A young Nigerian Muslim of 23, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, has blown Barack Obama off course. He has forced the U.S. President to declare a world-wide war on Al-Qaeda -- in effect a policy indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s ‘Global War on Terror’.
No doubt Obama had no alternative but to respond forcefully to this latest manifestation of Al-Qaeda terror: the alleged attempt by the Nigerian to ignite plastic explosives, sewn into his underwear, as the Northwest Airlines flight which he had boarded at Amsterdam prepared to land at Detroit on Christmas Day.
Goaded by Republican critics, and needing to reassure a nervous American public, Obama interrupted his holiday in Hawaii to declare that “we will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us -- whether they are from Afghanistan or Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, or anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland.”
On an Islamist website, Al-Qaeda replied that Abdulmutallab’s attempted act was a response to U.S. airstrikes. Airstrikes against Al-Qaeda positions in Yemen in late December -- carried out by the Yemen air force with U.S. support -- killed at last 60 people.
The New York Times confirmed this week that the United States had opened a new front against Al-Qaeda in Yemen, now seen as a dangerous centre of terrorist operations, to rival that of the Afghan-Pakistan tribal areas. This past year teams of U.S. Special Forces have been training the Yemeni military, while the U.S. has supplied intelligence and firepower to use against the militants.
The question is whether carrying the war to predominantly Muslim countries by means of air strikes -- which inevitably kill civilians as well as fighters -- is the best way to combat terror, or whether, on the contrary, it serves to rally to the extremist cause religious-minded young men like Abdulmutallab.
When Obama began his Presidential term a year ago, he had a different agenda. He believed it was in America’s urgent national interest to build bridges to the Arab and Muslim world. He announced a firm date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. He indicated he wanted a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan. He put a stop to torture and vowed to close the notorious prison at Guant?namo. He declared his firm commitment to an Arab-Israeli peace and called for a total freeze on Israeli settlements. He reached out a hand of friendship to Iran.
It seemed that Obama had understood that the way to dry up the terrorist swamp and protect America was to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict -- the main source of poison in the West’s relations with Islam -- and to stop killing Muslims.
Unfortunately, much of this early agenda has been ditched. In Afghanistan, rather than seeking a political settlement, Obama has sent in more troops. Bowing to pressure from his military commanders, he has committed himself to what looks like an unwinnable war. U.S. pressure on Pakistan to make war on its own tribal areas has destabilized that country, triggering massive suicide bombings and a vast displacement of population.
In the Middle East, Obama has allowed Israel to defy him and to continue building Jewish settlements in Palestinian occupied territory, notably in Arab East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the ongoing turmoil in Iran has destroyed any immediate hope of an American rapprochement with the Islamic Republic. Rather than seeking to resolve the problem of Iran’s nuclear program by wide-ranging negotiations, which would acknowledge Iran’s legitimate fears and ambitions, Obama -- like George W. Bush before him -- has reverted to sanctions, while Israel threatens a military attack.
Is this too gloomy a scenario? Regrettably, it is not. George Mitchell, Obama’s Middle East envoy, continues to prod the parties towards a negotiation, but has very little to show for his efforts. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister, is playing games with him. His partial 10-month settlement freeze is a fake, designed to placate the Americans and avoid negotiations with the Palestinians, because no Palestinian leader is strong enough to negotiate on such a fluid and uncertain basis.
It is likely that the year 2010 will determine whether the Arab-Israeli conflict will be resolved by negotiation or by war. The world wants a negotiated settlement, but Israel seems to believe it can get what it wants by force -- and it may be right.
There is not a shadow of a doubt that the overriding objective of Israel’s right-wing, in all its various complexions, is to capture the whole of the “land of Israel.” The ideological and strategic goal is “Greater Israel.” Netanyahu is riding high in the polls. He is facing a bit of noisy trouble from the settlers who rail at his West Bank freeze. But he knows -- and they know -- that the protests serve his purpose, demonstrating to the world the strict limits of what he can concede.
For Israelis of right-wing persuasion, the goal of a Greater Israel is almost within reach. The Israeli peace camp is virtually dead, reduced to a handful of columnists in Haaretz and a few brave activists in organizations like Btselem, who monitor the more outrageous abuses Palestinians have to suffer. The Arab states are weak and divided: There is nothing to fear from them. As for the so-called ‘international community’, it is highly reluctant, or simply incapable, to impose a settlement.
Israel may well think that it can see off pressure from the United States, Russia, the European Union or the United Nations. It is opposed to an international conference on the conflict, such as the Russians have proposed. It rejects all third party mediation. It wants to be left alone to impose its own terms on the Palestinians.
It is often said that the resolution of the Palestine problem lies in a choice between a two-state solution and a one-state solution -- between a small Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, and a single state in which Israelis and Palestinians share joint citizenship.
But this is not the real choice. Most Israelis are adamantly opposed to anything resembling a one-state solution. They want to get rid of the Palestinians not to incorporate them within their borders. The real choice, therefore, is between a two-state solution and a Greater Israel -- a large Jewish state “between the river and the sea,” from which the Palestinians would be driven out. If some managed to remain, they would be forced to live in isolated enclaves, much as the unfortunate inhabitants of Gaza live now.
Obama says he is unwavering committed to a two-state solution. But will he confront Netanyahu? This will be the greatest test of his statesmanship in the coming year.
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.