Obama’s First Hundred Days in the Greater Middle East

The hundred day benchmark for journalists sizing up a new administration is probably inappropriate on foreign affairs, which are complicated and move slowly. Still, we can assess the changes in approach and tone between the Obama administration and its predecessor this winter and spring, to try to get a sense of where things are going.

Obama has engaged in a number of acts of public diplomacy toward the Muslim world that were intended to change the image of the United States in the region and to marshal for his purposes American soft power, which is among its largest assets in the region. (Contrary to what the American Right used to confidently assert, the Muslim world does not hate “our way of life,” but rather loves the idea of democracy and loves US media. What they say they don’t like is a lot of sleeping around and tolerance of gays; in other words, Muslim public opinion is not so different from that of many Americans in the deep red states).

Obama did an interview with al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based Arabic satellite news station, soon after he got into office. He offered a hand of friendship to Muslims, insisted that you can’t stereotype 1.5 billion people with the actions of a few terrorists, and implied that al-Qaeda seemed to be running scared that it had lost George W. Bush as a recruiting tool.

Obama was making an important point. Radicalism in the Muslim world is very much wrought up with anti-imperialism, with a desire to push back against what local people see as an overbearing and arrogant American dictation to them of how to live their lives. Bush was a poster boy for that arrogance, slipping up and talking of a “crusade,” denouncing “Islamic fascism” or “Islamic terrorism” (you can’t have either since Islam forbids them), encouraging the Israeli right wing, and invading and occupying Muslim countries on a vast scale. The new president hoped to set a different tone, and by doing so to blunt the recruiting efforts of the radicals.

Obama’s public diplomacy extended to Iran, which he addressed on the occasion of the Persian New Year. He stressed the opportunity for Iran to re-enter the world community through diplomacy with the US.

Although the US press interpreted the Iranian response as a rebuff, I argued that the leadership in Tehran greeted it with caution and adopted a wait and see attitude.

Note that the Bush administration had absolutely refused to deal with Iran diplomatically on any but the most narrow of technical issues (mainly security in Iraq), and had seemed to delight in zinging Tehran and constantly generating vaguely ridiculous charges against it of supporting al-Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban, and serially leaking to Sy Hersh stories that it might be nuked at any moment by the US and/or Israel.

The big moment for public diplomacy, however, was Obama’s trip to Turkey. In 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration, 56 percent of Turks had a favorable or very favorable view of the United States. By late in the Bush administration eight years later, that percentage stood at 9%. Bush was barely more popular in Turkey than was Bin Laden. But nearly 40 percent of Turks say that they have confidence in President Obama, making him the politician in Turkey with the very highest approval rating!

In an address to the Turkish parliament, Obama declared that the US is not and never will be at war with Islam the religion. (To be fair, Bush had said similar things when in Turkey, but his policies were so unpopular that it was difficult for him to be taken seriously on this point).

I wrote a commentary on Obama’s speech to the Turkish parliament, which I argued emphasized the ability of Middle Easterners to democratize on their own, without “help” from a domineering Neoconservative Big Brother. In a historic passage, Obama pointed out that he himself had Muslim ancestry and had lived in a Muslim country (Indonesia), and that neither attribute (obviously especially the latter) was unusual among Americans.

On Iraq, Obama visited Baghdad and met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He outlined the specifics of the US withdrawal plan, which envisages US combat troops ceasing active patrols in Iraqi cities by August 1, 2009; a withdrawal of all combat troops by September 1, 2010, and the withdrawal of the remaining 40,000 or so logistical support and other US troops by Dec. 31, 2011. While US commander Gen. Ray Odierno clearly chafed at this timeline and wants to tweak it, even he recently said he was 10 out of 10 sure that it would be adhered to under current conditions.

