One Year of the Obama Administration in the Middle East


About one year ago, on January 20, 2009, the first African-American president in US history moved into the White House in a climate of hope and great expectations, while the Middle East was torn by the fierce military campaign that Israel had ended in those very days in Gaza. Two months before, in November 2008, Barack Obama’s election as President of the United States had been welcomed with great enthusiasm and a sense of liberation throughout the entire Arab-Islamic world. The Bush era was finally over and the new President promised an age of dialogue and reconciliation.

Then came the now famous speech delivered by Obama in Cairo, and it had an enormous resonance in all Islamic countries. That speech seemed to have finally marked the end of the clash of civilizations and the age of American unilateralism, while expectations in a diplomatic initiative by the new US President to finally jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process were rising.

However, one year after Obama’s inauguration, there are no longer any traces in the Middle East of the enthusiasm of the early days, and the nightmare of the Bush era still seems to linger like a curse from Palestine to Afghanistan, from Iraq to Pakistan. Al-Qaeda’s name, which had almost seemed to vanish in the early months of 2009, is now resounding in the media throughout the world and it can be heard again in the speeches of the US President and his British counterpart. Iraq has not been freed yet, but, even worse, it seems to be on the verge of a new spiral of bloodshed. Afghanistan is torn by the war raging also in the capital, Kabul, and there are no signs of a possible solution in coming months despite the surge of 30,000 troops promised by Obama. Worse so, the war has now spread to nearby Pakistan, which, in turn, is rocked by terror attacks and is losing control of wider portions of its territory. Gaza is still waning under the burden of the international embargo, peace talks in Palestine are still a mirage and the Palestinian State promised by the US President at the beginning of his mandate appears to be a far-off dream. Dialogue with Iran has never started, while, on the contrary, new fronts are being opened in America’s wars: Yemen and maybe Somalia.

What has gone wrong in these months? What has led the climate of hope of early 2009 to fade into a dark and heavy climate crushing the Middle East at the dawn of this new decade?

In recent days President Obama has admitted that the road has proven to be harder than he expected and that at times he is called to face his own doubts. He has acknowledged that his efforts to set the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back into motion have failed hitherto and that, if he had realized the difficulties of the problems to be faced right from the beginning, he would have avoided kindling such high expectations.

To be honest, Obama is actually having problems at home in the first place, besides his difficulties abroad. He is the US President to have the lowest approval rating at the end of the first year of presidency. However, this is also partly the consequence of the fact that he had kindled high hopes at home as well, and that these hopes would have been easily shattered when finally addressing real problems.

Looking back, some in the Arab-Islamic world say that he does not embody that revolutionary figure that many had expected. In their opinion, Obama does not have a truly left-of-the-center vision but rather a firmly moderate one, a vision which is not much different from that of pragmatic conservatives oriented towards a sort of “sound realism”. On some occasions he has used expressions quite similar to those of America’s neocons. His calls for dialogue with the Islamic world have been betrayed by his tone on other occasions, for instance, when he stated that “America is at war” or when he defined the war in Afghanistan a “just war” right on the evening of the ceremony for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

According to others, it is still early to give the Obama presidency a final judgment. Mahir Ali, a Pakistani analyst writing for “Dawn” says that it is unreasonable to expect a single man to change the contorted power structure existing in the US. Moreover, all US presidents who have achieved major successes – like the abolition of slavery, civil rights and the end of the Vietnam War – have succeeded because they were supported by strong popular movements in favor of change.

However, Danny Schechter, an independent American producer, stated in an article printed on the al-Jazeera English website that it was Obama himself to have dealt a lethal blow to the popular movement calling for change which actually existed at the time of his election. He had inspired millions of voters winning their consensus over the Internet and in social networks. Instead of involving his supporters as potential activists capable of driving his agenda from the bottom, “he allowed his ‘army’ to dissipate” once in the White House.

