Friday, November 12, 2010

Post-US Election, Expect More Of The Same In The Middle East

By Rami G. Khouri
This comment was published in The Daily Star on 13/11/2010 

If you’ve always wondered what Barack Obama really wants to do in the Middle East, your moment of revelation may be near, now that the American mid-term congressional elections have handed Obama and his Democratic Party an expected setback. Many of the rhetorical flourishes, speech-based initiatives and limited practical policy moves related to the Middle East that Obama has launched in his first two years will now face a much more rigorous test, as both foreign and domestic political conditions seem to be more challenging than ever for him and he will have to show some results if he wishes to be re-elected in 2012.

Foreign policy played almost no role in the election campaigns, even though the US armed forces are deployed in two challenging situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem of terror attacks does not seem to be going away, and global trade issues loom large in the prospects of an improved American economy. The highly polarized condition of US politics largely reflects domestic economic and social factors and the role of the central government. First-term presidents also almost always suffer a mid-term election setback, especially when economic conditions are hard, so the Democrats’ losing their majority in the House of Representatives is a thoroughly routine development. Its impact on foreign policy is likely to be very thin, especially in the Middle East, where the patterns of the Obama presidency have been set, and the settling dust after his first two years suggests that very little of substance has changed in American-Middle Eastern relations.

The domestic shift to the right in the US Congress will likely mean an aggravation or acceleration of existing political trends in foreign policy, not the launching of new initiatives or major policy shifts. This is mostly bad news for the Middle East, where the people of the region and the US alike face a series of hard conflicts, long-running local tensions and stubborn stresses in some key Middle Eastern-American-Western relations. The most important ones are the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, the terror phenomenon, nuclear proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, and other less overt challenges like water, youth employment, quality of education, and chronic autocracy. The US under Obama has shown that it is aware of the need to address these challenges simultaneously, but it remains unable to craft a credible policy that is either consistent and effective (as in ties with Syria and Iran) or that goes much beyond rhetoric into the realm of actual changes on the ground (Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy or dealing with Islamist movements).

On the two main issues of Arab-Israeli diplomacy and Iran, the resurgent Republicans in Congress will simply heighten the already strong pro-Israeli and anti-Iranian postures of that body, making it more likely that Israeli militarism will activate local or regional wars in Lebanon and Iran in the coming years. The US will probably continue to gradually get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, while heightening its ideological and occasional proxy military confrontation with Islamist and nationalist forces in the region, i.e., continuity rather than change.

If the US economy improves and direct engagement in foreign wars decreases, Obama will find himself with an opportunity to conduct bold foreign policies, but it seems unlikely that this will happen in the Middle East. For many reasons, the US political system and many elements of society at large now seem deeply committed to providing Israel with carte blanche support, while more stridently confronting Iran on issues that are sometimes real and sometimes imagined in the American fantasy that often defines its Middle Eastern policies. Obama’s insistence on “reaching out to the Islamic world” continues to define much of his approach to our region and other Islamic-majority lands, but remains peripheral to the local and foreign policies that actually create the tensions in many US-Arab-Asian relations.

This leaves us in the situation where the most important question in my mind is: does the US really feel any need to change its Middle East policies? Are any consequences of current American policies in the Middle East serious or scary enough to cause Washington to change its approach to key issues? The answer to date – notwithstanding the remarks by Obama and his chief soldier General David Petraeus that the continued Arab-Israeli conflict poses a measurable threat to US strategic national interests – is that the US can live with current conditions in the Middle East, even though it may not by happy with all of them, such as Hizbullah’s armed status or Iran’s nuclear industry. The new congressional balance of power in the US and Obama’s track record both suggest that we should not expect anything significant to happen in US foreign policy in the Middle East in the coming two years.

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