Middle East Roundtable
Edition 42 Volume 6 - November 13, 2008
President Obama and the Middle East
• Obama's "new" America and the question of Iran - Arshin Adib-Moghaddam
Obama's cautious rhetoric has set the stage for a new opening in relations between the US and Iran.
• Hope and competence - Akram Baker
Obama will be inaugurated with unprecedented amounts of goodwill around the world. He needs to harness that potential as soon as possible.
• An instinctive concern - Aluf Benn
Obama appears to Israelis to be identified with third world causes that are very critical of Israel.
• Bashar and Obama: a new beginning - Elias Samo
With good intentions, Syrian-American relations could become a win-win game.
Obama's "new" America and the question of Iran
President-elect Barack Obama has already achieved a rhetorical break with the arrogant, pompous and rather totalitarian language of the outgoing Bush administration. Thus, a new grammar is being presented in which the United States is re-invented as a particularly inclusive and exceptional place where "everything is possible". The credo "yes we can", already turned into a handy epithet pronouncing a newfound belief in the primordial goodness of the American cause, is not confined to bringing about transformations within US society of course. Obama has repeatedly emphasised the age-old Wilsonian idea that America is somehow predestined to change the whole world; outward movement is deeply inscribed in the language of this coming president. Indeed, in many ways Obama is much more internationalist in his speeches than Bush was before the terror unleashed on the United States in September 2001.
The renewed optimism induced by that rhetorical break is instrumental in curing the "Iraq syndrome" inhibiting the political elites of the country. This is the first step toward re-asserting America's lost moral/ideological authority in international affairs. Of course, the danger is that the "Obama factor" quells the humility forced upon the right wing after the disaster in Iraq and the ongoing strategic failures in Afghanistan. Once he finishes his project, the people of the non-western worlds may find themselves confronted with yet another American president destined to fashion a world order in total disregard of the realities on the ground. Does it matter if it is "one of them", an unquestionably talented orator who emerged out of their ranks, or the white master who wields the stick that beats them into submission?
In the meantime I do believe that there is the possibility of a rather different outcome. Iran will be the first challenge to assess if things would move toward that end. I have repeatedly emphasised that there is an opportunity for a cold peace between the country and the United States. I am cautiously optimistic because in the Islamic Republic there has emerged a consensus that diplomatic relations with the US are desirable. Despite the angry rhetoric and bellicose attitudes of some Iranian neo-conservatives, which are reciprocated with equal venom by their US counterparts, there is an emergent understanding that Iran can accommodate the "US factor" in international affairs diplomatically, without compromising the Islamic Republic's long-term strategic interests.
By all standards of rhetorical capability and diplomatic intelligence, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad appears to be an unlikely interlocutor in any Iranian-American rapprochement. And yet, he became the first Iranian leader to officially congratulate a US president-elect, a gesture acknowledged by Obama at a news conference last Friday. Of course, when the reformist former President Mohammad Khatami talked about dialogue and detente with the US in the late 1990s, he was castigated by the Iranian right-wing and ferociously blamed for sacrificing Iran's revolutionary ideals. There have been no such complaints about Ahmadinezhad's far more pro-active overtures to the United States. This is partially because Obama's cautious rhetoric has set the stage for a new opening in relations between the two countries and partially due to Ayatollah Khamenei's pre-election commitment that Iran would talk to any president apart from Bush.
It is not the job of intellectuals to prophesize or to become consultants of the state, and yet we are failing in our responsibility if we do not occasionally traverse avenues that accentuate the importance of dialogue and engagement, the promises of which are worth the effort. I think this hope that we may enter into a rather more peaceful era in world politics, is why many Europeans, Arabs, Muslims, Iranians, Africans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Bolivians, etc. give Obama the benefit of the doubt. There is a genuine belief that he may be able to move the Leviathan in a different direction.
But is this not yet another proof of arrogance and hubris to wish to improve the world by inventing a transcendental "ubermensch" and to lift him above reality by attributing to him superhuman powers? Does Obama represent a departure from the realm of American mythology and its engrained preponderance for self-aggrandizement or a new arrival of the same phenomenon? Today, many Americans are convinced that they have reestablished a firm ground from which they can depart once again to bring about massive changes within their country, and crucially, in the whole world. It appears to me that such attitudes of positivist exaltation have their own dangers, that they could lead to new monstrosities, especially in the "third worlds". So at this stage I am more hopeful than reassured that the Obama presidency will not be turned into yet another epitome of ferocity in international affairs. But at least there is this sense of hope.- Published 13/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is a SOAS academic and author, most recently of "Iran in World Politics: the question of the Islamic Republic".
