Category Archives: U.S. Foreign Policy

Obama’s historic speech the platform for Middle Eastern peace?

The birth of a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, hoped as a new beginning for the elusive peace process

It was no secret that improving ties with the Muslim world was to become a core component of US President Barack Obama’s new administration. On 4th June president Obama delivered his highly anticipated speech at Cairo University, where a “new beginning” for ties with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect” took on strong emphasis. A strong symbol of this new start is the peace process between the Israel and the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, as we have seen many times before, emotive words and real action and tough decision making do not always translate to the same thing.

Furthermore, by looking at the greater whole of the Middle East, will parts such as Kurdistan miss out?

One of the greatest historical problems in the Middle East has been the establishment of elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians that has become almost symbolic of the US relationship with the Muslim world. Obama’s seemingly new tough approach with Israel signalled a new phase in the peace process. Successfully achieving peace between the Jews and Arabs and ultimately the establishment of a Palestinian state may well prove to be the platform on which Obama is judged at the end of his term.

The speech was refreshing, warm and conciliatory. Any speech that even grabs the mood and attention of customary US nemesis, speaks volumes about the influence and importance of the speech. However, deep and powerful rhetoric is by no means a measure on how such broad goals will be achieved in reality.

New ties with the Muslim world

A frequent theme of Obama’s speech was his emphasis on the positivity and role of Islam on the global stage. He pointed out the significance of Islam on contemporary history and human development and indeed the part that Islam has played in America’s history, while referring to civilisations “debt” to Islam.

Relations with the Islamic world under George W. Bush and indeed before that became strained and introduced dangerous levels of animosity and mistrust. The perception of the US in the last several years has been tarnished by its foreign policy, with many Middle Eastern views portraying the US as “anti-Islamist”.

Obama downplayed such beliefs of an ideological clash and stated “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Obama was evidently keen to eradicate somewhat negative stereotypes that surround both Islam and the US, and the cycle of distrust that had undermined common ties.

Obama frequently highlighted a great respect for Islam while aiming to show that there was more common ground than differences.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

From the outset, Obama has clearly been keen to reach out to the greater Middle East. A common theme of his tenure as president is that the US will aim to “listen rather than dictate” to the Muslims.

Indeed, the Middle East is as much of an interlinked web as ever, and no solution or stability in any one country will achieve the greater goals of the region.

Peace and success in the Middle East can not be achieved without a broad consensus amongst the social mosaic of the region. The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that individual achievements will only ever be hampered by greater obstacles in the surrounding environment.

More importantly, US relations in the Middle East have reached a vicious and perilous cycle, which Obama has been clearly intent on breaking.

Obama tried to win the hearts of the Islamic audiences by making references to texts from the Quran, and by emphasising that with a “proud tradition of tolerance”, the positive role that Islam plays in solutions rather than as a source of problems.

Ties with Israel and Palestinians

In his quest to turn a new page with the greater Muslim world, there can perhaps be no greater starting point than resolving the historical Palestinian dilemma.

Peace between Israel and the Palestinians formed a core focus of the Bush era, however, the much-hyped peace road map never really started.

Obama speech echoed a neutral stance with regards to the present Israeli-Palestinian standoff. The Islamic view of America has long been defined by the strong historical support of the Jews, seemingly at the expense of Arab suffering and the deprivation of Palestinian rights.

This notion has only served to add to the view that US foreign policy was hypocritical and unequivocal.

In his keynote speech, Obama once again reaffirmed the strong bond between the US and Israel, which is “…based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” However, Obama was clearly keen to ensure that Palestinian rights and sufferings were treated on equal footing, describing the situation of the Palestinians as “intolerable”, who he believes “endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. ”

Shifting US ties with Israel?

Many have pointed to a shift in US policy towards Israel. However, this policy is needed if the overall “reach out” of his administration to the Muslims is to be taking seriously.

It remains to be seen how much political or public pressure, the US government is willing to place on their historical ally in the region.

US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, visiting Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the back of Obama’s speech, reiterated that the US views a two-state solution as the “only viable political solution” to the conflict.

A key note of Obama speech on the peace process was the firm need to halt all Israeli settlement building activity in the occupied West Bank, which is deemed illegal under International law.

This caused a potential confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who previously vowed to at least to accommodate “natural growth” building in the settlements. Furthermore, Netanyahu and his cabinet have appeared reserved to endorse the principle of a Palestinian state in public, much to the contrary of American support to the idea.

Netanyahu is due to deliver a key speech later this week, which will go a long way to underlining the path that his Israeli government will pursue. Either way, the Israeli government will need to make concessions in terms of cabinet personnel or policy, as they realign with the new realities in Washington.

Many in Israel are evidently concerned about the new shift of support from the US government. With Obama placing equal focus on both the Israelis and Palestinians, many will now be looking at the political movements and initiatives shown in each camp. On the back of the historical speech by Obama, there is now a danger for either side to be singled out depending on the steps they undertake.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians have been cautiously warm to the renewed efforts called for in Obama’s speech.

Moreover, Israel may need to make greater concessions not just in the face of US pressure, but also in their quest to win greater endorsement from the Arab world and particularly support against the growing Iranian nuclear threat.

The US has been keen to emphasise to their Israeli counterparts that the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue must come hand-in-hand with the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. What is certain is that no side can act against the Tehran government without a broad support of the greater Middle East.

Any Israeli unilateral action on Iran, as much as its nuclear programme is also feared by many Arab regimes in the region, would go a long way to ensuring further isolation of Israel.

The need for tough measures

For Obama’s brave new policies to become a reality, the US government must go beyond strong rhetoric and mixed this up with tough action and decisions.

For example, while the US have been insistent that no Israeli settlement building continues, what will they do if Israeli continues their justification of further construction in one form or another? Furthermore, the US should be clear on their exact policy regarding settlement building, so that there is no doubt or misinterpretation to suit one side. Does opposition to settlement building mean future settlement expansions or the presence of these settlements altogether?

