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A chance to put his ideals into practice

Obama needs to push for a two-state solution and build bridges of cooperation with Islamist governments

Image Credit: AP
In this March 23, 2010, file photo, President Barack Obama reaches for a pen to sign the health care bill in the East Room of the White House in Washington.
Gulf News

I was not surprised by President Barack Obama’s victory, which demonstrated that he is able to speak to, and speak for, an increasingly diverse, tolerant, modern American demographic. This is reflected not only in his comments about domestic matters, but also in his reflections on America’s future role in the Middle East where it has squandered more than $3 trillion (Dh11.01 trillion) on fruitless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and lost nearly 8,000 soldiers.

In his victory speech, Obama stressed that the US was moving “beyond this time of war” and re-affirmed that “a decade of war is ending”. He also reiterated the importance of “freeing ourselves from foreign oil”. This mood is likely to inform the administration’s foreign policy over the next four years in several significant ways.

First of all, I do not expect Obama to prolong America’s military presence in Afghanistan beyond the 2014 deadline for troop withdrawal, regardless of whether or not the Kabul government is ready. In his last televised debate with Mitt Romney, Obama stated that the US “cannot continue to do nation building in these regions”. He will be looking, instead, for regional partners — India for example — to bolster Afghan security.

It is also highly unlikely that Obama will willingly undertake any new, large-scale, expensive military operations and the prospect of an intervention in Syria is now less likely. The present strategy of engineering and advising a sympathetic opposition umbrella, led by people who are living in Syria rather than abroad, will continue.

Regarding Iran, the focus will be on diplomatic pressure and negotiation. The present economic sanctions have hit Tehran hard, and the build-up of US and British ships we are witnessing in the Gulf present a potent psychological pressure. The administration will hope that, given time, Iran will be forced to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Obama is well aware of just how catastrophic a war with Iran could prove –not just for the US but, with its potential for rapid escalation, the whole region and, conceivably, the world.

This will not please Israel which remains a keen advocate of a military strike on Iran. Premier Benjamin Netanyahu overtly backed Mitt Romney– who adopted a tougher stance on Iran than his rival — in the presidential race. Netanyahu also brought Israel’s own general election forward from October 2013 to January, presumably to dovetail with the swearing in of a new US president. He has been disappointed but will no doubt continue to agitate for action.

Obama has become used to Israeli slights and insults over the past four years. His early efforts to revitalise the peace talks were thwarted by Netanyahu’s cynical refusal to freeze illegal colony-building while negotiations were ongoing. Now that Obama has less to lose politically, will we see him taking a tougher stance with Israel, insisting on a better deal for the Palestinians?

It would be nice to think so, but the pro-Israeli lobby remains an indomitable force on Capitol Hill as evidenced by the final televised debate. The world ‘Israel’ was mentioned 30 times between the two candidates whereas ‘Palestine’ wasn’t mentioned at all and the word ‘Palestinians’ only once.

Instead, historical forces may converge to re-open the Peace Process. The Arab Spring has cast its own light on Middle Eastern politics and America’s influence is waning. How will Obama deal with emerging Islamist political heavyweights such as Egypt’s President Mohammad Mursi for example?

In the final debate Obama said that Egypt must “abide by their treaty with Israel … that is a red line for us” but for America to remain relevant in the Middle East it will have to take more account of popular opinion in the region which seeks justice for the Palestinians.

During his campaign Obama made it clear that his main focus would remain ‘counter-terrorism’ and this may produce the new administration’s first military operation if Algeria’s efforts to broker a political solution to the crisis in Northern Mali fail. On November 26, the UN Security Council will rubber stamp a French/US-backed plan for African troops to seize back control of the nascent ‘AlQaida state’.

We can expect the administration’s efforts to combat Al Qaida and other jihadist groups to gather pace.

In Syria and Libya, the CIA and Special Operations personnel will continue to monitor and control the flow of weapons. We now know that the murdered American Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was in Benghazi to oversee an arms transfer.

Obama will be looking to avenge his death and will not hesitate to use un-manned drones to strike extremists, despite the large numbers of civilian casualties associated with such attacks, because there is no risk to US soldiers. What does Obama hope to leave as his legacy when all is said and done? The Republicans retain their majority in Congress which means he will have difficulty in passing any major new legislation at home in this second term.

Abroad, however, he could make his mark by pressing for a solution to the Arab-Israeli question or putting more pressure on the Gulf states — especially Bahrain and Saudi Arabia — to reform. If the US becomes less dependent on Middle Eastern oil, it will be possible to present a more strident challenge here.

On the last few days of his campaign, Obama wore the same bomber-jacket that millions saw him wearing as he watched live footage of the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden. Let us hope that he does not consider that rather ignoble act his finest hour and that he will be remembered in the Middle East for more than this.


Abdel Bari Atwan is editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi. His latest book is After Bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation, published by Saqi books.


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