While not a “miracle worker”, Obama is set to change the way the Muslim world perceives the US.
The Middle East will prove a Tough Nut to Crack for Obama, But “listening” is a good start
In the time since his widely publicised inauguration in front of million of expectant onlookers from around the world, US President Barack Obama has wasted no time in getting to work.
So lofty is the level of expectation and responsibility placed on his broad shoulders that Obama needs to use every minute to live up to the billing he has received as “global saviour”.
The Middle East will prove as much of a ubiquitous agenda item as any in Washington, and may well be the platform on which he is measured at the end of his tenure. So keen was Obama to showcase the new determination to engage more actively in the Middle east, that within hours of his appointment as US envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was half-way across the Atlantic en route to a Middle Eastern tour.
Bush’s imprint on the Middle East
Without a doubt, the era of George W. Bush will forever be symbolised by key failings in the Middle East. Bush’s track record left behind an uncertain region and no significant results, in spite of the democratic projects and peace roadmaps his administration tried so hard to implement.
Some benefitted greatly from Bush’s foreign policy: just ask the much repressed Kurds and Shiites who suffered immensely under decades of barbarian dictatorships in Iraq; however, the overall consensus is that Bush lost the support and respect of the greater region.
One of Obama’s first goals will be to draw a line in the Middle Eastern sand. His eagerness to highlight the birth of a new chapter and all the opportunities that it brings could not make this intention clearer.
Obama does not want to be prejudiced, for the perceived failing of a predecessor, before his work has even begun. In this light, even the staunch foes of the previous regime, are addressed in the most diplomatic and tactful manner.
Under Obama burnt bridges are being restored and there now exists an opportunity for anyone willing to “unclench their fist”.
Obama’s message of hope and friendship
Above all the aspiration, dynamism and guile, Obama is a realist. Long before he ran for presidency, he would have known from his extensive network of advisors, the size and complexity of the task facing him in the Middle East. Obama knew long before his accession to prominence, that unless he worked diligently to alter policies, even the more established relationships in the region could be threatened.
The first public statement on the Middle East by Obama was judged along the same lines as before, but in a recent television address on a prominent Arabic news channel, Obama was able to put his oratorical skills to great use, in the quest to strike a different tone in the region and build new ties with the Muslim world.
Leaving Iraq responsibly
In many ways, Iraq was Bush’s Achilles heel and became the cornerstone of Obama’s election campaign. In spite of the early promise, and almost six years of a costly occupation, Iraq continued to be a vicious thorn in the side of the Bush administration.
Obama never supported the war from the outset, was against the troop surge in 2007, and pledged to withdraw troops within 16 months of taking oath.
A security agreement took affect on January 1, 2009, effectively handing over full sovereignty to the Iraqi government and setting a timetable for withdrawal. However, the task of withdrawing thousands US troops is only half the battle in Iraq. Obama requires a long-term vision for Iraq and a strategic understanding with Iraq as well as neighbouring countries. The troops may ultimately leave but this does not always mean the headache will go.
Iraq has come a long way in the past couple of years, especially in respect to security. But with so much attention being paid to the US exit strategy, not much emphasis has been placed on the exit strategy of the Iraqis themselves.
The US would do well to leave “responsibly”. Nonetheless, much in the same way as the word “success” in reference to Iraq provided a rather ambiguous term for the previous administration, leaving Iraq in “reasonable shape” may prove to be similarly ambiguous.
Key long-term problems remain unresolved in Iraq, and this is one battle over which, in practice, the US may have little sway. It is down to the Iraqis to compromise and seek greater national reconciliation, but if all sides do not embrace democratic conventions and companionship in the same manner, there is little the US can do.
Key spanners in the Iraqi works
Iraq is a case in point that illustrates that imposing ideals on a population, even those taking for granted in the West, will never work if those same ideals are not embraced by that population – however logical they may seem to a Western onlooker.
More importantly, the West needs to allow time for its ideals to take effect, without supervision and forceful steering, and must appreciate that the result or outcomes are not always going to be as hoped.
The Iraqi transitional road to democracy is as uncertain as ever. Many key issues continue to blight the national horizon, but none more so than the unwillingness of some sides to reach true compromise.
To his credit, Obama has been insistent on thorough planning. This “planning” must finally show a realisation that objectives in Iraq must be viewed in the long-term and not just in short-term success measures, which will allow the US a much needed and credible escape route.
Iraq represents a fragmented society and classic diplomacy, unfortunately, is not always their option of choice when it comes to bridging historic ethnic and sectarian differences.
Whether Obama adopts the much discussed plan by his now vice president Joe Biden, to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous federal entities, remains unclear, but what is certain is that it will take the pioneering mindset of someone like Biden with a policy that is genuinely out of the box, to prevent further bloodshed in Iraq, let alone preserve its long-term unity.
Outgoing US ambassador Ryan Crocker ominously warned Obama about the challenges that lay ahead in Iraq and the difficulty in pinning timescales for their resolution.
Key milestones in Iraq
In many ways, 2009 will be a decisive year for Iraq and a litmus test for the readiness of Iraqis to go it “alone”. Events in the next six months may well shape events in years to come.
In most of the country voting took place on January 31, to appoint provincial councils with parliamentary balloting also set to be concluded by the end of 2009.
It remains to be seen whether Iraq will be better leveraged and balanced on the national stage as a result of these elections.
Obama administration will need show new vigour and flexibility as the same rigid mentality of the previous regime will prove counter-productive.
Common mistrust among politicians and a simmering war of words between Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad, show that the appetite for true reconciliation and a common vision will remain elusive for some time to come, regardless of the number of elections held.
Listen rather than dictate
A real welcome to all in the Middle East was Obama’s pledge to listen rather than dictate. This may yet prove to Obama’s biggest strength. By planning and analysing the facts, the US can slowly reach out to the predominantly Muslim population of the Middle East. The new administration must steer away from the perception that the US is anti-Islamic.
Perhaps, this is an underlying reason why peace between Israelis and the Palestinians under Bush fast became a mirage. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and prospective wars touted for so long in Syria and particularly Iran, only encouraged Islamist sceptics who long-alleged an anti-Islamic agenda and the ambition of the US to shape the Middle East according to colonial mindsets and a thirst for oil.
The desire for an open diplomatic approach stressed by Obama was evident as he emphasised that Israelis and Palestinians will have to make some tough decisions and the US could not dictate proceedings.
The US appears intent on looking at the bigger picture when resolving matters in the Middle East. Clearly, from Iraq to Palestine, one can not foster long-term prosperity without appreciating the ripple affects and the influence that neighbouring countries often induce.
Obama implied that in the future the US would have to take into account all the factors involved, this was a clear dig at Bush and the chaos that ensued in the aftermath of Iraq’s liberation.
Hoping for a miracle
Although, a new platform of optimism is badly needed in the region, Obama is not a miracle worker. No guarantees can be provided that decade’s long conflicts and disputes, so elusive to many US presidents, can be fixed by injections of pragmatism alone.
There is always room for manoeuvre in foreign policy, but the fundamental blueprints of US policy, such as its historical support of Israel can not be shifted all too easily.
What is clear is that with Obama’s new thinking and an active approach, he may get closer than any former president in building new peaceful ties in the region and setting a genuine stage for much needed progress.