[Marxism] Useful overview of the impasse of US diplomacy in the Middle Ea
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Mar 17 03:04:29 MDT 2009
This article is a good summary of the present diplomatic situation, but I
think the author is too optimistic about a change in policy although strains
between the US and Israel are slowly but surely increasing -- not because
they lack common interests but because some of their common interests are
proving unfulfillable. Like for instance transforming the countries of the
Middle East and South Asia into a string of little satellites of Washington
awash with admiration of Israeli capitalist initiative or something.
Still I sense strong reluctance to give up this vision, which was not just a
product of the neoconservatives or the Project for a New American Century.
This idea has been around for a long, long time.
Perhaps rationality will overcome short-term hopes and interests, but I
think it will take a revolutionary upheaval in the region (a Palestinian
upheaval of unprecedented scope, or an anti-occupation and antigovernment
upsurge in Iraq or a revolution of some kind in Egypt to force Washington to
force Israel to accept a two-state "solution" with a real Palestinian state,
not just a reserve for expellees from Israel. For one thing, noone knows for
sure whether Israel can survive the establishment of a real Palestinian
state -- the existence of the recognizable embryo or infant version of one
-- seems to be driving the rulers, and sections of the population, nuts.
At any rate, time will tell on this. I expect strong resistance not only
from Israel but from the US ruling circles including this administration to
changing course. It is important to have in mind that the power of the
Israel Lobby, which exists and campaigns quite publicly (no secret power
there), is not imposed on the US from the outside but represents deep common
interests, ideology, and objectives between the US and the Israeli racist
settler state, as well as traditional aims of US imperialism in the region.
This is going to be a big fight, and a rough one. The rough part isn't
peaking. It is just beginning. Even assuming that Obama believes that Israel
needs to be reined in -- which is certainly not to be ruled out -- whether
he has the stomach for that kind of fight is very up in the air indeed. No
sign of that so far.
Obama's Middle East moment of truth
His diplomatic moves are a good start. But does he have the will to
By Gary Kamiya
Mar. 17, 2009 |
Trying to figure out what Barack Obama intends to do in the Middle East is
like trying to read the leaves in a cup of tea stirred by Jackson Pollock.
For every signal Obama has given that he intends to break decisively with
Bush's failed approach to the Middle East, he has given another that
indicates he plans to simply give the same policies a fresh coat of paint.
Obama took what many regarded as a backwards step even before assuming
office by appointing Hillary Clinton, who supported the Iraq war and as
senator toed the establishment line on Israel, as secretary of state. But
then he gave his first presidential interview to the Arabic-language station
al-Arabiya and announced that his administration would approach the
Arab-Muslim world with a spirit of respect and willingness to listen. He
said, "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will
find an extended hand from us."
But then he named as his Iran advisor the right-leaning Dennis Ross, who
signed a threatening Iran paper drafted by two hard-line neoconservatives,
claimed, in a statement to Congress accompanying his renewal of sanctions
against Iran, that the country posed "an extraordinary threat" to the U.S.
and gave every indication that he would continue Bush's failed
carrots-and-sticks approach. Obama has ordered a top-to-bottom strategic
review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, but sent 17,000 more
troops there and has continued to assassinate militants in Pakistan with
missiles fired from Predator drones. He announced that he was winding down
the Iraq war, but is doing so at a hyper-cautious pace.
Not surprisingly, Obama's most contradictory messages concern the most
important, and politically radioactive, issue of all: the
Israeli-Palestinian crisis. His appointment of the respected negotiator
George Mitchell as special envoy for the Middle East was taken as strong
evidence that he was prepared to challenge Washington's blank-check support
for Israel. In a major break with the Bush administration's refusal to deal
with Hamas, Mitchell told Jewish leaders that a Palestinian unity government
made up of the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority and Hamas would be "a step
forward" for peace. Similarly, after Britain announced that it would break
with U.S. and European policy by beginning low-level contacts with
Hezbollah, an anonymous State Department official told reporters that the
U.S. might enjoy some benefits from the diplomatic rapprochement. "We are
looking for a comprehensive approach" in the Middle East, the official said.
For her part, Secretary of State Clinton, on her first trip to the Middle
East, criticized Israeli house demolitions in East Jerusalem, albeit in
feeble, Condoleezza Rice-like terms as "unhelpful," and hinted that the
Obama administration was prepared to challenge the ongoing expansion of
Israeli settlements in the West Bank. She also pledged $900 million in U.S.
aid to rebuild Gaza after Israel's devastating 22-day onslaught earlier this
All of these developments represent a significant change from Bush
administration policies on Israel-Palestine. But the Obama administration's
right hand proceeded to undo what its left one had done.
Having sent signals that it might be prepared to break with Bush's policy of
excluding Hamas and Hezbollah, the Obama administration proceeded to exclude
them. Secretary of State Clinton has continued the Bush administration
policy of dealing only with Fatah, the dominant faction in the Palestinian
Authority (PA) headed by Mahmoud Abbas. She ordered that U.S. funds for Gaza
go only to the PA, not Hamas. And in direct contradiction of the cautious
support for a British-Hezbollah thaw expressed by an anonymous Obama
official, another anonymous official sharply criticized it.
