditional” negotiations with Iran is welcome, as is his commitment to focus more energy and money on building accountable political and social institutions in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Despite its current economic problems, Iran is not a particularly poor country. Indeed, with its massive oil and gas reserves it will not be bought off by offers of US aid or foreign investment, no matter how generous.

Iran will not foreswear its nuclear ambitions unless the White House commits to a de-nuclearisation of the region that would include Israel.

If Israel”s leaders balk at this, it remains to be seen how Obama will deal with the security interests of “America”s strongest ally”.

Signature policy commitment

Obama”s pledge to withdraw all US forces from Iraq within 16 months of taking office was a centrepiece of his presidential campaign.

The Status of Forces agreement signed between the US and Iraqi government last November explicitly mandates a full American withdrawal by December 31, 2011.

Yet almost since the moment the agreement was announced, there have been strong indications that American military leaders would do their best to ensure the timeline is not met.

The main thrust of their strategy, which was communicated to Obama by Robert Gates, the defence secretary, in December, involves reclassifying tens of thousands of combat troops as “support troops,” tasked with continuing to train and support Iraqi forces and “fight al-Qaeda” in Iraq.

Obama seems to have gotten the message, because the administration”s plan as described on the White House website states that the US will remove all “combat brigades,” admitting that a “residual force” would remain for an indeterminate period of time.

Moreover, while the plan declares that the US “will not build permanent bases in Iraq,” the reality is that the US does not need to build any permanent bases now because they were already constructed amidst the fog of the first years of the occupation.

In fact, in 2003 Pentagon officials described the money being spent to build long-term bases as “staggering,” and by 2005, at least four “super bases,” housing upwards of 20,000 soldiers each, were in operation.

The White House has said nothing about dismantling them, particularly if tens of thousands of ambiguously named “support troops” are to remain in Iraq, as the Los Angeles Times reported on Obama”s first full day in office.

If the Obama administration blinks on carrying out its signature foreign policy commitment, who will trust that the US will keep its word to do so?

Transforming political power

Obama”s challenge in Iraq points to the reality that a transformation in the very structure of political and economic power in the US will inevitably bring Obama into conflict with some of the most powerful forces in the country.

Israel and Egypt receive well over $5 billion in US aid per year, much of it in the form of direct military transfers.

This aid is the lynchpin of the larger system of military aid and sales that has been worth many tens of billions of dollars just in the last half decade (only last year, the US signed a $20 billion arms sales agreement with Saudi Arabia, which was promptly followed by a $30 billion agreement with Israel, while allies such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Jordan clamored successfully for increases in their military assistance packages).

Such massive arms transfers make no sense in a region filled with democratic countries at peace with one another.

Rather, they have always required a combination of autocratic or repressive governments, manageable levels of conflict with occasional spikes that help ensure sufficiently high oil prices to enable the cycling of petrodollars back and forth between the US and the region.

Israeli economists Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler have described this loose grouping as the “Arma-Core Petro-Core coalition”.

For half a century this coalition has ensured that the financial and strategic interests of the arms and petroleum industries have profoundly shaped US foreign and security policy – culminating with a Bush-Cheney administration that was cut whole cloth from these trades.

As the last eight years have shown, peace, democracy and sustainable growth cannot come to the Middle East in such a political-economic environment.

Take control

In her final weeks as secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice predicted that the incoming administration”s policies would continue many of Bush”s policies.

If Obama cannot take control of the competing Middle East agendas within the American foreign policy, military and security establishment, they will frustrate and even sabotage his core foreign policy goals.

To assert his leadership across the board, Obama will have to put aside diplomatic pleasantries in future conversations with the region”s leaders and lay out a clear and unambiguous set of guidelines for US policy.

Prime Minister Olmert or his successor must be told that no more US military aid will be forthcoming until Israel begins pulling out of West Bank settlements and commits itself firmly to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

More broadly, leaders from Morocco to Pakistan, will have to be told that the US is adopting a new standard for judging its relations with the countries of the region.

Those countries that fully democratise, put an end to censorship, political imprisonment, torture, and other draconian practices, and respect human, civil and political rights, and work to address growing inequality in their societies, will receive ample support from the US.

Those that do not, will not.

Whether it is allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, or adversaries such as Iran or Syria, the message and policy must be unambiguous and equal.

Moral authority

Such a clear and balanced policy will also free Obama to focus on the all-important goals of addressing the challenges posed by global warming, water and food shortages.

It will also mark the beginning of the long term process of transforming a global economic system that forces roughly half the world”s population to live on $2 per day or less, into one that more equitably and sustainably distributes the world”s natural and economic bounties.

Obama”s historic rise to the presidency has demonstrated how the “audacity of hope” can spark profound social and political transformation.

If he has the political courage to do so, the US president has the power to help spark a similar transformation in the Middle East.

Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle East history at the University of California, Irvine, and is the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and the soon to be published An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.

The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Al Jazeera.