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Obama’s foreign policy in focus

President played safe during his inaugural address, but putting the Palestinian-Israel issue on the back burner will only complicate matters

Gulf News

Much to the disappointment of many, US President Barack Obama seemed to downplay foreign affairs in his inaugural address on Monday in comparison to the otherwise attractive progressive plank he underlined on domestic issues. This was a clear departure from his stance in his inaugural address four years ago.

After promising that “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe”, Obama’s only reference to foreign concerns continued without any significant elaboration. He declared before hundreds of thousands of fellow Americans assembled in cold weather in Washington D.C.’s National Mall: “For no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation. We will support democracy from Asia to Africa, from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalised, and the victims of prejudice.”

In 2009, Obama’s inaugural address dealt with various foreign policy issues: he promised that US troops will leave Iraq “to its people and forge hard earned peace in Afghanistan”. The first African-American president had then declared: “And … to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born, know that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity. And we are ready to lead once more.”

He continued:“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you on build, not what you destroy.

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

What compelled Obama to seemingly take a step backwards and overlook several serious international debacles such as the consequences of the Arab Spring or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well as Iran’s nuclear programme remains to be seen. The re-election of right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signals a disturbing clear-right shift in the Israeli position. As Obama experienced in his first term, this may once again cripple any American bid to pacify the strategic region.

Despite these ominous developments, there is room for hope. Two of Obama’s cabinet nominees, Senator John Kerry as secretary of state and former senator Chuck Hagel as chief of the Pentagon, are scheduled to face confirmation hearings next month. What they will reveal at these sessions may throw more light on the president’s thinking. This could rattle the Republican ranks since they still hold the majority in the House of Representatives and many Republicans are staunch supporters of Israel.

For a start, Sen Kerry was quoted last week as saying that the Palestinian-Israel issue will be on top of his agenda once he is confirmed in his position at the State Department. This is a position that will rankle the increasingly combative Israeli right.

One way Obama can avoid a serious split among US legislators, according to Bernard Avishai, an Israeli-American writer, and a Palestinian-American, Sam Bahour, a business consultant, who suggested in joint column that appeared in the New York Times of last Tuesday is the appointment of “a Middle East negotiator trusted by all sides — say, Bill Clinton or Colin Powell” — a suggestion that could set the ball rolling.

They added: “Washington has crucial leverage, though this won’t last forever. When it weighs in, it becomes a preoccupying political fact for both sides. If it continues to stand back, hopelessness will win.”

In other words, Obama should not give up on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He needs to undertake this task immediately or else the two-state solution will be out of consideration.


George S.Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at