The most glaring sign that Obama might continue the status quo on Israel was
his failure to defend Charles Freeman. Obama's director of national
intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, had asked Freeman to head the National
Intelligence Council, but the highly respected diplomat withdrew after he
was heavily attacked by supporters of Israel, including neoconservative
ideologues and politicians from both sides of the aisle, such as the
Democratic New York senator Charles Schumer. "His statements against Israel
were way over the top and severely out of step with the administration,"
Schumer said. Obama's refusal to stand up for Freeman indicates that he is
unwilling to challenge Washington's quasi-official, bipartisan policy of
unswerving support for Israel, and raises serious questions about whether he
will be prepared to confront the incoming right-wing Israeli government led
by Benjamin Netanyahu. But if he fails to do so, all his diplomatic
overtures in the region will only be so much hot air.
Obama has broken with Bush's Middle East policy in one key area: He is
talking to more players in the region. The most notable difference concerns
Syria. Bush demonized Syria as a junior-varsity member of the Axis of Evil
and refused to deal with it, but Obama is talking to Damascus and
encouraging it to resume peace negotiations with Israel. His strategic
purpose is to drive a wedge between it and its fellow hardline state Iran,
thus weakening the militant rejectionist groups Hamas and Hezbollah and
strengthening Fatah. This is a good idea as far as it goes, and it
represents a qualified change from the Bush strategy of trying to line up
the "moderate" states of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan against the
"extremist" ones, Iran and Syria and their militant clients.
The problem, however, is that it is only a qualified change, because Obama
is still refusing to deal with Iran and the militant groups, hoping they can
be marginalized. But they cannot be marginalized unless the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. Obama can fiddle around the edges
all he wants, make all the right noises, but unless he is willing to deal
with the real problem, his Middle East policy will go nowhere.
His cautious and contradictory moves so far give the impression that Obama
hopes that more diplomacy will somehow cause the chess pieces on the Middle
East board to move in such a way that he will be able to broker an
Israeli-Palestinian peace without going head-to-head with Israel. But that
hope is unrealistic.
Capitalizing on their fear of Iran, which his Iraq war greatly strengthened,
Bush prodded the "moderate" Arab states to close ranks against the
"extremists." So far, Obama is following a similar path -- with the only
difference being that he has opened communication with Syria. But the
"moderates," their legitimacy badly damaged by Israel's Gaza onslaught,
never fully embraced that strategy, and they have now rejected it. They
still distrust Iran, but they have come to realize that the only way to
weaken it and its militant proxies is by addressing the root cause of
extremism: the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. That's why the Arab states have
been engaged in furious diplomacy in the run-up to the upcoming Arab League
summit in Qatar -- including reaching out to Syria. The recent four-way
meeting in Riyadh between King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Syrian president
Bashir Assad, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Sabah
Al Ahmad Al Sabah ended with a pledge to speak with one voice on
The fact that all the Arab states have adopted a uniform position on the
Israeli-Palestinian crisis, demanding that it be resolved along the lines of
the 2002 Arab Peace Plan, spells a death knell for Bush's attempt to use the
"moderate" regimes' fear of their own Islamist radicals to sideline them on
Israel-Palestine. And it puts the onus squarely on the U.S., and its client
Israel, to take immediate and concrete steps towards a two-state solution.
Seen in this light, Israel's Gaza war was a major strategic blunder. Not
only did it achieve nothing militarily -- the crude rockets it was
ostensibly intended to stop continue to rain down, Hamas is more popular
than ever, and Abbas is weaker -- but it united the Arab states against it.
The Saudis and Egyptians fear Iran and were enraged after Syria's Assad
derided them as "half-men" for failing to oppose Israel, but after Gaza they
had no choice but to present a united front on Israel-Palestine. As Agence
France-Presse reported on the recent Riyadh meeting, "[T]he Saudis see
themselves as 'delivering' the Arabs to comprehensive peace talks, hoping to
provoke the Obama administration to 'deliver Israel' -- regardless of who is
leading Israel's government. Riyadh wants to maneuver Israel into 'a put up
or shut up' situation, said one foreign analyst."
U.S. hopes that Syria can somehow be persuaded to break with Iran are
misguided. As Syrian analyst Marwan Kabalan told the National, "Syria
believes it can have good ties with Iran and America, that it does not have
to choose between one or the other." The only way for America to undercut
Iran, Kabalan said, was to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace. "The answer
is the peace process, and not just a deal between Syria and Israel over the
Golan," he said. "If you want to undercut Iran, you don't need to ask Syria
to move away from Iran, you just need a fair peace. Peace will automatically
mean that Hamas and Hizbollah are playing a more political role."
As Kabalan's comments suggest, neither Syria nor Iran is going to drop its
support for the militant groups until there is a viable Palestinian state.
