Over the last four years, I have followed very closely the US administration’s approach and policies towards the Middle East. I have taught and written about it and have also had a weekly TV programme featuring a discussion on the issue, especially last November’s presidential and Congressional elections which President Barack Obama won comfortably. However, looking back at US policy in the Middle East during this period, there are a lot of unanswered questions.
US policy seldom changes, even when the White House changes hands from a Republican to a Democrat president. Therefore, it is more of staying the course rather than changing it.
To start with, the Obama administration has very little to show for in terms of achievements, let alone breakthroughs, in the Middle East. The mitigating circumstances, the stalemate in the Middle East peace process, Iran’s nuclear programme, the strategic security vacuum in the Gulf region and the US “pivot to Asia”, away from the traditional centres of Europe and the Middle East, impacted the region in the Obama’s first term.
First, the fundamentals are there and will stay there. The fixture of US policy in the Middle East has been safeguarding energy security and the routes in the Arabian Gulf for its significance and for the well-being of the world economy.
Because of that, the US is in the Gulf and is forming a strategic security partnership with the GCC states and encouraging these states to form a more formidable alliance, by moving towards a GCC union and engaging in burden-sharing with its allies.
The second fundamental for the US in the Middle East is the security of Israel and its superior status as the most powerful country in the region. This is a fundamental fact that has been the hallmark of all US administrations. Those who try to be independent or loose cannons, like Chuck Hagel, will be forced to eat their words.
Obama nominated moderate former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defence in his new administration. I was taken aback by the harsh and abrasive attacks, especially those from the ranking Republican Senators in the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate at the hearing to confirm Hagel for the job, which was not well received by Israel and its allies and lobbies in the US.
Hagel, during his years in the Senate, was a maverick and spoke his mind, especially about Israel. Unfortunately, that position came back to haunt him at the hearing, ironically from his Republican colleagues. Hagel as senator was bold enough to challenge Israel and its cronies in the US by claiming that the “Jewish lobby” intimidates many members of Congress”.
He even accused Israel of caging Palestinians and refused to label Hamas a “terrorist organisation”. Such a stance is a no-no in Washington. I was disgusted by both the barrage of relentless attacks by US senators and Hagel’s caving in, apologising and retracting his comments to appease the questioning senators, and more importantly, Israel and its cronies.
The Guardian newspaper stated: “Hagel was forced to repeat an earlier apology for using Jewish lobby, saying he should have referred to “pro-Israel lobby”. (Describing it as a “dumb thing”!) Senator Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, pressed Hagel: “Do you stand by your statement they succeed in this town because of intimidation?” Hagel said he should have described it as influence not intimidation.”As the Guardian
reports on the testy hearing, Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, pressed Hagel on whether he was prepared to defend a statement in which he said the Israelis “keep Palestinians caged up like animals”. Hagel pulled back: “If I had an opportunity to edit that, like many things I’ve said, I would like to go back and change the words and the meaning.”
This is lamentable and should not be used as a weapon of intimidation by pro-Israel congressmen and senators. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton explained — in responding to a question at the Council on Foreign Relations on her last day in office last Thursday — as to why US standing was so low in opinion polls in the Arab and Muslim world and why was America unfavourably perceived by Arabs and Muslims. Her quick response was: because of the strong support to Israel over many years.
The Obama administration, over the last four years, had extended a hand to the Arab and Muslim world, reconciling and assuaging the battered relationship that president George W. Bush had laid to ruin because of his disastrous policy, invasions and pre-emptive wars and occupations. Yet little has changed in tangible terms. Opinion polls show the US favourability rating is as low, if not lower, today as during the last two years of the Bush administration.
If the US needs to mend its fences and its relationship with the Arab world, it needs to learn from its mistakes and shortcomings and the unfulfilled and broken promises. That is not hard to do and the US knows through its embassies and think tanks what it should and should not do to get there.
Clinton argued in her last speech at the Council on Foreign Relations that the US had not done a good job in marketing itself in the Arab world and reasoned that one could not be in the arena and expect to see change if one did not get off the bench.
“Getting off the bench” implies being an honest broker and applying equal pressure on all parties to force Israelis to sit down and live up to their obligation of making a two-state solution possible.
There is an urgent need in Obama’s second and last term to come up with a genuine and bold initiative to move the Middle East peace process towards that lofty goal of a two-state solution.
This can be his lasting legacy if he is successful in pulling this thing off, ensuring lasting and durable peace. That, for sure, will go a long way to serve not only US interests in the region, but will help US favourability rating move up for a change.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the political science department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji