Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 September - 3 October 2012
Issue No. 1116
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Obama's mixed messages

In his General Assembly speech President Obama said a lot to the American people about the Arab revolutions but not much to the peoples of the region, writes Graham Usher at the UN

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Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez addresses the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters

From the outset of this year's debate at the General Assembly two things were clear: it would be overshadowed by the multiple crises in the Middle East; and that the 120 or so national leaders in attendance would make no real attempt to resolve them, including the five permanent powers (the US, UK, France, Russia and China) on the Security Council split by differences over Syria.

Because of this the dominant mood has been introspection.

It was reflected in Barack Obama's speech to the General Assembly. He made only fleeting reference to the actual Arab revolutions. Instead, he delivered a professorial reflection on their future. Would they be inspired by those universal values of "liberty, justice, and dignity" represented by Chris Stephens, the late US ambassador to Libya? Or by the "violence and intolerance" of the crowd which killed him and three of his colleagues, fired up by an American-made video that insulted the prophet?

He cast the future of the Arab Spring as a struggle between these two forces, between "those that would drive us apart, and the hopes we hold in common".

The speech was eloquent. But as so often with Obama it covered only one half of the sky. Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi -- in an interview with The New York Times -- explained that it wasn't simply anger over a blasphemous movie that caused Arab hostility to America.

"Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region" by backing dictatorial governments over popular opposition and supporting Israel over the Palestinians, he told his American hosts.

On the three key contemporary crises in the Middle East -- the Syrian civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the imbroglio over Iran's nuclear programme -- Obama had little new to say.

On Syria he said the regime of Bashar Al-Assad must come to an end. But regime change has been American policy for at least a year. And whenever it has been brought to the council it has been vetoed by Russia and China. More than any other issue it's that split which has allowed the Syrian regime to act with impunity against its own people.

The human toll of the division was given flesh in the first report to the Security Council on 24 September by Lakhdar Brahimi, who replaced Kofi Annan as the UN's envoy to Syria. With 20,000 killed by the conflict, 1.5 million displaced and 280,000 refugees in neighbouring countries, "the situation in Syria is dire and getting worse by the day," he said. "There is a stalemate."

Stalemate is a good description of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On this Obama's comments were worse than useless and clearly influenced by the proximity of the presidential election on 6 November. "Let us leave behind those who thrive on conflict and those who reject Israel's right to exist." The Palestine Liberation Organisation has recognised Israel since 1988. The issue today is whether Israel's colonisation of the West Bank has rendered obsolete Palestinians' hopes of ever living in an independent state of their own.

On 27 September Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will probably declare the Palestinian Authority's intention to become a non-member observer state, where it could, in theory, join UN bodies like the International Criminal Court and prosecute Israel for its settlement policies in the occupied territories.

The US has opposed the bid, and Abbas has reportedly promised not to submit it until after the US election. In any case the Palestinians are not interested. Last year there was genuine support for the PA's becoming a full member state of the UN. This year Palestinians are not protesting against the occupation but about the PA's failure to pay salaries.

The main reason for the PA's chronic indebtedness is Israeli restrictions on Palestinian investment and development, especially in that 61 per cent of the West Bank which is supposed to be transferred to the PA but remains under Israeli control. Without this land -- says the World Bank -- the PA is not viable as an entity, let alone a state.

Obama gave more time to Iran. He repeated he wanted to resolve the dispute over its nuclear programme diplomatically. He also said it was the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power.

But "a nuclear armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained," and not only because of the threat it may pose to Israel. A nuclear armed Iran would trigger a regional arms race, break up the nuclear proliferation treaty and destabilise the global economy, said Obama.

In the last year the US president has made this the international consensus, with not only the US but also the EU imposing sanctions on Iran over and above those put in place by the UN. There is only one significant dissident.

Having made a united international front against Iran a central goal of Israeli diplomacy, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu now seems to be putting it at risk. He's demanded that Obama draw a clear red line on Iran's nuclear programme and vow military action should it be breached. He has taken this message to the US voter, appearing on several American TV channels, in effect intervening in the US election campaign.

It cut no slack. The policy Obama enunciated on Iran in his UN speech is sharper but essentially the same as that advocated for the last year. There were no red lines.

What does Netanyahu want? Some say he is upping the ante on Iran to extract other concessions from the Americans. Others fear he is trying to inveigle the US into a war it will fight on Israel's behalf.

Yet the risk of miscalculation is enormous. Israel and Iran are countries that deal with stereotypes of each other. Israel is convinced Iran wants the bomb. The US is convinced that Iran has yet to take the decision. And Iran is convinced that the real goal of Israel and probably the US is regime change. In such a climate one spark could ignite a fire.

This is perhaps the reason that as Obama leaves the UN for his election campaign perhaps the biggest headache he faces is not America's various adversaries in the Middle East -- but its closest ally.

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