In his speech, Obama was signalling the prospects of a new definition of ties with Hamas, if Hamas refuses to change its policy towards Israel and does not become an apart of a new unity Palestinian government, then how will the US react to the entity that affectively rules the Gaza strip?

If the peace process goes down a productive and positive path, then the stance of the US will look after itself, however, such similar paths in the past have seldom followed such positive motions. The position of the US will come under much scrutiny, if key differences emerge between Israel and the Palestinians or if indeed outright violence erupts again.

Obama is correct in that no ideology or principle, such as democracy can or should be imposed on a nation. It is indeed down to the real will of a nation, on what they choose to adopt or how they want to be ruled.

By that token, Israelis and Palestinians must make the real concessions and choose what kind of a future they want, but obviously the right US policy has great bearings on the decisions and directions taking by each nation. One thing that is certain is that the current status-quo will serve no side.

All sides, particularly Israel must realise that peace measures should not just be political, more opportunities and economic progression in the Palestinian territories will be a major influence to sway Palestinian sentiments.

The dangers for the Kurds

One side that has clearly benefited from the US foreign policy of recent years are the Kurds. A pro-American, democratic and secular nation does not come around too often and the US and Kurds have developed positive ties. However, many Kurds have grown disillusioned at lack of US support or appreciation of these bonds.

Clearly, when one takes a greater view of a subject matter, certain components that make up key parts of the whole, may miss out.

Too often in the past, the US has neglected so-called “smaller” actors to attain their bigger strategic goals with the perceived more dominant powers in the region.

The US must not forget that that as the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, the Kurds deserve recognition as a firm actor in the region and to be credited for their recent gains, their path towards prosperity and democratisation.

Too often reach-outs in the Middle East have been represented by Jews and Arabs. Reach out to the Muslim world, includes all such parties, including Kurdistan, which is after all a predominantly Muslim nation.

However, there is an inherent fear that the US can not keep all sides happy, which is next to impossible and as a result the Kurds have to be careful no to over rely on fickle foreign policies in the region, be it from the US or neighbouring countries.

By keeping the “major” parties happy in the Middle East, the US may well choose to do this at the expense of others. The Kurds have to ensure that they achieve self-sufficiency for their experience and reinforce their region based on a future that is not necessarily dependent on Western powers whose support is conditional and reserved at the best of times.

Support against extremism

Clearly, the war of the modern era has been the battle against terrorism and extremism. This new battlefield is one that is unconventional and high-impact. As the last several years have highlighted, it is one war that the might of ones military alone can not win in the long-term.

The battle against fanaticism and fundamentalist can be won on ideological grounds alone, by affectively winning the hearts and minds of the populations or uprooting the support base of these elements.

In Palestinian, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan, it is indeed that battle against extremism that has handicapped reconstruction, social advancement and peace. In any of these cases, US can not win these “battles” by merely imposing their ideology or military might. In other words, they strongly need the support of the greater Muslim “moderates” to establish long-lasting peace.

It is only with the establishment of a strong moderate support base, that the extremists can then be uprooted. The previous cycle of animosity and alienation between the US and Muslim powers, further distanced such moderates and indirectly encouraged support for more radical elements.

Obama was quick to emphasis that violence is not a part of Islam. In the case of Palestine, Obama stated that violence was a “dead end” and that “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed”.

Obama, although stating that America was not at war with Islam, openly warned that the US would continue to confront extremists that threatened its security. This is a clear reminder that the US has not necessarily gone soft on its determination to battle radicals or employing a complete shift in foreign policy, particularly against elements like the Taliban in Afghanistan or the regime in Tehran.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd, PUK Media, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Obama’s Tireless Quest to Reinvigorate Foreign Policy Results in Surprise Visit to Iraq

Obama’s frantic foreign diplomacy drive incorporated a surprise visit to Iraq. While the US can point to hope and their “enormous sacrifice”, progress and national reconciliation in Iraq has clearly a long way to go.

US President Barrack Obama’s whirlwind eight-day foreign tour, encompassing six countries, ended with a surprise visit to Iraq and his first visit to a war-zone as commander-in-chief.

Obama met with key Iraqi leaders including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdistan Region President Massaud Barzani. The meetings aimed to enforce US-Iraqi relations in what is a critical year for Iraq, as well as to showcase appreciation for the US forces based in the country.

The US adventure in Iraq, six years since the downfall of Saddam Hussein, has not come cheap. Whilst significant progress has been made in Iraq since 2003, the rewards are a scant consolation for the deep US involvement and the financial burden that George W. Bush in particular has paid in Iraq, with over 4000 US lives lost and over $600 billion dollars spent.

With the inauguration of Obama as president, this raised expectations that a new page can be turned in US foreign policy, where Iraq had become a symbol of its deficiencies and controversies.

Obama has made no secret of his desire to withdraw troops as soon as possible, alter the US mission in Iraq and also waste no time in realigning and leveraging US foreign policy and introduce a fresh impetus that is greatly needed to either mend or refresh ties with key global powers.

Perception of Obama in Iraq

Obama was generally well-received by Iraqis. Most Iraqis south of the Kurdistan border, prefer a speedy withdrawal of US forces and see Obama in a positive light compared to his predecessor.

The fact that Obama was against the Iraqi invasion from the outset and Iraq is deemed as Bush’s war, affords Obama an opportunity to revitalize Iraqi-U.S. ties.

Obama emphasized the need to transition to the Iraqis, after years of sacrifice and allow the Iraqis “to take responsibility for their country.”

Clearly, not only does prolonged US engagement play into the hands of insurgents and hard-line elements of the Iraqi landscape, the US can simply ill-afford to continue to watch Iraqis reconcile at a leisurely rate, where other fires in the US radar rage.

An unprecedented global economic crisis and a forgotten war in Afghanistan, as well as a US foreign policy vehicle that is in urgent need of repair, highlight the US need for all the partners it can get, let alone take ties with traditional allies for granted. Put simply, Iraq is no longer the “make or break” headache it once was, with the world ever changing over the past 6 years.

