Friday, June 5, 2009

Obama pushing the right buttons - but now what?

As a rhetorical exercise, yesterday’s speech by the President of the United States could not fail to impress. On a discursive level at least, the winds of change emanating from the White House are palpable. Gone are the days when presidential speeches consisted of incoherently mumbled Manichean simplicities – “good versus evil”, “with us or against us”. The insight that the world – and, especially, the Middle East - is much more complicated is a good start; but much more will be needed if this US administration is to repair the years of malign neglect displayed by its predecessor towards the Middle East peace process. To undo the damage done to American soft power in the world at large, and the Islamic world in particular, words will have to be translated into action – and, in view of the inherent complexities and dilemmas contained within the objectives Obama has set himself, this will be a thankless task indeed.

As numerous pundits haven’t failed to point out, the Cairo speech was indeed based on a deep understanding of what irks the Muslim and Arab world today. Gazing back at their long-lost golden age, Islamic – and Arab – societies do have this sense of greatness lost, and a fear of globalisation-as-Westernisation. Those portions of the speech expressing respect for the immense cultural heritage of Islamic civilisation, and the West’s endebtedness towards it, were clearly aimed at tackling the wounded pride so useful to radical Islamists. The shift in rhetoric on Iran was equally dramatic – with a clear acknowledgment of the historical fears that have acted as the primary drivers of Iran’s anti-Western stance, and its decades-old quest for nuclear weapons. And, while acknowledging the "unbreakable" bond between the United States and Israel, president Obama did, in unprecedentedly frank language, criticise the building of settlements, by Zionist extremists, in the Occupied Territories. The sufferings and humiliations of the Palestinians were, again, acknowledged in ways that would have been unthinkable only a year ago, balanced by an admonition to radical groups like Hamas to disavow violence. This president’s commitment to a two-state solution (admittedly one of his predecessor’s rare positive legacies) was equally made crystal-clear. Issues like democratisation and women’s rights also figured prominently, balanced by a commitment to respecting the cultural specificity of Middle Eastern and Islamic societies. All-in-all, the speech combined America’s immense power with something that had been absent in recent years – humility, and the realisation that the US must speak softly in this world precisely because it carries a big stick.

But how is this ambitious programme going to be put into action? Words are not enough, and many gaping questions remain after the speech; the objectives set by this administration are a tangled web of potential contradictions and complex dilemmas that would have to be resolved successfully if good intentions are not to drown in that merciless swamp called the 'Middle East'.

What is this administration going to do about a nuclearised Iran? Acknowledging Tehran’s deeply-held motives for acquiring the bomb is one thing, dissuading them from their path is quite another. Bombing Iran seems to be off the table - at least for now; does this indicate Washington has reconciled itself with the possibility of a nuclear Iran, its declarations to the contrary notwithstanding? It might very well have to, as mastering nuclear technology seems to be one of Tehran's strategic imperatives, surrounded as it is by official and unofficial nuclear powers. If that is the case, what is Obama's plan B? Extended nuclear deterrence - providing a nuclear umbrella to its non-nuclear allies in the region? Certainly, this would be the only way to stop a regional nuclear arms race - but does the United States truly have the stomach to make such a wide-ranging commitment in this regional hornets' nest?

Obama's stated commitment to democracy is equally problematic. There has been much talk recently of the US taking on the role of ‘offshore balancer’ in the Middle East (once it withdraws from Iraq) by increasingly acting through its allies and proxies (as it currently does in much of East Asia) – but that would mean increased strategic reliance on these allies, most of whom are far from democratic; how does that combine with Obama’s stated commitment to democratisation and human rights? How exactly will this administration balance this universalist democratic commitment to cultural specificity? Will the Obama administration recognise democratically elected governments headed or dominated by radical groups like Hezbollah and Hamas – something strongly hinted at in the speech (“Hamas must take responsibility”)? Then there is the ever-present problem of modernisation-as-Westernisation; even if the United States does not impose its values as forcefully as before, it will, by default, remain the dominant cultural force in the processes of globalisation that affect all Middle Eastern societies, continuing to elicit reactions from traditionalists. While America as a Jeffersonian city-on-the-hill, with values you take or leave at your own behest, certainly represents progress over a United States that will ram 'freedom' down your throat, if need be, there are things even the Obama can't control.

Above all, however, there is that hornets' nest called Israel/Palestine. It is clear that Obama intends to take a more balanced approach to what is the region's longest-running conflict. This administration also seems to view the Middle East as an integrated security complex, whose different conflicts are intensely interrelated, necessitating an equally integrated approach. If you want peace in Israel/Palestine, you need to include Syria and Iran, alongside Israel and the Palestinians, in your calculations. This means either driving a wedge between the Damascus and Tehran (thus physically separating the Iranians from the Western Levant), something that has been tried unsuccessfully on many occasions, or coming to some kind of agreement that satisfies the Iranians, the Syrians, the Palestinians, the Israelis, and AIPAC. Already, there are voices in Congress criticising Obama's opposition to settlements; meanwhile, victories by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Ahmedi-Nejad in Iran may very well remind us that in the Middle East, the next crisis is always around the corner. In final analysis, it seems Obama will need all the luck he can get if his good intentions are not to drown in the quicksands of the Arabian desert.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fair analysis, though i would argue the contrary on your final point. Far from being unlucky, victory for Hezbollah and/or Ahmedinejad in the June elections will show to us the true face of Obama's new 'mutual respect, mutual interests' approach. If he takes the 'Bush-with-Hamas' approach should unsavoury groups win these elections, and severe relations, we will see the true emptinees of Obama's rhetoric of change and reconciliation. If however, he continues his willingness to engage with any regime irrespective of who wins in June, the true departure in US foreign policy that many hope for could well come about.