Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Obama Middle East Policy

In my usual weekend trip to Watching America, I noticed some shift in the subject matters offered at the site. There were still a lot of articles on the world economy and President Obama's tactics here in the US, but there were several articles on his foreign policies. Especially interesting were those dealing with the Middle East and Secretary of State Clinton's announcement that Iran would be invited to talks on Afghanistan (see my post from earlier this week).

One in particular noted the recent visits of various members of the Middle East team assembled by the US president, including those of Sec. Clinton and Special Envoy George Mitchell. Written by Ayman El-Amir for Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly, the article describes the strategy President Obama appears to be using in this explosive part of the world and suggests what one of the key stumbling blocks will be.

With all Middle East complex issues on the table, the administration in Washington seems to realise two things: there is no leading Arab power it can engage to address all issues, and that all political and security tracks point to Tehran, which the US is inviting to a planned international conference on Afghanistan as an opening gesture of engagement. So, it would seem its strategy would be to separate the tracks and tackle each one individually, starting from the periphery and gradually moving towards the core. For Syria, confidence-building and the restoration of relations would mark a good start, now that Syria has redefined its relations with Lebanon on the basis of mutual sovereignty and is willing to cooperate with the international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of Al-Hariri. For Hamas, the reconstruction of Gaza, a national unity government and a long-term ceasefire with Israel could be prelude to reviving negotiations towards a final settlement. The only obstacle will be the anticipated policies of the hardcore right-wing government that is expected in Israel. For the future of Palestinian and Lebanese resistance, the option could be held in abeyance pending the progress of negotiations. After all, in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, George Mitchell did not insist that the Irish Republican Army lay down its weapons as a precondition for uncertain negotiations.

No matter how much the new US strategy will manage to segment the issues, it would seem that all tracks lead to Tehran. As a rising regional power, Iran has vital interest and varying degrees of involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, Lebanon, heavy US military presence in the Gulf and Israel's appetite for expansion and domination of the region. The US hopes that by disconnecting Syria from Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and the Palestinian problem through a settlement of the Golan Heights issue, the supporting lifeline to Palestinian and Lebanese resistance will dry up and Iranian influence will diminish. Iran would then be isolated and left at the mercy of US and Israel, loyally followed by the European Union. This is easier said than done since it means that Syria could not make such choices without suffering serious destabilising domestic and regional repercussions. ...

For the Obama administration, the most serious challenge is not Syria, Hamas or Hizbullah but Israel, its closest Middle East ally. Israel wants territorial expansion as well as peace based on military pre-eminence and US pressure on the Arabs and the distraught Palestinians. To this end, Israel perceives Iran's development of nuclear technology as a mortal threat, not because Iran will inevitably produce nuclear weapons but because its rise represents a military deterrence to Israeli military supremacy in the region. In this sense, Israel should be the priority target of the Obama Middle East strategy. The problem is that both Israel and the US know well the limits of any effective pressure the administration can bring to bear on its close ally, compared to that it can exercise on its vulnerable Arab interlocutors.
[Emphasis added]

Mr. El-Amir is very perceptive in his analysis, especially with respect to Israel. President Obama has already been burned by the powerful Israel lobby when one of his appointees had to withdraw because of his past critical comments on that country and its practices. Unfortunately, unless US pressure is brought to bear on Israel so that no further invasions of Lebanon or Palestinian territories are made and further settlement expansions in the Golan Heights and Gaza are stopped, the main sticking point in any Middle East stabilization will remain.

Hopefully Mr. Obama understands this and there will be some real change in how we deal diplomatically with this part of the world.

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