Clearly some elements such as the Sadrist bloc, favour only total US withdrawal and it came as no surprise when they attacked Obama’s visit as a “barefaced interference”

The end of the beginning for Iraq

As the US slowly plans the end of its Iraqi adventure, the work for Iraqis has just begun. 6 years of violence, sectarian feuds and lack of security, only veiled the fractured and deeply divided Iraqi social mosaic. Achieving true elusive national reconciliation is more than just achieving security and stability in the country.

Security and stability is just the bridge to national reconciliation, if there is indeed a strong deep-rooted desire for this concept amongst all the groups.

Many obstacles remain and many key issues remain unresolved. The US administration has clearly put a lot of hope that 2009 will form a strong platform for Iraqis to resolve key differences and promote a relative form of national harmony so desperately craved.

Much of this hope lies on the Iraqi general elections set for the end of this year, which promises to bring Sunnis firmly into the political arena, as well as revise coalitions and power-sharing.

However, how productive a platform the elections will serve depends much on what Baghdad can achieve in the remaining months leading up to the elections. If the track-record is anything to go by, then there will be a few optimists, with deep-rooted animosity and mistrust still at large.

The Iraqi hunger to implement constitutional articles such as article 140, adoption of a national hydrocarbon law and implement a system of governance that can appease all parties, is largely out of the hands of the US. However, this doesn’t mean that the dawn of the end of the US in Iraq, means that the US can be a by-stander in developments. If 2009 doesn’t become the all defining milestone in Iraq and broad violence in turn erupts, realization of the anticipated US withdrawal in August 2010 will be interesting indeed.

Obama urged Iraqi Prime Minister to quicken the reconciliation pace, a notion that the Bush administration have been pushing for years before, with the focus still largely on enticing minority Sunnis into the political fold as well as in to the predominantly Shiite based security forces.

Baghdad has often promised much when it comes to meeting US benchmarks but in essence has achieved insufficiently to foster real progress.

Meeting with Kurdistan Region Delegation

Obama also met with Kurdistan Region President Massaud Barzani to discuss a number of situations in Kurdistan Region and Iraq. Clearly, pressing agenda items include edgy relationships between KRG and Baghdad and assurances that the Obama administration will not neglect Kurdish ties at the expense of other alliances.

One of the looming dangers in Iraq is the increasing stand-off between Erbil and Baghdad. It is the firm duty of the US administration to ensure that bilateral ties are promoted between both sides and active steps are taken by the US to resolve fundamental differences between each side, particularly over disputed areas and jurisdiction of security forces, long before any reduction of forces.

While the US have so far chosen a more passive role in the disputes between the Kurds and Baghdad, pointing to the democratic apparatus in place to resolve such disputes, it is their duty to ensure that the disputes are indeed resolved via democratic principles and they do not leave Iraq in a perilous and tentative state, regardless of their commitments to withdraw from Iraq or other pressing matters that they have on the table.

Moreover, the US should oversee that the enticement of Baathists into the political sphere by the al-Maliki government is not at the expense of the greater peace between Kurds and Arabs. Baghdad has been looking to diminish Kurdish power and letting prominent former Baathist hardliners out of the ropes, may well see them in direct confrontation with Kurds in the contested areas. A promotion of Sunni power in the north of Iraq, may well come as a trade-off to maintain Sunni-Shiite peace further south.

Reach out to the Muslim World

Clearly, success in the Middle East goes much further than just achieving a relative notion of success in Iraq. US foreign policy requires much needed healing across the greater Muslim world.

Obama’s keenness to visit Turkey so early in his tenure comes as no surprise, with its strategic position as well as its perception as an important benchmark for the region, with Turkey housing a Muslim democracy, a pro-Western outlook and secular institutions.

Obama is keen to introduce a new dawn in US relations with the Muslim world, far from the legacy and negative perception of Bush.

Not only did Bush fail to sufficiently entice historical nemesis into the diplomatic fold, but US policies in this time also drove a wedge between traditional allies.  With global crisis such the economic downturn and the broader battle against radicalism, even the might of the US can no longer afford a policy of unilateralism. If it can not sway contentious powers into the diplomatic arena, then the least it can do is not damage historical friendships.

Time is a virtue

As much as Obama’s historical ascendency to power has created much hope across the international sphere and with it the prospects of a new beginning, shifts in US policy will take time and concrete progress especially on matters relating to the Middle East may take even longer than the maximum of two presidential terms that Obama can achieve as president.

As much as Bush’s policies took time to implement and foreign relationships deteriorated over a period of time, it will take Obama time to unravel and renew US foreign policy and promote new bonds with global powers.

This concept is best demonstrated with Iraq, where any hasty decisions by Obama may well place a nail in his presidential coffin before his work has even begun. To a great extent, he will have to inherit and assume Bush’s policies, particularly in the short-term, and his hands will be inevitably tied by previous dealings in Iraq.

As much as he has touted swift withdrawal, a cornerstone of his election campaign, any withdrawal must be assessed and conducted in the most responsible manner.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

The US, not winning in Iraq and losing in Afghanistan

As US initiates a frantic diplomatic drive, recent foreign policy in the Middle East demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts

To many, Afghanistan has long become a forgotten war. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Afghanistan became the primary focus of the former US president George W. Bush’s new world order. The speedy and decisive manner of the US victory against the Taleban regime in 2001, afforded the US a perceived rest bite to concentrate on another more pressing foreign policy agenda item, Iraq.

While the US has been bogged into a costly and protracted occupation in Iraq, the foremost attention of the US was battling against a raging insurgency and consequent insecurity in Iraq and promoting national reconciliation and a democracy that was hoped to serve as a beacon for the greater region.

Even as the US has stationed thousands of troops in Iraq, at a cost of billions of dollars, the all elusive “victory” in Iraq has been unachievable. As the US became progressively entrenched into the Iraqi security nightmare and the embittered nature of the Iraqi political horizon, the focus turned to a much more relative concept of “success”.

US strategy and ideals on the Middle East have suffered as firstly the beacon of light that they had hoped would emerge from the Mesopotamian plains has failed to significantly materialise, whilst other key factors in the region have been neglected.