Hope and competence
In looking at how the ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States could affect the Middle East, I am firmly of the belief that to find the answer one need look no closer than at the way he ran his stunningly successful campaign. By far, it was the most professional, strategically mapped and brutally well managed two years that any politician could design, with a potent mix of inspiration and perspiration tapping into the Zeitgeist. While running a campaign is clearly not the same as governing, many valuable indicators can be gleaned to show how the man from Illinois will tackle the herculean challenges awaiting him and his administration.
Despite the conventional wisdom, the core of the Middle East's problems, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is not an intractable morass that lacks solutions. In truth, the desired outcomes, and the path thereto, are relatively clear. A safe, secure and democratic Israel living in peace, prosperity and mutual recognition with its neighbors; a free, independent and democratic Palestine within the pre-June 1967 borders and the creation of a united Jerusalem as the capital of the two countries. There are reams of documents and studies that lay out these plans in minute detail and are readily available to any and all. All that is needed is a US leadership willing to implement these plans.
The entire facade of "peace negotiations" during the past eight years has been proven to be not only a canard, but completely ineffectual to boot. The incoming president can change all of that if he applies the same laser-sharp focus he employed during his amazing run for office. As a public service, I would humbly like to make a few, unsolicited suggestions as to how the president-elect can translate his hard won political capital into lasting peace in the Middle East:
Announce the formation of a team to exhume the most relevant and agreed upon plans already in existence. This should be easy seeing that a lot of the work done was completed during the Clinton administration.
Appoint a high level presidential emissary (Colin Powell?) and empower him/her to hammer out the deal with the parties. This person, who would report directly to the president (with a dotted line to the secretary of state), would immediately bring on board America's allies and partners in the EU, Russia, China and the UN. Only then would they approach the Israelis and the Palestinians. This group needs real power, not like the horribly ineffectual Quartet of yesterday. Barack Obama will be inaugurated on January 20, 2009 with unprecedented amounts of goodwill around the world, especially among America's allies. He needs to harness that potential as soon as possible.
Make a major speech on how the new administration sees the Middle East, what it wants to achieve and how it is going to go about it. As the most powerful person on this planet, Obama's bully pulpit is worth its weight in gold. And while much of the world will be very happy to have America lead again, it would be prudent and correct to give a substantial portion of the stage over to America's friends and partners. This would clearly send a message that the US is no longer going it alone and make its position infinitely stronger.
Like the Dayton accords ending the Bosnian conflict, get the Israelis, the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab countries (and Saudi Arabia) together in a remote venue, sit them down and don't let anyone leave the party until the deal is done. It's not perfect, but it's effective. It should be made clear to the parties that the United States and its partners will brook no dissent in the implementation of the plan.
Put the lobbyists (both the pro-Israeli right, and the pro-Saudi business) on notice that President Obama cannot be bought. This stance fits perfectly with his already public ban on lobbyists (and their money) in his campaign and transition team. There is no greater testament (hopefully) to his freedom from these special interests than his ability to raise so much money from the average Joe (albeit not the plumber) over the internet. To be honest, the majority of both Jewish and Arab Americans want very similar things. This is simply the implementation and execution of US policy. He should clearly state that it is in the vital national interest (both security and economic) to end the Israeli occupation, secure the long-term stability of the State of Israel and create a democratic and prosperous Palestine.
Coupled with the gradual withdrawal of US troops in Iraq and the opening of serious negotiations with Iran, President Obama will be able to gain the confidence of a vast majority of the world's peoples. He can also tap into a wealth of talented individuals just raring to tackle this problem, people willing to dedicate their lives in the pursuit of real peace. There is probably no more opportune time in history for a comprehensive solution to be found, if only he can find the inner strength of character that I am more than confident he possesses.
In his campaign, Barack Obama never strayed from his core message, never gave in to scoring cheap political points, no matter how hard he was pressed to do so. With his team's nearly flawless performance, he has shown the world what can be accomplished when Jew, Muslim, Christian, Hindu and atheist join forces, bringing a message of hope over fear forged with professional competence. There is no better testimony to this (and to the enduring power of a real democracy like the United States) than the election to the presidency of a skinny black man born in Hawaii with a funny name.- Published 13/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Akram Baker is an independent Palestinian political advisor and co-president of the Arab Western Summit of Skills.
