Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Nabil Fahmi

Obama's legacy -- seven years from now

The US president has an opportunity to make a difference or be indifferent, says Nabil Fahmi *

One writes at his own peril in projecting the political future. To attempt that for an American politician is particularly precarious because their political futures are made, lost and remade. But then, that is what makes America's political process so interesting.

Click to view caption
Barack Obama

President Barack Obama is a man of audacious ambitions and astute political instincts as was evident in his run for the presidency in the midst of a volatile torn American electorate as a result of a bitter Democratic and Republican parties trench war during the Gore/Bush 2000 election and the two-war campaign of the George W Bush administration. Fainthearted politicians would have waited for the tide to ebb but Obama correctly calculated that America's desire for change would best serve a truly different candidate for president.

Obama is not only different by the colour of his skin; he is of a different generation, untarnished by the Vietnam trauma and unencumbered by Cold War confines or rhetoric. Rather than simply paint his inauguration speech with patriotic colours he called upon Americans to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of rebuilding America". And, internationally he focussed on "mutual interest with and respect of the Muslim world", and diplomacy and dialogue in resolving global affairs, starkly different from his predecessor. He then jump-started his first term, simultaneously taking on a plethora of complex historically intractable issues such as complete nuclear disarmament, healthcare, withdrawing US troops from Iraq, ending the war in Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation concerns in Iran and North Korea, and the Arab-Israeli conflict, all while responding to the challenges posed by the global financial crisis and the continuing threat posed by terrorism.

Some political pundits consider Obama amateurish and naïve. Admittedly he has set himself up for failure and criticism because it is virtually impossible for him to succeed on all these fronts. His application of the issues so far has been schizophrenic, with great speeches in Prague and Cairo, followed by disappointing diplomacy, with the SALT Treaty not extended on schedule, and the administration backing down in the face of Israeli obstinacy against a full settlement freeze, followed by the United States typically asking the Palestinian side to take the high road and be patient.

The Nobel Peace prize ceremony speech in Oslo was pure Obama, disarming sceptics by recognising their concerns, rhetorically lofty while personally humble, refreshingly rational, coherent and clear as to the problems and the goals. Yet he was vague on how to achieve those goals. Regrettably, he may be maturing into a real politician!

It is too early to determine which issue or issues will ultimately define Obama's legacy if he is to serve two terms in office. However, given the number of volatile and tenuous issues in the Middle East, ironically, like George W Bush this region will probably bear heavily in the verdict on his legacy. For the verdict to be commensurate with his pronounced ambitions, Obama will have to rise to the challenges he has acknowledged and show that the strength of his convictions is as steady as the resounding elegance of his rhetoric.

The Egyptian-American relationship has changed dramatically since Obama came to office; it is much more positive and constructive, both in tone and substance. However, some human rights activists are pushing back, criticising Obama vigorously on human rights. These criticisms will increase when Egypt's election cycle starts next year and there will be another Egyptian election cycle before the American president leaves office if it is to be 2017.

Nevertheless, my projection is the relationship will easily survive these cycles as long as Obama is interested in resolving regional Middle East conflicts. If he prefers crisis management rather than conflict resolution then Egypt will see competition from Syria and Iran on the one hand, and Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the other as America deals with all the influential players, not only those who may see eye to eye with her.

Crisis management or conflict resolution, Egypt has a role to play although its uniqueness is more self-evident in the latter. The only real concern is if Obama decides that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is moribund and that Netanyahu's economic peace is the more realistic path. This clearly diminishes the centrality of Egypt for America, focussing it on securing the Rafah border. Ultimately Obama in 2017 will leave the Egyptian-American relationship far better than his predecessor did in 2009.

While he is in office, will the two countries seize the opportunity that exists to develop the relationship to its fullest potential? That is the real question.

The Egyptian-American relationship remains strong and will remain important, however, time has a corrosive effect as history is lost, memories fade and new generations of politicians arrive on the scene. The opportunity must be seized during Obama's term to expand the relationship beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict to regional development and evolution, north-south issues globally and a higher level of cooperation bilaterally.

The different regional crises in the Middle East are fuelled by a conflict between the power of ideologies on the one hand and the power of the law and international standards on the other. Obama must put the full scope of his personal talents, the influence of the presidency and the political and economic weight of the United States as the primary global power behind the latter, ie the power of the law, not the force of power.