Under new US president Barack Obama, the US appears keen to leverage the time, money and resources across the Middle East. While they cannot win in Iraq in the manner they had first hoped, they can not simply continue to invest heavily in Iraq and wait patiently while other parts of the region slip further from their grasp.

Losing the war in Afghanistan

While the US certainly has not won the war in Iraq, by their own admission they are losing the war in Afghanistan.

The US military, already stretched, simply could not accommodate the same intensity in Afghanistan as in Iraq that the new realities on the ground have demanded in the recent years. The Taleban are very much resurgent in Afghanistan, and both in terms of the military capability of the NATO forces spearheading the Afghan mission or in the sphere of political progress, the US and its allies have been fire-fighting for far too long in Afghanistan.

The ease of the victory against the Taleban meant that Afghanistan was seen as somewhat of a forgone conclusion, a mistake that was gravely repeated after the apparent ease by which Saddam Hussein was removed from power in Iraq that was then followed by a brief episode of national euphoria.

Now with Obama at the helm, Afghanistan is set to become a forefront of US foreign policy.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts

Iraq has received much more attention for a number of reasons. Iraq has all the ingredients to destabilise the region en-masse. Not only have the US been under internal pressure to stabilise and succeed in Iraq, but it also been pressured further by mindful Sunni neighbours and also Turkey. The drastic implications of a failed Iraqi state and the risk of its disintegration, leading to an expansion of the war across its borders, was perceived to be much pertinent than the reawakening of the Taleban threat.

Furthermore, with huge oil reserves in Iraq, stability and prosperity in Iraq had a global focus.

Bush’s tough adventure in Iraq has meant that ties with neighbouring countries have become hindered, and in the case of Iran has resulted in a proxy war. Furthermore, other historic problems such as attaining elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians and the growing threat of Iran, have been side tracked.

Now the Obama administration realises that even significant democratic success in Iraq will not be enough to dispel the negative perception of the US in the Middle East and the general antagonism felt by the Muslim world. Bush’s foreign policy to a great extent alienated the broader Middle Eastern landscape, prompting Obama to vow to listen and not dictate as he sought to heal the wounds inflicted since the turn of the century.

The US and the West simply can not afford to judge the Middle East in terms of its parts, without looking at the bigger picture. The Middle East has a much greater entanglement and influences and meddling from neighbouring countries are as significant as the individual country under the spotlight.

Fire-fighting or preventing the fire?

The plight of the US and its allies in Afghanistan can be very much likened to a fire fighting exercise without truly striking at the root of the problem. By dropping their guard, the Taleban have been allowed to regroup and pose a menacing threat as ever.

Just as the Iraqi tide was only finally turned by appeasing insurgent elements and appealing to the moderate masses, the Afghan war will only succeed by winning the hearts and minds of the population.

It is down to the Afghan population to determine how this war will pan out, and not the military arsenal of the West. Like Iraq, Afghanistan has too suffered from deep-rooted disparity and lack of national unity. Like much of the Iraqi population, the Afghan people have suffered tremendously from three decades of deadly wars that has shattered the economy and the countries infrastructure.

At such a crippling disadvantage, progression will not be quick, but the foundation to a new flourishing state must be start with solid governance in Kabul that can quickly assume overall security, provide basis social services, fight corruption, promote unity and entice moderate elements into the political arena.

In the short-term, the decision to divert thousands of US troops to Afghanistan will aid to bridge a much needed security gap in the country. While the US administration may have to “restart” its mission in Afghanistan, it is now faced with a much tenser regional climate. Pakistan is facing a difficult battle of its own with growing friction blighting ties with US, and with key Western allies not keen to extend their military adventure, fearing that they will be sucked into a vacuum for many years to come.

In 2001, given the extraordinary events of 9/11, most Western allies were swift respond positively to Bush’s plea that they were “with us or against us”. However, the economic and political landscape has changed a great deal since then.

The countries presidential election this year will be an important milestone and a chance for the Kabul political hierarchy to get a firm grip with much needed improvement in governance.

Ultimately it’s the Afghan national government that can sway the true direction of the country, all the West can do is buy time and short-term stability, while Afghans make fast-track progress and move towards self-sufficiency. Improvements in the political circles and basic services will go a long way to improving mindsets of the Afghan people.

Adapting tactics

Afghan officials have welcome Barack Obama’s willingness to adapt tactics used to deal with more moderate insurgency in Iraq. There is a clear realisation that fulcrum of the fight starts on the ground in Afghan towns and villages.

Intelligence from sections of the Afghan population has already been a major factor in the battle against the Taleban, and extending this by engaging the local population more directly both in terms of tactics and military means will be crucial.

Without an ell-encompassing strategy, throwing more troops at the Afghanistan problem will not serve as a means to an ends, but a platform to become sucked into a quagmire. Presidential elections and new tactics in Afghanistan will help to break the stalemate that NATO commanders have long expressed was undermining their mission.

It will also allow NATO forces to maintain gains, by handing “cleared” zone to capable and dependable local Afghan security forces. The climate of fear and the strained local security apparatus, often has resulted in cleared areas been redeployed all too quickly by Taleban forces.

Reaching out to the people to garner key support is only one part of Obama’s new strategy across the Middle East.

Frantic Diplomacy Drive

Since his highly-publicised inauguration, Obama has wasted no time in getting to work on his foreign policy vision.

Only this week, a frantic two-day American diplomatic drive, included overtures to Russia where ties were very much strained in 2008 over the Russian invasion of Georgia and contentious plans for a US missile defence system in Eastern Europe, and also Iran where a communication channel is acutely craved by the US administration, in addition to a general reach out to Muslim countries in the region.

In the not so distant future, Obama is set to visit Turkey to give a first speech in a Muslim country.

Overtures to Iran, Syria, Russia and moderate elements of Taleban have turned a few eyes. It has been long mentioned by Obama about the need to open unconditional diplomatic channels to Tehran, if it could “unclench” its fist, but at the time when there are wide reports that Iran has enough enriched uranium to make one nuclear weapon, it makes US  advances towards Iran all the more contentious.