Many US observers, who are withdrawal fundamentalists, do not understand that the advances made by the Iraqi army depend heavily on US logistical and air support, and that a precipitous withdrawal might well leave the country in chaos. They also don’t understand that an Iraq in chaos would be unacceptable to the US and its regional allies, and would draw American troops right back in. Obama’s measured withdrawal, which has the support of the Iraqi government, is a good compromise and has a 50/50 chance of success. The heavy-casualty bombings of recent weeks in Baghdad and Mosul are a security, not a military challege, and probably will not affect the timeline.

In contrast, Bush fought tooth and nail against a US withdrawal from Iraq, and last year this time Dick Cheney was alleging that the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq would be taken over by al-Qaeda and used to attack the US mainland if American troops went home. Those who cannot see a difference between Obama and the Bush administration on this issue are blind.

The Obama administration has succeeded in changing the tone of US diplomacy with the Greater Middle East. Note that a better job could have been done. Aljazeera would have been a more effective place to do an interview than al-Arabiya, since it is much more widely watched. There were a few aggressive notes in the speech to Iran, which were gratuitous and helped to provoke the grumpy Iranian response.

In polling, publics in the Middle East did see positive changes in US policy, with about 40% praising the changes. In Lebanon and the UAE it was over 50%, while in the outlier, Iran, it was only 29%. Still, the trend lines are the right ones.

Still, tone is easy, where there is a will. Substance is hard.

Obama, to remain credible, will have to stick to the Iraq withdrawal timetable. The fall in violence in the Shiite south and in some Sunni Arab areas to my mind has a lot to do with the realization of militiamen that they needed resort to violence to accomplish the goal of a US departure from their country.

Obama has been dealt a difficult hand in the hot spots. It is highly unlikely that he can accomplish much on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the far rightwing racist character of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government (it would be as though Jean-Marie Le Pen had come to power in France). The Palestinians themselves have been successfully divided by Israel and the US, and by their own leaders’ factiousness (Hamas in Gaza is in its own way like a Jean-Maire Le Pen scenario on the Palestinian side).

Obama’s appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy was a slap at the powerful US Israel lobbies, insofar as he is a skilled diplomat and capable of being at least somewhat even-handed.

But Obama has said nothing about the horrific Israeli assault on the civilian population of Gaza, both a gratuitous war of choice and the continued blockade, which is actually stunting the growth of children. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, close to the region’s problems warns of a new war if Obama does not make breakthroughs. At the very least, the continued imposed statelessness, large-scale theft from, and brutalization of the Palestinians by the Israelis promises to continue to generate terrorism and anti-Americanism unless these problems are resolved.

Obama seems to think that Afghanistan can be resolved through sending more troops, which is highly unlikely to be the case. And despite his hard line on Pakistan, he has been unable to convince Islamabad to take the Pakistani Taliban seriously as a threat to the whole of Pakistan. (Pakistanis tend to see them as particularly strict Muslim Pushtuns, not a new phenomenon and not relevant to most Punjabis and Sindhis; and they tend to want the disputes settled through parleys instead of massive military operations.)

So, an “A” on style, which is all that could probably be accomplished in 100 days. We need to come back and judge substance a year from now. But the challenges are enormous, especially at a time when domestic economic and health concerns are the primary focus of the American public.

Obama was saddled with two wars abroad (three if you count northern Pakistan), a persistent terrorism problem exacerbated by those wars, an unprecedentedly bad US image, and a festering Israel/Palestine conflict that had been virtually ignored for eight years, and which is poisoning the whole region.

It is too soon to tell whether he can succeed in handling this very full plate. But he has at least stopped digging us into a hole, and there is some prospect of him succeeding on at least some fronts.

It is hard to remember now how bad things were a year ago, in April of 2008, in this regard. How hopeless issues looked on all fronts, how absent and arrogant the supposed decider was, how perfidious and devious the real president-behind-the-scenes was. Obama cannot fix the world’s problems simply by taking office or making some speeches. But he does give people hope with his style, intelligence, grasp of issues, and clear ethical imperatives. It is a new day. It is a new day.

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