An instinctive concern
Barack Obama's ascent to the presidency of the United States has raised an instinctive concern in Israel that no supportive statements, favorable voting record in the Senate or even a short visit in July could dispel. Most Israelis supported John McCain, viewing him as a friendlier candidate.
The simple answer is that given his personal background, his Arab-sounding middle name and the color of his skin, Obama appears to be identified with third world causes--namely, with the oppressed and the occupied, and with their struggle for national liberation. Needless to say, these causes are also very critical of Israel and its occupation of the Palestinians.
Obama also has a political need to break away from George W. Bush in order to regain America's popularity in the world. Bush was criticized by Europeans and Arabs as being too friendly to Israel, so distancing himself from Israel is a sure way for Obama to evade the outgoing president's unpopular legacy.
These concerns are further complicated by the obvious shift of the Israeli electorate to the right and the possibility that Binyamin Netanyahu will become prime minister after the February 10 election. Obama pledged to involve himself in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and will not back away from Bush's commitment to the two-state vision. Netanyahu's rejection of final-status negotiations and his insistence on the territorial status quo are bound to put him on a collision course with Obama, even if the new president has more pressing issues to attend to, like the economy and Iraq.
What could be the points of contention between an Obama administration and Israel? Four possible areas come to mind.
The first one regards the use of force, which has traditionally separated Israel from western democracies. Bush sanctioned Israel in its forceful crushing of the Palestinian intifadah, encouraged it to fight Hizballah in 2006 and approved Israel's bombing raid against Syria's suspected nuclear site in 2007. Moreover, the Bush administration adopted Israel's method of airborne "targeted killings" of terrorists, applying it in Yemen, Pakistan and Syria. Will Obama follow this policy? Will he allow Israel to maintain its siege of Hamas-ruled Gaza? Or will he follow Europe's lead and act to restrain Israel and force it to remove obstacles to normal Palestinian life? It's a safe guess that the test is not far down the road.
A second area of disagreement is the West Bank settlements. Bush supported the Gaza pullout but allowed Israel to build new housing in areas "within the fence" and accepted Israel's reluctance to remove the outposts, despite its repeated pledges to the contrary. Obama will probably be more resistant to new settlement construction, especially in hot spots like the E1 project near Jerusalem. Moreover, there is a growing unrest among the extremist settlers that translates into violence against Palestinians and Israeli security personnel. Such incidents, and ongoing Israeli government hesitation, may induce the Obama administration to demand stricter law enforcement across the green line.
Iran comes third. "Existential threat" rhetoric aside, there is a growing realization in the Israeli establishment that an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities is off the table even as the clock is ticking toward "the point of no return" within a year or two. Obama's pledge to engage with Tehran is seen in Israel as a sign of softness toward extremists, if not as a tacit acceptance of Iran's nuclear status. Israel is worried about preserving its interests in an American-Iranian dialogue. Furthermore, given the eagerness of Obama's camp to resume multilateral arms control, Israel is also worried about an impending "Dimona for Natanz" deal and will argue that preserving its independent deterrent is even more crucial under the growing threats from Iran and its allies.
The fourth sore point is on the political left. Those Israelis who welcome Obama as the new hope for American engagement in the peace process, reversing the hands-off Bush years, are afraid that he will have neither the energy nor the interest to be involved. Their concern is twofold: on the one hand missing a rare opportunity for peace, and on the other neglecting the volatile situation on the ground and allowing it to deteriorate into another Arab-Israel war.
Eventually, Obama's foremost test in the Middle East will be to prevent the next war and, in case of failure, to leverage the crisis into successful diplomacy. Several American presidents accomplished this in the past: Eisenhower following the 1956 Suez crisis, Nixon/Kissinger after 1973 and Bush the elder in the wake of the Gulf war in 1991. The younger Bush failed in launching the roadmap process after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As Israelis prepare for another round of violence with Hizballah, Hamas, Iran or Syria, it appears that Obama will have his crisis too.- Published 13/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of Haaretz.