However, it is evident that for US foreign policy to succeed in the larger context, concessions will be vital if not a prerequisite for regional foreign policy healing. Diplomatic initiatives towards Iran may eventually see it swayed from nuclear programmes, and lead to a lifting of international sanctions on Iran, in turn for more “productive” Iranian support in Iraq and Afghanistan, where Iran could play a more supportive part in the battle against the Taleban and promotion of national unity. Russians could be swayed by the dropping of the missile system defence plans in Europe, if Russians can sufficiently convince their Iranian counterparts to steer clear from nuclear ambitions.

Effectively manoeuvring regional ties, by resetting relations with the Russians as widely publicised at the recent meeting between both countries and breaking the stalemate with other long-time adversaries, may then contribute in turn towards advances in other US goals, such as stability in Afghanistan and winning the battle against extremism 

Americans can longer afford to lose the wars that they are currently fighting with such perceived sacrifice and simultaneously drive a wedge between historic foes and other contentious regional powers.

The new US drive was best summed up by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, emphasising their immense effort to create more partners and less adversaries.

With the globe exponentially smaller and ever more intrinsically linked, the time for unilateralism is certainly over.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

The ‘beginning of the end’ for the US may well be just the start for sovereign Iraq

With ubiquitous obstacles, much elusive progress in Iraq and a highly-costly liberation, record books may well show Iraq as  a war the US did not win, but a war that they “survived”.

In a speech at the Marine Corps base of Camp Lejeune, U.S president Barack Obama, announced the onset of a “new” strategy in Iraq and effectively the withdrawal of the bulk of US troops by the end of August 2009, by which time the U.S. “combat mission” would have ended.

Withdrawal from Iraq was on one of the pillars of Obama’s election campaign, and was widely anticipated. For many, Obama opted for the middle course of three possibilities – withdrawal within 16 months of taking office as he had often pledged and a more long-term course preferred by others. 

While this may point to a significant milestone in the contentious U.S. episode in Iraq, the U.S. and Iraqi marriage, and specifically their military attachment is far from over.

The beginning of the end?

As Obama expressed gratitude for the sacrifices of U.S. personnel and the “hard-earned” progress achieved, the key message was that the U.S. was now in its concluding chapters in its “war” in Iraq.

In spite of much initial euphoria and expectation, solid progress in Iraq has been hard to come by and with Iraq seemingly achieving some semblance of security and stability, for Washington this may be the crucial window of opportunity needed to finally execute a highly-elusive U.S. exit strategy.

The liberation of Iraq has certainly been far from plain sailing, and the Republican casualty in recent elections was arguably due to the controversial and costly invasion of Iraq as any other matter.

Whether Obama can leave “responsibly” as promised, may be as ambiguous as George W. Bush’s pledge of “success” in Iraq.

Obama may speak with gusto and determination on the situation but ultimately Obama is a realist and that is reflected in the decision to maintain up to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq until end of 2011, in line with the protracted Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) signed by the Bush administration and Baghdad.

Obama emphasised that while progress was made, there were still “difficult days ahead” in Iraq. This statement symbolises the anxiety still expressed in the White House and the relative flexibility that is likely to be appointed by Washington in spite of what appears as an end road for the U.S. military in Iraq.

Iraqi obstacles to prosperity

While the U.S. can point to significant gains in recent years and on paper what appears as a markedly improved security situation and more credible political landscape in Iraq, this may prove to be the end of the beginning for Iraq.

If progress can be measured in terms of security and sectarian violence, then Iraq has certainly advanced at a rapid if not fragile pace in recent years, thanks largely to the surge strategy of Bush.

However, stability and progress must be viewed with as much focus in the long-term as any short-term success measures. In this respect Iraq may have a considerable distance to go.

Iraq remains a disparate entity and key national differences can not be easily papered over by Western notions of democracy, and will remain to blight and hinder the Iraqi social horizon, until all sides truly embrace the principles of compromise, equality and the will of the people.

Beneath the surface, political progress in Iraq has been slow and many key milestones remain elusive.  This includes a fundamental lack of a national hydrocarbon law and constitutional rifts.

Difference over a constitution, the very blueprint of the national values and governance, are no small matter. Differences about how to distribute Iraq’s immense oil wealth, to share power amongst the various communities and resolve highly-emotive topics such the jurisdiction of disputed territories is nothing short of elements that can implode at any time.

Over to you, Iraq

The key message by Bush and now Obama is a full return of Iraq to Iraqis. The U.S. has introduced the notion of democracy and now Iraqi’s can decide their fate under this new umbrella.

In principle this makes logical and indeed practical sense. However, where the gulf in differences is too wide and deep-rooted, democracy and diplomacy may not be so simple to implement. 

Washington is certainly correct in the sense it is down to Iraqis to decide their fortunes. Certainly only the Iraqis can determine the stability, prosperity and level of national reconciliation. No amount of U.S. influence can change the fundamental fact that it is down to Iraqis to make real compromises and select systems of government that will stitch the countries groupings together in relative harmony.

On the surface, Iraq has the military might to enforce security. This is represented by the growingly powerful Iraqi national army, the less official but highly-influential Sunni Awakening Council forces, ever menacing Shiite militia forces and significant and experienced Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Pooled together, Iraq has a mighty force in place that can easily keep security and national defence. Working against each other, Iraq has all of the ingredients for one of the most violent civil wars in living memory.

Kurdish pleas for US intervention

As rifts between Erbil and Baghdad seem to be widening at an alarming pace, key disagreements between both sides, particularly over Kirkuk and other disputed territories, have stoked a vicious war of words.

Plea’s by Kurdish leaders for U.S. intervention has fallen on deaf ears, with the U.S. emphasising that there is now a democratic apparatus in place to resolve such matters.

However, U.S. officials fail to acknowledge the repercussions if these same democratic systems are ignored. Sidelining constitutional matters elected by millions and delaying key milestones is far from democratic.

