Obama and the Middle East

Whether the election and inauguration of Barack Obama as 44th President of the United States will qualitatively alter U.S. Middle East policy and the regional situation remains to be seen. The fact is that Barack Obama has been much bolder with regard to U.S. relations with Latin America than he has been with regard to the Middle East during the 100 first days of his administration. This is despite the fact that, as a presidential candidate, Obama emphasized much more his difference with the Bush administration on Middle East issues, especially Iraq, than on South American issues.

Beyond the various electoral statements, the truth is that Obama ran as a candidate dedicated to bipartisan consensus in the realm of foreign policy, and singularly with regard to the Middle East. His critique of the Bush administration was restricted to the extent to which it did not fully comply with this consensus as expressed in the report of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. To put it more precisely, Obama supported the "surge," which conformed to the recommendations of the report, and announced that he would stick to the exit (from Iraq) strategy that it envisaged. On this, he had nothing very original to say when compared to what the Bush administration was already doing since it implemented the "surge." Hence, the very symbolic as well as significant fact that he asked Robert Gates to remain at the helm of the Pentagon — thus repeating the kind of bipartisan gesture with regard to "Defense" that Bill Clinton made when he appointed to the same position another Republican, William Cohen, for his second term.

Where Obama differed from Bush in public statements was mainly with regard to Iran: whereas the Bush administration never really agreed to comply with the recommendation of talking to Iran that was expressed in the Baker-Hamilton report, Obama made clearly the point that this was what he would do if elected, and he got attacked for precisely that reason by all the friends of the Israel Lobby. However, since his inauguration, Obama, and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have made no real substantive changes in that respect. One explanation for this is that they fear that engaging in talks with Iran at this stage might impact the forthcoming presidential election in that country in a way that would be contrary to what they deem to be U.S. interests. If this explanation is true, it implies that they will continue to "wait and see" until the election in June 2009, that is due to be held five weeks from the time of writing these lines.

After the Iranian presidential election, the Obama administration will probably move to a more serious opening in the direction of Iran, applying a carrot and stick policy — with a big carrot whereas the Bush administration only carried a big stick. They will hope for a deal with the Iranian leadership, a deal whereby Tehran would cooperate with them in stabilizing Iraq and the Middle East, each side acknowledging the interests of the other, in the same way that they are actually doing presently in Iraq, where both sides sponsor the same Maliki government in Baghdad. Such a conciliatory policy has been imposed on the U.S. government by the dire condition in which it found itself in the Middle East as a result of the disastrous policy of the Bush administration. Basically, the Obama administration faced with the Iraqi semi-debacle, at a time when its room for maneuver has been narrowed by the global economic crisis, is contemplating a reaction similar to that of the Nixon administration when it faced the Vietnam debacle. The exit strategy then was: "Vietnamize" the war, get all the troops out of Vietnam, cut a deal with Moscow and Beijing. The strategy now is: "Iraqize" the war (done through the "surge" and its reliance on the buying off of major chunks of what used to be the Sunni "insurgency" in the form of the "Awakening Councils"), get most of the troops out of Iraq (planned until 2011), cut a deal with Tehran. Both policies take place against a backdrop of severe global economic crisis.

In a sense, the new policy, if fully implemented, will require much less boldness than the one implemented by the Nixon-Kissinger team: withdrawing from Vietnam against the background of the ongoing Cold War was much more spectacular than withdrawing from Iraq in the absence of any "peer" global challenger of the United States; talking to "Red China" was much more spectacular than any conciliatory gesture toward Iran could be, all the more that it cannot be expected that Obama-Clinton will go to the same extent of sudden warming up with yesterday’s enemy as Nixon-Kissinger did in their relation with China. One important difference is that the Nixon team could play on the "triangulation" of its relations with Moscow and Beijing in light of the enmity between the two "communist" capitals. There is no situation of this kind with regard to Iran.

But the key difference is, to be sure, the role of Israel. For the Zionist state, Iran is the main enemy in the whole region, and the nuclear issue is a "red line" that would prompt the Israeli state to act militarily if it deemed that the line was crossed. We know from the revelation by The New York Times last January (David Sanger, "U.S. Rejected Aid for Israeli Raid on Iranian Nuclear Site," NYT, January 10, 2009) that the Olmert government already asked the Bush administration for a green light to attack Iranian nuclear facilities with air strikes flying through Iraqi air space. The Olmert government wanted to take advantage of the remaining time in office of this American administration that was most cooperative with the worst plans and deeds of the Israeli state. The green light was not granted, however, for a variety of reasons related to the highly risky and uncertain character of the operation and its potential consequences in a time of unfolding global economic crisis.

The Obama administration will indeed be clearly less amenable to Israel’s hardliners than the Bush team was. And tensions between the two countries are all the likelier to unfold given that their political evolutions are presently going in opposite directions: whereas the last U.S. presidential election started a pendulum backswing after eight years of the most reactionary administration in U.S. history, the recent Israeli parliamentary election only carried on further the swing to the right that started with the election of Ariel Sharon in February 2001 in the wake of Bush’s presidential inauguration.

These are the main elements of the present picture in the Middle East: to get into other developments — the efforts of Washington’s Arab friends to foster reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas’s "Palestinian Authority," the forthcoming parliamentary election in Lebanon, etc. — would take longer than the space of this article. However, the whole policy of the Obama administration is a pragmatic and cautious move within the guidelines described above.


May 8, 2009

Gilbert Achcar is a Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. This article is based on the preface to the Iranian edition of Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy. Dialogues on Terror, Democracy, War, and Justice by Noam Chomsky and Gilbert Achcar, edited by Stephen R. Shalom. The updated English paperback edition was published in 2008 by Paradigm Publishers.

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