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Obama Faces Middle East Critics

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us-isrby Dan Lieberman

Four years into his presidency, and several months from an election, President Barack Obama is the matador in the political arena and the press is the raging bull. Promises made and unfulfilled provoke criticism of the man who rose from being a child of a dysfunctional marriage to become the Commander-in-Chief of a troubled nation.

Most prominent of failed intentions is neglect to a proposal that he presented to the Middle East peoples. Immediately after inauguration, the new President Obama lit up the Arab world with a beacon of hope hat featured a promise to change the awkward relationship between the Middle East nations and the major western power. Hope and change arrived in the Arab world, but not due to U.S. foreign policies, which caused the Middle East populations to lose hope in and change opinions of the American president. A wave of popularity after Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo, Egypt − a new beginning between America and the Arab word − deteriorated into “a sharp decline of support for President Obama's policies in the Middle East. A poll, which was conducted by the Arab American Institute in six Middle Eastern countries, shows Obama’s ratings at 10% or less, and reflects negative sentiments toward American policies in the region.” (Haaretz, July 13, 2011) 

The progressive media’s harsh criticisms of U.S. Middle East policies reflect the Arab street condemnation of President Obama’s failure to face and resolve the challenges that confront the Muslim and western world. One represetntative of the progresive media, Fawaz Gerges, Chair, Middle Eastern Centre, London School of Economics summarized  his opinions in a book Obama and The Middle East: The End of America’s Moment, published by Palgrave Macmillan, and in  discussions at Washington, DC Think Tanks and radio interviews. With due regard to Fawaz Gerges erudite academics, critics of President Obama’s retreat from “yes, we can do,” have not considered that the African-American leader’s ascent to the presidency contained a Faustian pact – constraint due to a debt to those who promoted his victory. Examination of Gerges criticisms serves as an example of dissecting the outpouring of debates on Obama’s non-transitional first four years, and reveals a deficiency in realizing Obama’s inner dilemmas. Fawaz Gerges conclusions in his words and paraphrased in brackets:

(1) Barack Obama is deeply entrenched within the dominant narrative on American foreign policy. He's a realist. [U.S. favoritism for Israel has been framed for decades and is entrenched in the American  psyche.] He has not been able to deliver because the American political system, what I call the dysfunctional America political system, a system that basically it's a combination of special interest groups and, of course, the role of the Congress.

(2) He was unwilling to invest real political capital in order to basically bring about a Palestinian/Israeli settlement. Barack Obama, at the end of the day, is timid. Barack Obama governs by consensus and when he faces obstacles, unfortunately, he often retreats. And he retreated on the Palestinian/Israeli peace process.

(3) [By removing U.S. troops from Iran and Afghanistan, the president shifted the debate from control of Middle East peoples to recognizing their human rights and dignity. At the same time, he indicated that the foreign affairs agenda would lower involvement in the Middle East.]

(4) [Obama is shifting priorities from the Middle East to East Asia. He foresees the latter as the principle focus for U/S. foreign policy.]

Are there alternative arguments to explain President Obama’s controversial Middle East policy other than “a retreat from obstacles?” Is Obama just another politician concerned about re-election? Partially true. Nevertheless, Obama’s principal concerns are the preservation of his legacy and commitment to the African-American minority.  

As the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama framed his legacy − unique and incomparable − and he cannot permit it to be tarnished. Preserving that legacy, and preventing a backlash of accusations that African-Americans pursue policies that have little support from the American people and its Congress drives Obama to consensus. In order not to endanger national aspirations of future African-American politicians, a carefully watched and carefully scrutinized president cannot battle for losing causes. Psychologically tied to the Middle East status quo, he is a victim of what Gerges describes as “the dysfunctional America political system, a system that basically is a combination of special interest groups and, of course, the role of the Congress.”

If the U.S. Congress approached the Israeli/Palestinian crisis with serious debate and  close votes, then President Obama might not “retreat on the Palestinian/Israeli peace process.” Observe the latest bill on the subject and its vote:

112th CONGRESS
2d Session
H. R. 4133
IN THE SENATE OF THE UNITED STATES
May 10, 2012
‘UNITED STATES-ISRAEL ENHANCED SECURITY COOPERATION ACT OF 2012’.