But the U.S. is no fool. They may support only the will of the Iraqi people on the surface, but they know fully well that applying democracy in such a sphere is sometimes like applying square pegs to a round hole, especially since the results of these principles are never likely to be embraced by factions that fear to “lose” from such popular votes.

Let’s not forget that there was even democracy under Saddam Hussein – but you can vote for only one man and one party.

Obama’s ever-increasing plate

While on the surface, much positivity is been aired about future prospects in Iraq, for the U.S. it may be a case of achieving the “best” short-term outcome, than the ideal outcome.

However, times have changed drastically since the original invasion in 2003. Highly-costly and prolonged wars in Iraq have cost the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars, without every reaping fundamental long-term gains for these sacrifices. Throw in one of the worst global financial crisis in living memory, a deepening recession in the U.S. and a resurgent Taliban in the forgotten war that is Afghanistan, the U.S. can simply ill-afford to fine-tune the current situation in Iraq and must now start to concentrate on more “urgent” matters.

This does not equate to a U.S. mindset that the Iraqi projects are complete or that they can now abandon the Iraqi experience. Simply, they can not wait impatiently for years to come for Iraqis to reconcile at a leisurely rate, while their other interests in the Middle East and at home suffer immeasurably.

Obama will need to learn from the failures of his predecessor and that means that one can not judge Iraq without considering the greater context of the Middle East. Even if U.S. puts all their eggs in one basket and achieves a real and solid democracy in Iraq, U.S. efforts will be wasted if other key figures in the region are not wooed sufficiently, and discouraged from preying on their neighbouring Iraqi victims like vultures.

U.S. officials acknowledge the need to reach out to the greater Middle Eastern arena, and particularly Iran and Syria. Furthermore, as Iraq became the Republican Achilles heel, the Palestinian roadmap suffered, and this may need the full focus of Obama to be reignited.

Broad Support for Obama’s Plan

Although some remain concerned that Obama’s election pledge was watered down and the residual force remained significant through to 2011, Obama received broad support for the “new strategy” of his national security team.

The Republicans remained generally supportive, although they were keen to showcase the achievements of the Bush administration in getting to this stage.

Others U.S. politicians, as well as key Iraqi politicians, have expresses anxiety that the withdrawal could reverse the dramatic but tentative gains to date.

On his part, Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki stated his confidence that Iraqi forces were capable of providing security in the absence of U.S. forces.

In principle, Obama has tried to be tactful and positive on the surface but real uncertainty will remain in his mind. Obama tried to be reassuring and clear in his statements, but will know much will depend on how Iraqis progress, specifically with the national elections scheduled for later this year.

Although, the White House have pointed to the democratic apparatus to resolve national issues and aired common optimism, behind the scenes they will remain watchful to how Iraqis shape their future.

How the remaining chapters of the Iraqi war unravels is dependent on the Iraqis, but the U.S. must can ill afford, after reaching this stage with much sacrifice by their own admission, simply believe that they have fulfilled their end of the bargain.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Obama’s pledge to listen instead of dictate bodes well

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.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

As Obama Takes US Elections by Storm, the Legacy of Bush is Not Lost on the Kurds

Barrack Obama swept to victory in the US presidential elections, marking a momentous day in American history. The appointment of the first-black US president represented more than just this iconic and ground-breaking significance. Indeed the world, gripped with the worst economic crisis since the 1930’s, facing a growing threat of fundamentalism and reeling from cynicism caused by recent US foreign policy, has been crying out for a fresh impetus and new hope. 

Perhaps no individual will have greater expectations right now than that on Obama’s broad shoulders. Obama may well represent the energy that the globe is lacking, but he is no miracle worker. Obama can only work with the tools at this disposable and manoeuvre within constraints that the political stage allows.

Obama would do well to get people’s feet back on the ground and quell a level of expectation that if unchecked may ironically cripple his tenure before it has even started.

Obama’s appointment certainly stole the worlds gaze. However, as the worlds attention had turned to historic elections, the heated US presidential contest between Barack Obama and John McCain was observed with as much interest in Kurdistan as any part of the world.

After recent Republican legacy in Kurdistan and the more clear-cut promises of McCain over the US course in Iraq, arguably Obama was not the first choice of the Kurdish people.

The Name Bush in Kurdish folklore

If George Bush senior can be viewed by the Kurds with eternal gratitude for the establishment of the no-fly zone and onset of Kurdish liberalisation from tyranny in 1991, it is perhaps the actions of his son George. W. Bush that is forever etched in Kurdish folklore.

Conceivably, in later generations the Kurds may even view the decision by Bush junior to oust Saddam Hussein from power in the same breadth of Newroz folklore when Kawa the blacksmith defeated Zehak the evil ruler of these mystical lands, to free a nation in captivity thousands of years ago. The significance of the new dawn in Kurdish existence can not be overestimated.

Although, the Kurds have been betrayed far too many times, particularly by successive US governments, to take future American support for granted, the change of fortune in the seventeen years and particularly the last five since the liberalisation of Iraq, have been truly remarkable for an ancient, battle-weary and emotionally scarred people.

Not all the policies of the US government have bode well with the people of Kurdistan and US presidents throughout their new found autonomy have stopped short of full-fledged backing and support for the Kurdish nation, however the symbolic nature in which the Kurds were afforded their first opportunity to guide their future and look ahead to a new prosperous and unmolested path, can and will never be forgotten by the ever-grateful Kurds.

The Kurds, cold-heartedly sliced into pieces like disposable by-products in the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, waited many decades to be rid of mass-oppression at the hands of their occupiers.

US intervention in 1991 may ironically have been forced and not wilfully decided by the US administration at the time and the world-super power could have acted years before the massacre of thousands of Kurdish civilians, rather than persevere in their own selfish strategic interests, nevertheless an invaluable opportunity was given to the Kurds to begin new chapters in their existence.

Kurdish anxiety

Kurdish trepidation and weariness at seeing their hard-fought gains vanish, is all too common, especially when their gains have not quite been encapsulated in protection and guarantee. Such mistrust, particularly towards their former Arab rulers in Iraq, can not simply vanish in a small period of time.

