Obama and the Dilemmas of US Middle East Policy

President Obama’s major policy address on the Middle East got many things right. He pointed to al-Qaeda and terrorism, which targets civilians, as a dead end. He sided rhetorically with the grassroots movements for greater democracy in the region. He condemned outright the longstanding regimes, like that of Hosni Mubarak, that had been US allies, which ruled through sordid police states. He pledged US support for democracy movements. He avoided hypocrisy by condemning US allies such as the king of Bahrain and President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen for repressing their own movements. He acknowledged the importance of ending the Palestinian people’s long sojourn in the wilderness of statelessness. He pointed to the constraining by corrupt elites of the economic and educational opportunities of young people in the Middle East as among the central discontents leading to the Arab Spring. He underlined the importance of women’s rights, and rights for minorities such as Christians and Shiites.

The courage of Obama’s speech should be recognized. He will have angered the two central allies of the US in the region, the governments that have formed the two pillars of US Middle East policy. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is angry at Obama (calling him more or less a wet-behind-the-ears young man) for abandoning long-time Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Saudi Arabia views Egypt as key to its own security and is extremely nervous about where politics in that country might go and how it will affect the kingdom. King Abdullah is also furious that the Obama administration has openly criticized the Sunni king of Bahrain for crushing his own democracy movement, which had a disproportionately Shiite cast (Shiites are now 58% of the citizen population but discriminated against economically and kept from expressing their majority politically). Obama if anything was more forthright and harsh in his criticisms of Manama on Thursday than he had been before. Saudi Arabia pumps on the order of 11 percent of the world daily petroleum output, has a significant impact on its price, and has hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves that it invests in the West as well as in the Middle East. Obama has taken a major risk in angering its king and adopting a policy he opposes everywhere but in Libya.

Obama was also honest and searing in his implicit criticism of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, whose government has obstructed peace talks with the Palestinians and pursued an inexorable and wide-ranging project of colonizing the Palestinian West Bank in hopes of ultimately creating a Greater Israel and permanently forestalling the rise of a Palestinian state. Obama had put resources and his own prestige on the line in attempting to kick-start negotiations two years ago, but the effort crashed an burned primarily because of Israeli intransigence and Obama’s special envoy on this issue, former Senator George Mitchell (who even more or less resolved the Northern Ireland conflict) has just resigned in a mixture of despair and disgust.

Obama’s call for 1967 borders to be the basis for negotiations (which would require Israel to relinquish large amounts of territory illegally usurped from the Palestinians) marks a major turning point and elicited howls of outrage in Tel Aviv.

Obama has been told by Israel-firsters in the US that his position on moving rapidly to a two-state solution endangers his ability to fund-raise among Jewish Americans (who provide a vastly disproportionate amount of money for political campaigns, estimated as high as 65% among Democrats) and therefore could imperil his campaign for a second term. To his credit, he has stuck to his guns, since a quick move to a two-state solution would benefit both the United States and Israel, not to mention the Palestinians.

So his courage and vision should be recognized.

Among the cons of his speech were evidence of Washington’s strange obsession with Iran. Syria’s Baath Party crushed dissent in 1982 when it was not allied with Iran, and does not need Iranian help to deal with Deraa. There is no evidence of an Iranian hand in Bahrain. There is no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program aiming actually to produce a bomb. This unhelpful focus on Iran derives in part from Israeli and Saudi circles, but it should be resisted. Iran is not that important in the Arab world outside Iraq (Bush’s fault) and Lebanon (the fault of the long Israeli occupation.) Where Arab publics become more influential on their own governments, as in Egypt, the governments feel constrained to improve relations with Tehran.

Likewise, the rhetoric of even-handedness on the failure of his Israeli-Palestinian talks caused him to lay blame on both the Palestinians and the Israelis, but it was the latter who refused to stop stealing Palestinian land on a large scale while the negotiations were going on, a strong disincentive for the Palestinians to talk. Moreover it is unacceptable to blame Palestinians for violence but not the armed fanatical Israeli settlers and usurpers of Palestinian land, resources and rights. Obama was also dismissive of the current Palestinian push for recognition as a state at the UN General Assembly in September, but this move in fact may be a useful way of pressuring Netanyahu into negotiating. And, it isn’t in fact the case that sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians among Arab publics was artificially engineered by authoritarian regimes to allow them to blow off steam. Anybody with a heart who knows the score would wake up heartsick about the plight of the stateless Palestinians.

Obama pointed to his winding down of the Iraq War and the withdrawal of 100,000 troops, but did not reaffirm a commitment to the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq, which calls for a complete withdrawal by the end of the year. His pointing to Iraq as a success in handling Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict is bizarre. The US helped provoke a sectarian bloodbath there, and Sunnis have been made a permanent structural minority.

The aid being offered Egypt and Tunisia, while a nice gesture, is tiny. Egypt needs major debt forgiveness, and a mere one billion dollars is a drop in the bucket.

A bolder speech would have announced that the US would be moving its naval base from Bahrain because we refuse to be in bed with a repressive sectarian monarchy. It would have supported the push for Palestinian statehood at the UN as a wedge against the Likud Party’s intransigence. And it would have mentioned democratization in Riyadh along with the other capitals that were mentioned.

Still and all, it was a fine speech, a courageous speech because it challenged US allies as much as it did US foes, and it put the US on the side of Bourguiba Avenue and Tahrir Square and Benghazi and Deraa and Taizz. That is the side of history on which the US needs to stand. As a set of ideals, it was a big stride in the right direction. As practical policy, it is hard to see how it would be implemented effectively (upbraiding Israel and Bahrain slightly won’t change those crises). But, well, at least Washington is finally not standing in the way of the people in the region.