Nor are Hamas and Hezbollah going to give up armed resistance until the
Israeli occupation of Palestinian land ends. This leaves Obama no choice: If
he wants to stabilize the Middle East, prop up the "moderate" regimes and
disarm the militants, he has to pressure Israel to accept a two-state
solution. America's present policy, demanding that the rejectionist and
radical Arab factions agree in advance to renounce violence and recognize
Israel while not simultaneously demanding that Israel end the occupation and
return to its 1967 borders, has not worked, will not work and is simply a
recipe for a continued conflict. And time is not on Israel's side.
But demanding that Israel take the steps necessary to make peace means a
harsh face-off with the Netanyahu government. If the Gaza war moved the Arab
states to the left, it moved Israel to the right. On Monday, it was
announced that Avigdor Lieberman, a bigoted ultra-nationalist who ran an
explicitly anti-Arab campaign, would be Netanyahu's Foreign Minister -- the
equivalent of Obama naming George Lincoln Rockwell or David Duke to be his
secretary of state. The stage is set for a major collision.
Obama's cautious moves so far, and the lengths he went to before the
election to assure right-wing American Jewish groups like AIPAC that he was
staunchly pro-Israel, suggest that he wants to avoid that confrontation at
all costs. A showdown with Israel will split the Democrats, threaten
campaign donations and distract attention and resources from his domestic
agenda. But unless he is content with the status quo, he has no choice. If
he wants to stabilize the Middle East, deal justly with the Palestinians,
reduce the threat of jihadist terrorism and ensure a secure future for
Israel, he will have to seize the third rail of American politics.
The fact is that the U.S. desperately needs a game changer in the Middle
East, and brokering an Israeli-Palestinian peace along the lines of the 2002
Saudi peace initiative or the 2003 Geneva Accord is the only game changer we
Under Bush, the neoconservatives tried their own game changer, reversing the
old mantra that the road to Tehran and Baghdad runs through Jerusalem. But
it turned out conquering Baghdad did not open the way to an undivided,
Israel-run Jerusalem. Israel's enemies, contrary to neoconservative dreams,
did not cry uncle. In fact, the rejectionists among them are more powerful
The new Middle Eastern diplomatic detente leaves Obama only one way forward.
If he wants to succeed, he will have to make it clear to the far-right
Israeli government that it must stop settlements, return to its 1967 borders
and accept a viable, contiguous Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its
If Obama dares to do this, he will find himself in a political storm like
none he has ever seen. But there is reason to believe that Americans are
starting to think about Israel and Palestine in a new way. Israel's brutal
attack on Gaza badly damaged its international standing: Only its most
hard-line supporters defend that atrocity. Roger Cohen's confession in the
New York Times that "I have never previously been so shamed by Israel"
expresses a widespread sentiment. Even the Israel lobby's victory on Freeman
may have been Pyrrhic. As IPS's Jim Lobe, whose reporting on the
neoconservatives and the Israel lobby stands above all others, pointed out
in a piece he co-wrote with Daniel Luban, the Freeman affair forced the
mainstream media to at last acknowledge the elephant in the room: that there
is an Israel lobby, and that it wields enormous power. (When Stephen Walt
and John Mearsheimer published "The Israel Lobby" in 2007, they were widely
accused of being anti-Semitic, scurrilous charges that have now mostly
disappeared.) Unswerving support for Israel is still official America's
default position, but it is becoming more and more hollow as politicians and
American Jews alike begin to question whether such "support" is in
America's, or even Israel's, interest.
Obama also has some political cover. The Iraq Study Group report made it
clear that significant parts of the American foreign-policy establishment
reject Bush's good-and-evil approach. Now, another blue-chip group of senior
foreign policy officials, including Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski,
have urged the U.S. to open a dialogue with Hamas.
Paradoxically, the huge gulf between the Obama administration and the
Netanyahu government could actually make it easier for Obama to broker a
peace deal. As veteran analyst Henry Siegman, president of the U.S./Middle
East Project, recently argued in Haaretz, center-left Israeli governments
have never been willing to take the steps necessary to make peace: They have
"used the peace process they champion as a cover for the continued expansion
of settlements and the closing off of East Jerusalem to any future
Palestinian entity." But American presidents have been unwilling to
challenge any Israeli government that pays lip service to the two-state
solution, which means that such governments can stall forever. By contrast,
Siegman notes, "a Netanyahu-led government with coalition partners like
Avigdor Lieberman and other extreme right-wing parties that do not enjoy
much popular support in the U.S. (or anywhere else for that matter) would
allow President Barack Obama and his administration to advance [a peace]
Finally, there is Obama himself. Elected to bring change, in the wake of a
disastrous war whose intellectual architects were ardently pro-Israel, he
has more of a mandate to change the imbalanced U.S. policy toward Israel and
the Palestinians than any recent president.
So Obama has the power, and probably the wisdom, to change America's
misguided course in the Middle East. Whether he has the will, or the
courage, is another question.
-- By Gary Kamiya
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