Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2008
Issue No. 908
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The exit of Bush from the White House is already anticipated in the Arab region with sighs of relief. But what is ahead under the next US president; more of the same, regardless of who wins, or change?
James Zogby

Walking the walk

Barack Obama's foreign policy tour was a bold success, writes James Zogby*

There were, to be sure, a number of risks associated with Barack Obama's nine-nation foreign policy foray. It is one thing to masterfully run a primary campaign and quite another to travel to three of the world's hottest conflict zones, each with its own unique challenges.

First was the matter of timing. With much of August occupied by the Olympics and the two main US political parties' conventions at the end of the month, this trip occurred within the final timeframe left for presidential candidates to make their marks before the mad dash to November's election.

Instead of playing safe at home, Obama ventured out into treacherous waters, where the dangers were not only the unpredictable circumstances of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israel-Palestine conflict, but the watchful eye of the US media. While some critics suggested that the presence of all three major network news anchors (and a hundred other assorted media personnel) ensured maximum coverage for the trip, this carried dangers as well. Stung by criticism that they favoured Obama, many journalists would feel a need to display their integrity by pouncing on any mistake made by him. This could have proved fatal.

It was in Afghanistan and Iraq, where nearly 200,000 US troops have been engaged in combat for over five years, that Obama was to face his greatest challenge. Prior to the trip, he had been taunted by his Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, for articulating a policy before visiting the war zone and meeting with commanders on the ground. Obama had called for a 16-month drawdown of US forces in Iraq and a stepped-up effort in Afghanistan, which he has identified as presenting the more direct terrorist threat to the US and the region.

Just days before his departure from the US, sudden shifts in positions by both the Iraqi prime minister and President George Bush played to Obama's advantage. Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki was quoted as saying that a US departure from Iraq was indeed desirable within the timeframe articulated by Senator Obama. (A statement which Al-Maliki at first disputed making, but ultimately affirmed). And President Bush, himself, appeared to accept the idea of a timetable for the withdrawal of US forces in Iraq, while also arguing that a beefing up of US military efforts in Afghanistan was needed.

The military's leadership did express reservations about a withdrawal timetable, and that might have spelled trouble for the Democratic candidate. Despite the US public's reservations about the war, they have demonstrated increasing appreciation for the commitment and sacrifice US forces have made in Iraq. This provided Obama with a challenge that, in the end, he handled quite well. The visuals of the enthusiastic reception given the youthful senator by US combat forces provided ample evidence of their acceptance of his leadership. At the same time, while indicating a respectful understanding of the concerns expressed by US military leaders, he noted that -- if he were to become commander in chief -- he would consider their views but assert his strategic priorities for where best to employ US forces, demonstrating confident political savvy and his vision.

Entering the troubled waters of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict was another matter. There, Obama had several goals to accomplish -- all difficult. There were diverse constituencies closely watching his every move. Israelis and some American Jews needed to be assured of his commitment to Israel's security, while Arab Americans and many throughout the Arab world needed to be convinced of his commitment to even-handedness. By any measure, a very tough balance to strike.

A respectful visit to long-time US ally King Abdullah of Jordan, and a press conference set against the backdrop of magnificent Graeco- Roman ruins, provided Obama with an opportunity to define his policy goals in a nuanced manner. He expressed his strong support for Israel's security while asserting that the best way to guarantee that security is to "recognise the legitimate difficulties that the Palestinian people are experiencing right now... [because] it is not only in the interests of the Palestinian people that their situation improves... it is also in the interests of the Israeli people." He pledged, "to start working from the minute I'm sworn into office to make breakthroughs" and affirmed that the "ultimate resolution is going to involve two states standing side by side in peace and security."

Prior to going to Israel, Obama had been pressed by supporters to visit a number of Israeli leaders and sites designed to establish his credentials. These visits went well but dismayed Palestinians, who chafed at the fact that he made only one West Bank visit with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The content of the meetings nonetheless provided Obama with ample opportunity to assure both sides of his commitment to begin an intense effort to negotiate peace.

From there, it was off to Germany, where his address before a crowd of 200,000 could only be described as a tour de force. The Berlin speech focussed on rebuilding America's image and restoring US-European ties. Making reference to the tearing down of Berlin's iconic wall, the senator stated a line whose meaning might have been missed by some but whose implications were of significance on many levels: "The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down."

A final observation: during all this time, Senator McCain was clearly frustrated. Some observers noted that while McCain might have taken advantage of Senator Obama's absence from the US to focus on critical domestic issues that would have strengthened his standing, he instead was reduced to an angry heckler on the sidelines. Clearly, the winner in this round was Obama.

* The writer is president of the Arab American Institute, Washington, DC.

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