Pain and mourning, are not concepts that just disappear, lest from mentally-scarred citizens who have loved many a lost one and witnessed the razing of their villages.

So when an end of era arrives in America, a country on the path of ground breaking political change, Kurdish anticipation of the electoral results was understandable.

As thousands of Kurds watched with intent, it was the candidate that represented the next best thing to George Bush that dominated their gaze. In this context, John McCain was in a way the default man of choice in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Where Obama has raised Kurdish tension, by declaring his open-intent to withdraw troops from Iraq as soon as possible, McCain had remained defiant to stay the course and not allow their hard-won security gains in Iraq disappear.

Now Kurds watch developments in the White House with close-interest, and anticipate with anxiety the policy Obama adopts towards the Kurds. As US foreign policy in Iraq becomes destined for a shake-up under Obama, whether the Kurds will be given commitment and protection, as American attention turns elsewhere, is uncertain.

US Bases in Kurdistan

The willingness and encouragement for the establishment of permanent US bases in Kurdistan Region, may have stoked national sentiments further south in recent times, however the concept is nothing new.

Kurds have campaigned and supported the idea of some form of residual US presence in Kurdistan, regardless of any greater US-Iraqi security pact.

It’s hardly a secret that the majority of Kurds in Iraq are pro-western. However, such blatant endorsement of Kurdish autonomy by the new Obama administration may be nothing short of wishful thinking.

Just as the Kurds rely heavily on the US in the present and the future, in the quest to end their 5-year nightmare and to safeguard the seeds of their greater Middle Eastern project, the US rely heavily on broader Iraqi endorsement and Arab support.

Kurdistan president Massaud Barzani, currently in Washington for talks, emphasised the warm welcome the idea of the stationing of US troops in Kurdistan would receive, if the security pact was not signed by year end.

His remarks drew strong rebuke somewhat unsurprisingly from anti-US hardliners, namely from Moqtada al-Sadrs bloc, but also ironically from leading Kurdish figure and Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani. Talabani statement that all Iraqi constitutional laws apply to the Kurdistan region was inevitable. He may be an influential Kurdish leader, but as the symbolic figure-head of Iraq, he was hardly going to embrace the idea in public with open arms.

Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa) stalled

With the chances of passing the security pact under the remaining stewardship of Bush now slim, the chances of an agreement before year end, when US forces will find themselves in a legal vacuum, are now also diminishing.

What was deemed a final document awaiting vote by Iraq’s parliament, the draft has now been returned, somewhat disappointedly in the eyes of the Bush administration, with a fresh set of proposals and request for further rework.

US officials had previously labelled the chances of further revisions as unlikely. Despite more recent encouragement from Bush that a deal will be struck before year end, the US analysis of Iraqi recommendations, coupled with scepticism of high-ranking US officials may well mean that the pact will become one of the first testing challenges facing Obama as new US president.

The attitude of a majority of Iraqi politicians to be seen standing up for national pride and not to cede under US influence, has meant an agreement, that was already a product of dilution, may require further downgrading to the annoyance of the US.

However, as much as Baghdad can ill-afford to lose the support of the US in such a short period of time, conversely Washington without common agreement to remain in Iraq, will suffer huge humiliation come 1st January 2009 with the absence of symbolic legal cover

Greater Iraqi View

Other than the Kurdistan region, where the next US president and more importantly his moves and motives for the country, have taken much more significance, the general view in the rest of Iraq is less intensive.

Obama’s appointment will bode well with large sections of the Iraqi population who favoured a quick departure of American forces, and remained unmoved from a perception of Bush as their own Western tyrant. The significance of Obama’s skin-colour and his distinct origins is not forgotten on most Iraqis (or the great Middle Eastern landscape for that matter).

However, most Arabs sceptics generally believe that the choice of presidency will hold little sway, in light of more encompassing strategic institutions that will determine greater US policies.

This view may hold some weighting, after all to a large extent the arms of the new US president will still in some way, shape or from be constricted by the legacy of the Bush administration. No US president however gallant can escape from this fact.

Furthermore, US foreign policy has always been long-term especially with certain regards, for example the strong support for Israel becoming almost constitutional over the years. Decades of foreign ideals and strategic manoeuvring for a world order in the vision of the US, can not be altered greatly or at the pace many demand. Even the effervescent and bold Obama, may struggle to conjure wholesale and controversial changes.

Untangling of this web by Democrats now in power, will take time and may consume their first term. In light of this, Obama can ill-afford to bring down Bush’s principles in Iraq, with a lack of remorse. If he does and the Iraqi project derails badly, the nails in his presidential coffin may have been sealed before it even began. The security pact, even if modified further, will clearly see US presence in Iraq for at least 4 years.

However, regardless of the differing camps of view on Bush’s eight-year tenure at the helm and the capacity of Obama to enact real change, there is a broad and energised consensus in US and the international stage, that a fresh outlook was required and a new page can now be turned. A jubilant Obama hopes to provide just that.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: eKurd, Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Obama’s Global Image Taking Shape?


Can Obama win “vital election points” for his tour?

As the young U.S. senator begins his first major foreign tour as a presidential candidate, the Republican machine may gethe chance to hammer him on a massive public scale for several of his policies concerning Iraq and Afghanistan.

All eyes were on U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama this week, as he undertook a major foreign tour, including his first visit to Baghdad, in the countdown to the November 4 U.S. presidential elections.

The “war-torn” tour comes at a crucial time as the feverish election campaign gathers pace.

It is likely that as much as this visit can win Obama vital election points as well as seemingly address his alleged foreign policy “Achilles heel,” it could serve just as much as a Republican stick to hamper his presidential quest.

On paper, Obama’s ascent to prominence and candidacy for the White House helm is almost poetic. While the U.S. global image has suffered immensely in the shape of a controversial foreign policy and a war on terror, with President George W. Bush perhaps serving as the personification of that, Obama represents a taboo-breaking and fresh outlook to the international community.