Bashar and Obama: a new beginning
Like many countries, Syria is pleased with the passing of the Bush administration and the victory of the "globalist" Barack Obama. For Syria, which has been on the receiving end of President George W. Bush's misconceived policies, the outcome of the elections was a blessing. For the past eight years--a dark period in Syrian-American relations--Washington used every conceivable means to break or bend the Syrian system, including economic embargo and political pressure. President Bashar Assad extended his hand in friendship to Washington, but President Bush chose to ignore the positive signs and increased the pressure and demands, actually dictates, on Damascus.
The problem was largely caused by Bush and the "old guard" around him who invoked their personal animosity toward Bashar. This did not serve American interests. However, despite all the American threats, political pressure and economic embargo, the leadership in Damascus is confident and secure, surrounded by a sea of instability, thanks partly to Washington. To the east, the Americans are bogged down in a fragmented Iraq, to the west is a chaotic Lebanon and to the south the divided Palestinians and the contentious Israelis are deadlocked. Syria has a finger in each of these pies and Damascus can be either peacemaker or spoiler. Additionally, relations with Europe are improving: Damascus can barely keep up with the stream of official European visitors.
Obama's victory provides both Washington and Damascus an opportunity to put aside the past and make a fresh start. Obama would do well to learn from Bush's mistakes in dealing with Syrian leaders: they might appear as ideologues but they can be pragmatists, and they respond to quid pro quos, not dictates.
But what is the true meaning of Obama's victory? Is it a victory for multiracialism and a declaration of the demise of "waspism"? Or is it a temporary phenomenon, a fluke caused by the failure of "Bushism" and the convergence of several adverse factors, including an ailing US economy, the ineffective war on terrorism, a murky Iraq and an ever-growing global anti-American sentiment?
For Obama's victory to truly represent an American social revolution it must not be a one-time event. Therefore Obama will have one eye on his present policies and another on the presidential elections of 2012, preceded by the 2010 congressional elections. This imperative will surely influence his vision and policies, particularly in the Middle East. Americans who voted for McCain, particularly the neo-conservatives, evangelicals and Christian and Jewish Zionists, will pressure Obama to maintain Bush's anti-Syrian policies.
To these and others in the region who question the wisdom of Washington engaging Syria, the answer is: If Washington wants to continue its war on terrorism, seeks an honorable withdrawal from Iraq, hopes for a united and stable Lebanon and supports a comprehensive Arab-Israel settlement, Obama will find Syria--with the proper incentives--a strong and effective partner. With good intentions, Syrian-American relations could become a win-win game where the interests of both converge.
These relations fall under two headings: normalization and the Syrian-Israeli peace track. As for Syrian-American relations, the ball is in the American court; what are needed are confidence-building measures. One hopes that once the Obama administration is in place a new American ambassador will be assigned to the embassy in Damascus, vacant since 2005, with a mandate to seriously engage the Syrian leadership.
The US must start by settling the controversy caused by the recent bloody American helicopter raid on a small Syrian border village that precipitated the closure of the American Cultural Center and the American school in Damascus, and follow with serious discussion of the contentious issues separating the two sides. Of priority are removing Syria's name from Washington's "State Sponsors of Terrorism List", reducing the economic embargo measures imposed in 2004 and finding ways to cooperate on regional issues of mutual interest.
As for the peace track, the Syrian leadership has always underlined the importance of the American role for successful Syrian-Israeli negotiations. Only Washington can nudge both sides to narrow the gaps separating them, assist in security arrangements and provide the funds needed to implement a peace treaty. However, since the actual negotiations will be carried out by the two adversaries, the outcome of the February 10, 2009 Israeli elections is as important as Obama's victory.
What Obama could do is put aside Bush's aversion to the Syrian-Israeli negotiations and use his influence to encourage the Israeli government to seriously resume talks with Syria, with the understanding that each side's minimum requirements for peace are met. For Syria, this means a total non-negotiable withdrawal from the occupied Golan. However, with Netanyahu's position of a "definite no", Livni's position of a "definite maybe" and Labor's diminished role, in addition to regional and international pressure for a Palestinian-Israeli deal, a Syrian-Israeli deal, so near yet so far, is liable to be put on the waiting list to the detriment of both countries.
Finally, Syria will not be high on Obama's agenda. He will certainly not rush to Damascus, but nor should he pamper the anti-Syria forces. Instead, he should seriously listen to the advice of many knowledgeable and honorable Americans who have called on Washington to engage Syria.- Published 13/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Elias Samo is professor of international relations at American and Syrian universities.
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