Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 January 2010
Issue No. 980
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

More slush

2009 proved disappointing for those who had hopes of a change in US Middle East policy from Barack Obama, writes Graham Usher in New York

Receiving the Nobel Peace prize in Oslo on 10 December, Barack Obama was bashful. "My accomplishments are slight," he said. It's an accurate description of the impact his policies have had on the various crises and conflicts that beset the Middle East.

In fact -- set against the expectations that accompanied his presidency -- Obama's policies in 2009 towards the Middle East are so slight as to be indistinguishable from those of his predecessor George W Bush; in most cases, it has been continuity masquerading as "change".

In Iraq, Obama has embraced a Bush-designed withdrawal as his own. In Afghanistan he is emulating Bush's policy of a "surge" in United States troops in the mistaken belief that what ended the insurgency in Iraq will do the same against the Taliban.

It's likely to be wrong on both counts. What ended the insurgency in Iraq was not the "surge" but recognition by the Sunni Arab militias that they were losing the civil war against the Shia Arab militias, especially in Baghdad.

In Afghanistan the more US and NATO troops surge -- and, necessarily, kill Afghans -- the more the Taliban will cast itself as an Afghan resistance movement rather than an ethnic or sectarian one. The surge will likely enhance their legitimacy, not diminish it.

Obama cannot be blamed for the Iraq and Afghan debacles. In both cases he inherited messes he is left to clear up. It is with the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iran's nuclear programme -- two policy areas where Obama heralded the most change -- that disappointment is greatest.

Like other US presidents Obama promised to seek "a just and lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world". Unlike other presidents he evinced empathy with the Palestinian cause. "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," he told the Muslim world from Cairo on 4 June.

His opening gambit seemed good: a freeze on all Jewish settlement in the occupied territories to resuscitate a comatose "peace process". This would bolster the West Bank Fatah leadership (rather than the Gaza Hamas leadership) while coaxing "gestures" from the Arab world to fracture a right-wing Israeli government hostile to the demand and probably the process.

A freeze would also restore US status as a broker, since for the Arabs there is no graver threat to the two-state solution than Israel's West Bank colonisation.

Binyamin Netanyahu met the "freeze" with contempt. He "unfroze" 2,500 Jewish building licences in the West Bank and has approved more than a 1,000 new units in occupied East Jerusalem. "Jerusalem is not a settlement," he told the Americans.

And Obama caved. In August US officials said a freeze was no longer a condition for resuming talks. By September, Obama was telling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to return to negotiations "unconditionally". He asked Israel to "restrain settlement activity". The freeze had become slush.

"Obama was right to focus on settlements," said a diplomat involved in the process yet baffled by the President's climb down. "What's inexplicable is to have no fall-back pressure point when Netanyahu refuses."

On paper Obama had pressure points. Yet one of his first presidential decisions was to reaffirm Bush's August 2008 pledge guaranteeing Israel $30 billion in military aid over the next decade. So that leverage, it seems, is gone.

And as his administration's craven performance over the Goldstone Report at the United Nations showed, Obama -- no less than Bush -- will not lift Israel's immunity for war crimes committed against the Palestinian people. The chances of the US letting Goldstone get to the Security Council are "remote", said one UN ambassador. The chances of Israel being referred from there to the International Criminal Court are non-existent.

It's a similar story with Iran. In January Obama promised "engagement" -- rather than Bush-like confrontation -- if only Tehran would "unclench its fist". He has partially been true to his word.

He sent emissaries to Geneva and Vienna to negotiate directly with Iran over its nuclear programme and invited Iran's foreign minister to Washington. In October he offered a deal which seemed to preserve Iran's right to peaceful nuclear energy while insisting on greater international scrutiny over its programme. By all accounts, the negotiations were serious.

Yet "engagement" was always couched by threat. In May Obama told Israel that Iran had until the end of the year to give up its enrichment of uranium or else face more sanctions. In September -- in a carefully choreographed move with France, Britain and Israel -- the US "exposed" a second, unacknowledged Iranian uranium enrichment site near Qom. Tehran may not have "unclenched its fist", but neither has the US.

Iran poses a dilemma for any US president. Intelligence is mixed as to whether Iran wants the bomb or simply wants the capacity to "break out" and make a bomb should the need arise. But there is a consensus that a nuclear-armed ran would trigger a regional arms race and probably pre-empt a "preventative" Israeli strike, igniting wars across the region.

Yet there is no recognition by Obama that what may lie behind any Iranian drive to nuclear weapons is its encirclement by US bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf or the threat of an Israeli attack. Nor has there been any US response to successive Iranian proposals making abandonment of its nuclear programme conditional on a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

Nor will there be. For this would require Obama insisting of Israel that it abandon its nuclear arsenal. Instead the US demands a "nuclear weapons-free state in the midst of a nuclear- armed Middle East", says analyst Phyllis Bennis, who has written a book on US-Iran relations.

Prospects for 2010 are no brighter. In Palestine -- instead of the freeze -- Obama appears to be pressing a two-year timeframe for negotiations that will allow Netanyahu to colonise what remains of East Jerusalem and the West Bank according to his map rather than that of international legitimacy.

And with Iran Obama wants another round of Security Council sanctions. In the best case these may unite the Iranian people behind a tottering regime. At worst they could lead to war, either direct or pre-emptive by Israel.

In all cases the policies represent continuity with Bush, not change.

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