President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address treated the Middle East at several points, underlining the unusual importance of this region to the United States.
Obama began by celebrating the end of the Iraq War and of the presence of US troops in that country. Although Obama might have been open to US forces being stationed in Iraq, as they are in South Korea, the Iraqi refusal to grant them legal immunity made it impossible for the president to keep them there.
Ending the war is indeed a great achievement, but Obama may not get so much credit for it because he is too conflicted over the episode to take strong stances.
He praised this generation of soldiers for having made the US safer. It wasn’t clear to me if he was saying that US military activities in Iraq made the US safer, but if so, this assertion certainly is in error.
The Bush administration destabilized Iraq for the foreseeable future, and with it destabilized both the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the greater Eastern Mediterranean. Iraq under the rule of the Shiite fundamentalist Da’wa (Islamic Mission) Party, which came to power under the American occupation is beset by sectarian faction-fighting, is at daggers drawn with Saudi Arabia, has moved closer to Iran, and is now in a shouting match with Turkey.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the head of the Islamic Mission Party in Iraq, has provoked a new round of sectarian violence by charging his Sunni vice president with involvement in terrorism.
On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, slammed al-Maliki for his anti-Sunni policies, warning in essence that if the Shiite-dominated army represses Iraq’s Sunnis, Turkey (a Sunni-majority country) would feel constrained to intervene. Turkey has already made military incursions into Iraq in hot pursuit of Kudistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas who have attacked military and civilian targets in eastern Turkey.
Turkey’s embassy in Baghdad was targeted by (inaccurate) rocket fire twice last week.
Turkey’s Erdogan and Iraq’s al-Maliki are also at odds over Syria, with Erdogan calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down and al-Maliki more or less supporting the al-Assad government. (Al-Maliki is said to fear that the secular Baath Party might be overthrown by Sunni radicals who will give aid to Sunni insurgents in Iraq).
If you think an unstable Iraq or severe tensions among it and its neighbors is good for American security, you have another think coming.
Obama also underlined the withdrawal of 10,000 US troops from Afghanistan and an expected departure of another 20,000 by June, with the Afghanistan National Army expected to take up the slack. (Many provinces have already been turned over).
The Afghanistan and Iraq withdrawals, and the rolling up of al-Qaeda, were presented by Obama as the “waning of the tides of war.” That is, Obama sees himself as drawing to a close an episode of American militarism and foreign adventurism started by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Why he puts this achievement in a passive mood, almost as though he is not the one ordering it, is mysterious to me.
The problems with this way of seeing things are that
a) The tides of war are still strong in northern Pakistan, where President Obama has ordered many drone strikes; in Yemen; and etc. Obama has bought into Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of the whole world as a perpetual battlefield and the US military as a sort of large special forces unit that goes here, there and everywhere without regard for international law.
and, b) one of the big reasons that the tide of war swelled in the first place has still not been effectively addressed: The Palestinians are still being displaced and stolen from and kept stateless and without basic human rights by their Israeli wardens. Muslim radicals repeatedly cited mistreatment of the Palestinians as among their primary motives for attacking the US, but the Israel lobbies in the US have attempted to deflect attention from the reason for which US interests are attacked in the Middle East.
Obama’s reaction to the Arab Spring is cautiously hopeful. But pledge to promote American values of democracy and human rights rings hollow for most Arabs, given the way the US joins in in depriving 11 million Palestinians of their basic human rights. Obama came late to all the Arab parties and hasn’t been seen as forceful, even in Libya, where people have a lot of reasons to be grateful to him. (Why did you have to lead from behind? they ask the US). Obama’s pledge to promote “free market” policies was particularly tone deaf, since it seems pretty clear that Neoliberalism was one of the things the masses were protesting last year this time.
Obama again threatened Iran, but also offered peace if it would cease uranium enrichment (to which it is entitled in the Non-Proliferation Treaty).
Still, no speech in which the definitive end of the US military presence in Iraq is announced can be seen as anything other than a success.