It is the policy of the United States: 

  1. To reaffirm the enduring commitment of the United States to the security of the State of Israel as a Jewish state. As President Obama stated on December 16, 2011, ‘America’s commitment and my commitment to Israel and Israel’s security is unshakeable.’ Moreover, as President Bush stated before the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel on May 15, 2008, ‘The alliance between our governments is unbreakable, yet the source of our friendship runs deeper than any treaty.’
  2. To provide Israel the military capabilities necessary to deter and defend itself by itself against any threats.
  3. To veto any one-sided anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations Security Council.
  4. To support Israel’s inherent right to self-defense.
  5. To pursue avenues to expand cooperation with Israel in both defense and across the spectrum of civilian sectors, including high technology, agriculture, medicine, health, pharmaceuticals, and energy.
  6. To assist Israel with its on-going efforts to forge a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that results in two states living side by side in peace and security, and to encourage Israel’s neighbors to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

This totally unnecessary legislation, which is more a statement than a bill, tells the Palestinians “it’s time for you to surrender.” Passed by the House of Representatives with 411 ‘yeas’ and two ‘nays,’ it probably received a larger majority percentage than if the Israeli Knesset considered the legislation. Yes, the U.S. executive department formulates foreign policy, but the House appropriates funds and the Senate ratifies treaties. The President’s major power in foreign policy lies with his title of Commander-in-Chief − wage war − and determining relations with foreign and international organizations.

One unique possibility for the American president to formulate foreign policy without interference from the Congress is by use of the United Nations Security Council. Nevertheless, the opposite has occurred − the U.S. has vetoed every Security Council Resolution that contested Israel’s expansion. Why?

Passing the Resolution means carrying out its provisions − aggressive actions against Israel. However, Obama must see what few are willing to admit − a solution to the Middle East crisis proceeds from equalizing power between Israel and the Palestinian Authority − adequate negotiations can only occur with parties that have near equal strength. However, Israel has framed its expansionist policy, either wittingly or accidentally, to be “all or nothing.” If it does not control the Jordan Valley and West Bank water sources and allows a viable Palestinian state, the drive to a Jewish state from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River will be impeded, and, with that occurrence, worldwide Jewry interest in Israel will eventually fade away, immigration will halt and emigration will advance. The Middle East crisis evolves to either the elevation of an expanded Jewish state and destruction of the Palestinian community, or an eventual Palestinian control with a subdued Israeli minority. 

Obama might be partisan to the latter development − the lesser of two extreme punishments − but cannot support a policy that will permit it to happen because of being captured by a legacy he cannot permit to be threatened.

Undoubtedly, the president is concerned with human rights and enhancing the dignity of Middle East peoples, but he is more concerned with having a foreign policy that is guided by diplomacy and not by military action. Withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan firmly informs the military that the State Department will guide military actions and the military will not guide State Department actions.

Recent events validate Gerge’s assertion that Obama is shifting priorities from the Middle East to East Asia. “The US will shift the bulk of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020 as part of a new strategic focus on Asia, Pentagon chief Leon Panetta told a summit in Singapore.” Big mistake. Aside from the perpetual Korean peninsula crises, the disputes in Asia are mainly those of sea rights and insignificant territorial arguments, all of which are Asian problems and do not affect the United States. The U.S. has one major problem in East Asia − an economic problem, derived from an inability to compete, which yields a negative trade balance. The solution is within the 50 U.S. states and not within the Asian states. Nothing worse than having foreign policy interfere with economic policy − a sure descent into conflict.

On the other hand, the Middle East is a cauldron of uncertainty, terrorism, crises and violence. The direction is to more of the same and eventual eruptions that will envelop the western world. Containing, controlling, and mitigating the disturbances are the functions of an effective foreign policy; retreat is not the answer. 

Barack Obama has his legacy and the possibility of enriching it with another decision − supporting Hillary Clinton, if her health permits, as the Democrats vice-presidential candidate. This maneuver will assure his re-election and gain him recognition as providing the path for the first woman vice-president and the first woman presidential candidate. The dreams and pursuits that brought him into office have tied his initiatives. He can only fulfill dreams and not promises.

Dan Lieberman is DC based editor of Alternative Insight, a commentary on foreign policy and politics. He is author of the book A Third Party Can Succeed in America and a Kindle: The Artistry of a Dog. Dan can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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