President Obama was elected essentially as a result of the American debacle in Iraq. Consequently, it is there that he will be most determined to fulfil his commitments and withdraw from Iraq -- at any cost -- before he leaves office if it is to be 2017. Even if Iraq is to disintegrate he will draw down United States forces significantly, falling back on Vice-President Biden's position of supporting a loose tripartite federation between the Shia, Sunni and Kurds in Iraq. The stability of the Gulf region, with its tremendous oil and gas resources, will nevertheless remain paramount to America mitigating for an enhanced presence of US forces in the Arabian Gulf states of Qatar and Bahrain among others, with security arrangements and facilities in Iraq itself enabling flyovers, intelligence communication, etc.

Afghanistan is an even more complicated and tedious challenge. Seven years from now the effects of the additional 30,000 recently announced US forces will be long gone as will the forces themselves. Stabilising Afghanistan if successful will be an Afghan affair, supported by long-term development projects extending well beyond 2017 and Obama's legacy. Success for America will ultimately be measured in whether someone is able to kill Osama Bin Laden and Ayman El-Zawahri and show evidence of that. To do so without also destabilising Pakistan in the process would be an American dream. Failing in both counts would constitute an American nightmare and a devastating blow to Obama's legacy.

American-Iranian relations are multi- dimensional, relating to the stability of the Arabian Gulf region because of energy, Middle Eastern politics encompassing Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinians, Israel and even Turkey, and of course the Iranian nuclear programme. This could in fact become the most contentious bilateral relationship in the region for America.

The tipping point in determining the nature of this relationship will be during the president's first rather than second term in office. Iran and the international community will either have reached a modus operandi on Iran's nuclear programme, as part of a package about future relations with Iran, or be drawn into increasingly aggressive sanctions against Iran, or even a surgical strike directed at nuclear facilities and strategic control and command centres. Any of these diametrically different alternatives will emerge in the first term. The second term will focus on picking up the pieces or building on the foundation of a new relationship. Ironically the future here will be determined by Iranian readiness to engage constructively and not allow international consensus to develop against it. President Obama has already expressed a willingness to engage and a propensity to prioritise diplomacy ahead of the use of force.

President Obama has said all the right things about the Arab-Israeli conflict, highlighting the comprehensive nature of peace, the importance of negotiating final status issues between the Israelis and Palestinians, and the illegitimacy of Israeli settlement activity. But he has disappointed many in his pursuit of incrementalism, an Israeli settlement freeze in exchange for Arab normalisation and ultimately backing down in the face of a Netanyahu rebuff. Slowly he seems to be weighted down by traditional American politics which constrains politicians wanting to speak the truth to Israel.

President Obama had given hope to those believing in an Arab-Israeli peace. To fulfil that hope he must act as a statesman, not a politician. He should put forward an American presidential statement establishing clear outlines of a Palestinian-Israeli peace, with two independent states, two capitals in Jerusalem and a solution for the refugee problem that compensates the majority or returns most to the Palestinian state with some returning to Israel. This statement would be the basis upon which the two parties would negotiate the details.

If Obama chooses not to pursue this option then there will be no short- term negotiated solution and the United States should support the Palestinian Authority's desire to have the Security Council formally endorse their declaration of a state based on the 1967 border with East Jerusalem as its capital. Such a step would allow the Palestinians to confirm the recognition they had achieved internationally and wait for a more flexible Israeli government to negotiate the end of the Israeli occupation of their territory.

In the absence of either of these options the Obama era will have promised peace at its outset and buried its prospects at its conclusion.

The Arab and Muslim worlds are still legitimately sceptical about American foreign policy. It has remained uneven in its application of norms and standards, if not even been strongly biased against many of their causes and interests, distorted by parochial American domestic policies and short-term interest groups. But President Obama's sincere empathy has already had a soothing effect on much of these communities. In fact their personal revolution towards George W Bush and his administration's policies has been replaced by a sense of empathy towards Barack Obama as an individual. This is true even amongst those who understandingly believe that the American political system is not and cannot be equitable or just in global affairs or issues of concern to the Arabs and Muslim world. As such, in his quest for a better relationship with the Muslim world, a relationship that serves America, Obama's legacy after 2017 will be kind to him in spite of the inevitable disappointments.

All the political conflicts in the traditional Middle East and those extending into what some call the Greater Middle East will truly test the determination, intellect and diplomatic skills of the new American president. If his first 11 months are any indication, there is good reason for pessimism. Yet it is too early to despair. If Obama remains a man of audacious ambitions, acute sense of history and astute political timing then much can be done. His record will not be perfect but the score card can nevertheless be impressive. If, however, he becomes yet another politician driven by personal ambition and party politics he will end up being a great disappointment and our region will have witnessed yet another missed opportunity. For now, I am not yet a pessimist but am already much less optimistic than I was on 20 January 2009.

* Egypt's former ambassador to the United States and current dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 979 Front Page
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map