Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1136, 21 - 27 February 2013

Ahram Weekly

Obama back to Mideast?

While convention sees second-term presidents trying to bring peace to the Mideast, the conflict always proves bigger than they are, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

No US president could resist the idea of going down in history as the man who brought peace to the Holy Land. The lure of this idea always won over the advice coming from advisors and experts cautioning that it was unachievable and that chasing after this dream would probably undermine the president’s political assets in other domains. The reasons why the temptation is irresistible are familiar. Some are connected with the predominant Protestant culture in the US, others to the oft-cited US commitment to Israeli security, or to matters pertaining to US interests in the Middle East, petroleum interests above all.

Barack Obama is not an exception to the general rule. In his first term, he entered the White House thinking that he was better poised than all of his predecessors to perform this historic mission. So, after appointing a special envoy for the peace process, he embarked on his famous speech-giving tour, taking him to Istanbul, Riyadh and Cairo, in order to ease tensions between the US and the Islamic world. Then followed rounds of talks in Washington and Sharm El-Sheikh, all of which efforts, as we know, ran aground on the rocky shoals of Israeli settlement construction, the internal Palestinian rift, and renewed Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In other words, it was the same old story; the ending was predictable from the outset.

Perhaps Obama was quicker than his predecessors to cut his losses. He shelved the peace-making project in the American political deep freezer and deftly skirted around the issue until the presidential elections were over. Even during the campaigns, the Arab-Israeli question remained marginal.

But now in his second term, the annals of history are pressing on his mind. What will historians say of him? How will the history books speak of America’s 44th president?

Obama follows what may or may not be a new custom for occupants of the Oval Office. He holds regular meetings with prominent US historians who relate to him the experiences of other US presidents in dealing with difficult situations. What transpired in these meetings with regard to the Middle East and the Arab-Israel conflict is impossible to say. However, it is clear that Obama is well aware that he is dealing with two historic processes in this part of the world. The first is the surge of profound political, social and cultural changes taking place beneath the heading of the Arab Spring, albeit this is a spring in which everything is possible, including the failure to produce flowers and a harvest of poisonous thorns and bitter fruit. The second is the Arab-Israeli conflict. This will metamorphose again, as it has always done in tandem with major historical shifts from the age of colonialism to the age of dismantling colonialism, and from the Cold War to the era of globalisation and on to the age of terrorism and the war on terrorism, which preoccupied the first decade of the 21st century. How will this conflict mutate under the influence of the new wave of fundamental changes that are open to all possibilities and at a time when all the uncertainty and doubt created by these endless possibilities render strategic projections little more than wild guesses?

What we know so far is that Obama will inaugurate his return to handling this conflict with a trip to Israel, which he had not undertaken throughout his first term. The visit will be something in the nature of a “downpayment” or a kind of declaration of affection for the Israeli prime minister with whom there was little love lost before. There will also be a four-hour meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, most likely in order to suss out where he stands but certainly, too, to bolster the Palestinian president’s standing in the framework of inter-Palestinian rivalries.

Perhaps the peace drive will end there and the experts’ opinion that the conflict is as unstoppable as ever will prevail again. Maybe the various parties will decide to wait and see how the regional game of musical chairs will end up, especially since no one seems to want to stop the blaring music accompanying this game and its bloody issue. Still, as I said, all possibilities are still open. Presidents are not elected to take the easiest way out; rising to the challenges of the toughest tasks is an essential part of their job description. So, it is also possible that Obama might solicit the help of a few friends. Generally, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey head the list here. However, the US president also knows that there is a friend — or an old enemy — that he cannot afford to ignore. That party is in Moscow.

The global economic crisis almost destroyed Obama’s biographical dreams during his first term. Today, the economic picture is not as grim as it was, but nor is it rosy. As he suggested in his State of the Union address, what he will do — or try to do — is to move on several fronts at once. Foremost among these is Russia, with which he hopes to conclude a new strategic arms reduction treaty in accordance with which the US would reduce its nuclear arsenal from 1,700 to 1,000 nuclear warheads, which is still sufficient to destroy the world several times over. While retaining this “deterrent”, Washington will simultaneously boost Moscow’s morale, allowing it to feel that is still a “superpower”, at least in the domain of annihilating mankind if Russia is unable to compete in the field of bettering human life.

All familiar with the history of the last third of the 20th century will recall that strategic arms reduction talks, from SALT to START, were the prelude to reconciliation and concord between Moscow and Washington and then between Moscow and the West in general. So, if the new arms reduction agreement does not make Moscow a full partner in the management of the world, at least it will keep it from being an obstacle, as is currently the case in the Syrian crisis, the outcome of which will be determined by numerous factors in the Middle East and abroad.

Nevertheless, since US concord with Russia sometimes disturbs Europe, Obama realises that he needs to alleviate anxieties on this front. Although Asia will continue to occupy much of Washington’s attention, Europe is still America’s historical and civilisational partner. In a way, we can think of the European and American shores of the Atlantic as the wings of what is conventionally referred to as the West. Obama’s plan for a new US-EU free trade agreement will elevate the relationship between the two transatlantic giants to a new and unprecedented level. It will create the largest trade and economic bloc that history has ever known.

Incidentally, the idea is not new. It has been tried more than once in the past. But Obama is determined to make it happen during his second term in office. Yes, a Comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the EU would be linked with his name for all eternity. But more significantly, it would turn the Atlantic Ocean into a consummately Western sea, strategically through NATO, commercially through the free trade zone, and civilisationally through the many unbreakable bonds shaped by history, on the one hand, and by the shared challenges of the present, coming from China and the turbulent Islamic world, on the other hand.

Thus we have a full package of foreign policies that Obama intends to pursue in order to make his mark in history and further the interests of his country. But, as history constantly reminds us, plans may be the best laid ever; the course of man forever takes unanticipated and even unimaginable turns.


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