His victory as the Democratic presidential candidate over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton highlighted his political astuteness and growing confidence, a campaign undoubtedly augmented by the unavoidable fact that he is a young black from a deprived background.

Dress rehearsal as next American president?

Although Obama’s foreign visit in light of the possibility of winning the election in November was always going to depict him by some circles as the visiting next U.S. president, he was very quick to play this down.

Obama is careful to bolster his election chances with an effective medium campaign, by appearing as a confident but modest U.S. senator and not in an arrogant tone as the next president. Obama emphasized that he did not have a “message” as such to Afghan or Iraqi leaders, as he was “more interested in listening than doing a lot of talking.”

The Iraq effect

There is no doubt that the Iraq War has centred heavily in the U.S. election campaign, and Obama’s objection to long-term troop presence and repeated calls for a withdrawal within 16 months has formed a central spotlight of his campaign.

Obama has capitalized on the fact that he was against the war from the outset, while his Republican presidential rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, supported the Iraqi invasion from day one and has vowed to keep troops in country as long as necessary rather than set any unrealistic benchmarks or timetables.

A firsthand analysis in Afghanistan and particularly Iraq is served to signal his desire to be seen as in touch with the realities on the ground and to foster crucial political understanding with key leaders.

Before his visit to Iraq, Obama promised to make “a thorough assessment” that could ultimately influence a “refinement” in his policy. Critics lost no time in accusing him of laying the foundation for future changes in his stance on Iraq, but in reality, with much changing in Iraq, it is hard for Obama not to adjust his viewpoint as much as it may play against him.

Meeting with Iraqi leaders

Obama arrived in the heavily fortified Green Zone as part of a congregational delegation, where he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabini, as well as the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

Clearly, the security situation in Iraq and the prospect of troop withdrawals was a common interest. In Iraq, a swift American withdrawal is a hotly contested debate with some figures keen not to incept a premature withdrawal by the onset of a fixed timetable at a delicate stage in Iraq’s recovery and with Iraq still far from political reconciliation, while others, such as Moqtada al-Sadr, have used this to assemble significant following and influence.

Al-Maliki quickly denied claims that he supported Obama’s plan to withdraw combat troops within 16 months. However, at the time when Iraqi leaders are under intense public pressure to assume prime sovereignty, thy will press Obama for clarity on his long-term vision.

Obama has previously stated that he wants Iraq to assume responsibility for security, with the U.S. possibly leaving a residual force to help train Iraqi troops and fight al-Qaeda.

The situation on the ground in Iraq has changed a great deal since the start of the presidential race. Largely owed to the U.S. surge established in early 2007 and the onset of Sunni Awakening Councils, the security situation in Iraq has improved markedly.

Obama’s new willingness to be more flexible on the assessment of Iraq has naturally led to accusations of inconsistency by the Republicans.

The Republicans, while pointing out that the surge strategy Obama opposed has worked, have accused him of “stubbornly adhering to an unconditional withdrawal” and say he threatens to undo the hard work of the past year.

Tying the hands of the next president?

The Bush administration has been vehemently opposed to setting a firm timetable for troop withdrawals from the outset and have instead emphasized that decisions should be made based on military assessments on the ground and Iraqi attempts to foster political reconciliation.

However, Bush has been criticized in many circles for seemingly tying the hands of the next administration. With the days of his tenure in office coming to an end, he is not expected to make any major decisions on troop numbers but is likely instead to pass the baton to the next president.

The negotiations on the Status of Forces agreement, highlighting the long-term legal status of American forces in Iraq, has proved highly contentious and is unlikely to be agreed upon by the original target date at the end of July. To avoid a legal vacuum in January 2009, when the last UN mandate expires, a “transitional” pact is envisaged, leaving the hard negotiations to the next U.S. president.

An increasingly confident Iraqi government has been pressing for a more definitive timeline and a less hazy role for the U.S. in the future Iraq, forcing Bush to somewhat grudgingly accept a “time horizon” for withdrawal, a notion he has long opposed.

Despite Obama’s bold assurance of a withdrawal within months of assuming the presidency, in the short term his hands may well be tied. Any major decision that has negative consequences may well hammer his image and credential before his job has even begun. In the short term, the principle cogs assembled by the Bush administration will continue without significant change.

Obama is aware that any move to dampen the delicate foundations set in Iraq could be catastrophic. With many political stumbling blocks remaining between fractious Iraqi groups, any hasty withdrawal to fulfil election promises may set Iraq back many years.

With a more optimistic climate, Iraq is becoming less of the nail to hammer the Republicans and may yet work strongly in their favor.

Contrast with McCain

The contrast of the first-term senator from Illinois with his established Republican presidential rival McCain could not be more distinct. Obama is already becoming a well-known international name and has attracted huge media attention.

McCain, however, has the experience to derail Obama’s election bandwagon and will use any perceived flaws or missteps on Obama’s trip to full advantage. McCain’s earlier visits to Iraq and elsewhere attracted much less attention, and he could argue that Obama’s background has played as much significance as his political merits.

McCain will also point to recent opinion polls in the U.S. suggesting he has more public trust as Commander-in-Chief.

With improving prospects for Iraq, coupled with a growing crisis over the state of the U.S. economy, Iraq has increasingly taken a back stage in the U.S. public’s concern, which may take the spin off of Obama’s campaign.

Need for new focus on Afghanistan

With a resurgent Taliban creating fear in parts of Afghanistan and pushing already limited coalition forces to the breaking point, Afghanistan is under threat of becoming a forgotten war.

Obama, upon visiting Afghanistan, claimed that the country should be the new “central focus” of the fight against terrorism and pledged to reinforce troop levels by a couple of brigades, by diverting troops no longer needed in Iraq to Afghanistan. Republicans would argue, of course, that this is just an adopted Republican surge tactic and is just masking another way to ultimately keep troop levels the same and U.S. forces strained.

All in all, the perception that Obama leaves as he carries on his foreign tour may well go a long way in deciding the next U.S. president.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.