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Will Obama go beyond the superficial?
Will Obama go beyond the superficial?
In his first interview with an Arab television network soon after his inauguration, US President Barack Obama confirmed his intention to "engage" right away with "all the major parties" involved in the Middle East.
Tuesday, March 24,2009 03:12
by Karim Makdisi*, Daily News Egypt

In his first interview with an Arab television network soon after his inauguration, US President Barack Obama confirmed his intention to "engage" right away with "all the major parties" involved in the Middle East.

Such engagement, he went on, would start with "listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating."

Obama has since dispatched his personal envoy to the Middle East, Senator George Mitchell, to do just that. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman and a number of other US officials have also been touring the region. Dialogue with Iran has been advanced as the best means to diffuse tension between Tehran and Washington, while inter-Arab reconciliation has been encouraged. Feltman even met with the Syrian foreign minister in Damascus, the first such visit by a high-ranking US official in four years. This was quite a symbolic turn-around for Feltman who, as US ambassador to Lebanon had been accused by Syrian officials and Lebanon"s opposition parties of effectively acting as a colonial pro-consul and representing neo-con interests in Lebanon and Syria.

Clearly, Obama"s trademark "engagement" and "listening" virtues have thus now replaced George Bush"s disastrous cowboy tactics. For this shift, just about everyone in the region — except, I suspect, al-Qaeda, militant Zionists and an assortment of religious zealots and political opportunists — is grateful. Indeed, Obama"s main asset in his quest to initiate his self-proclaimed "new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest" is that he is not Bush.

Still, Obama would be wise to remind his envoys that US credibility in the region remains at an all time low and that this poor standing has resulted not from some mythical anti-Americanism but from violent policies that have caused great human suffering and exacerbated political and socio-economic divisions in the region.

Obama would also do well to avoid the all-too-easy trap of assuming US policy in the Middle East was fine until the Bush administration intervened. It was not. It was the Clinton administration that imposed unprecedented sanctions on the Iraqi civilian population and launched Operation Desert Fox and it was Clinton"s incompetent team of negotiators that brought us the failed Oslo process and bungled Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian peace deals. In this sense, the appointment of former Clinton chief negotiator Dennis Ross — a widely disliked and mistrusted character outside of the usual sycophant political elite circles in the Arab world — to a senior post in the Obama administration does not bode well. Ross has an openly pro-Zionist agenda, and his appointment has clearly been made by the overly cautious Obama to placate the Israel lobby that fears any US rapprochement with Iran.

It is, of course, much too early to judge President Obama"s actions let alone his intentions for Middle East peace. Engagement and dialogue with key players such as Syria and Iran are clearly a positive step. Supporting Lebanon"s sovereignty and democratic process as it prepares for elections in June is also positive. But will Obama have the political will and courage to go beyond the superficial and set a substantively new US policy agenda in the Middle East?

Alas, the signs are far from reassuring. First, Obama"s much publicized dialogue with Syria seems to be motivated not by a genuine desire to open a "partnership" of equals with this key player, but by the misguided policy of somehow trying to drive a wedge between Syria, on the one hand, and Iran and Hezbollah  on the other. In other words, after failing in its attempts to overthrow the Assad regime, the US is now offering some limited carrots to Damascus in return for the latter"s strategic realignment away from loyal and committed regional allies. This will surely fail, as Syria sees itself negotiating from a position of strength and thus does not feel it needs to make potentially fatal concessions to a fickle and fading superpower.

What Syria is prepared to do does not particularly interest an Iran-obsessed Obama administration: recognize Lebanon"s sovereignty (symbolized by the recent, low-key opening of Lebanon"s embassy in Damascus and Syria"s embassy in Beirut); support western security agencies in clamping down on al-Qaeda threats (which also threaten the Assad regime); and negotiate a peace deal with Israel based on the full return of the occupied Golan Heights.

A second discouraging sign is that the Obama administration does not seem to want to "listen" to Hezbollah  or Hamas, or to open a serious dialogue with mainstream and popular Islamist movements throughout the region.

Unless such shortsighted policies change and some empathy with the people of the region (as opposed to autocratic rulers) can be developed, it is highly questionable whether the Obama administration will really support regional democratic processes should they once again deliver the "wrong" results.

Finally, and most importantly, President Obama has apparently already betrayed Palestinians and any hope of a negotiated, just solution to the question of Palestine. His chilling silence during the Israeli onslaught against the people of Gaza has not gone unnoticed nor have his repeated statements about Israel"s right to "self-defense" and "security", nor even his commitment to a "Jewish" state of Israel that negates not only the rights of Christian and Muslim Israeli citizens but also signals continued US rejection of Palestinian refugees" right of return to their homeland.

While there is still hope that Obama will support the formation of a national unity government in the Palestinian territories, and indeed in Lebanon, the sources of conflict in the region appear set to stay and an overall just settlement remains far away indeed.

* Karim Makdisi teaches at the Department of Political Studies & Public Administration at the American University of Beirut. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.

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