The next step that clipped the wings of change was his choice of pragmatic, if not conservative, figures in his effort to give his cabinet a semblance of bipartisanship. “I am change,” said the newly elected US President when he was accused of selecting people too aligned with the establishment. However, Obama has ended up being all alone and not having any real political weight in an Administration and Congress in which both Democrats and Republicans all too often share the same views especially when it comes to foreign policy.

The first hurdle has been the Israeli-Palestinian Question. After the refusal of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to freeze settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the US President realized that he was incapable of exerting any real pressure on the Israeli government and that – according to many – he was the prisoner of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington.

In the meantime, other domestic policy priorities and other foreign policy issues have gradually pushed the issue of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to the margins of his political agenda. While the economy and health care reform have severely put the US Administration to the test on the domestic front, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and relations with major powers like Russia and China have drained the energy out of his diplomatic initiative in the Near East – based, among other things, on a confused and scarcely innovative approach, which has failed to break away from the old confrontation between “moderates” and “extremists” of the Bush days.

However, besides the failure in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it has been the Afghan-Pakistani front that has progressively emptied the message of “dialogue and reconciliation” launched by Obama at the beginning of his mandate of all meaning and tainted his credibility as a “man of peace”.

Already during the presidential campaign, the then Democratic candidate stated that he intended shifting his attention and that of the new US Administration from Iraq to Afghanistan to finally defeat al-Qaeda. However, at the time very few – and maybe not even Obama – realized what it meant. The US campaign in Afghanistan has been a failure after 2001. Almost forgotten because of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, it has dragged on for years becoming one and the same thing with the Afghan system of corruption and the system of power of Afghanistan’s warlords. The “nation-building” project in Afghanistan has failed some time ago and US and Western presence in the country basically consists in a military occupation, which is becoming increasingly incapable of controlling the territory in the face of Taliban resurgence.

The decision to invest in the US project in Afghanistan, instead of opening the way to a regional and international solution of the conflict, inevitably means sinking more and more into a quagmire where the Soviets had already failed before the Americans. After sending 17,000 troops in February 2009, the US President was forced to authorize the deployment of another 30,000 troops at the end of last year raising the total number of US forces on the ground in Afghanistan to over 100,000.

Probably having realized that the Afghan mission might be one without return, Obama ordered the deployment of just 30,000, while the US military leadership had asked for at least 40,000, and he has tried to keep the door open for a possible withdrawal. This ‘meager victory’ over General Stanley McChrystal, the current commander of US forces in Afghanistan, is a good example of the position that the US President is having to cope with. Caught in the trap of his own decision to hunt down al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and having become the hostage of the legacy of his predecessor, George W. Bush (not only in Afghanistan, but also on the other US fronts in the Middle East), Obama is struggling against a political and military establishment which is comfortable with carrying on with the strategies adopted under the previous Bush Administration. The result is a confused policy (dialogue with Iran matched by the threat of sanctions and even a military option), which favors a middle-of-the-road approach (30,000 troops instead of 40,000 in Afghanistan) and is often the victim of second thoughts (request to the Israeli government to freeze new settlements first considered ‘unavoidable’ and then defined ‘non-binding’). The Obama Administration’s hesitant and inconclusive line not only does not favor the solution of regional crises, but above all it does not prevent that, taken as a whole, the ‘locomotive’ of US political and military strategy continue to rush head on along the course charted out during the neocon-inspired Bush era.

This disquieting reality is confirmed in every aspect of US foreign policy in the Middle East, from Iran to Afghanistan, from Pakistan to Yemen.

The inability to establish a dialogue with Iran matched by the threat of sanctions – which, if approved, could probably prove to be ineffective due to Russia and China’s reluctance (which have major interests in Iran’s energy sector) and to the scarce cooperation of bordering countries like Pakistan and Dubai – risk further aggravating the confrontation between the West and the regime in Teheran and opening the way to a military conflict.

Dogged US unilateralism in Afghanistan matched by the adoption of confused military and civilian policies in the country is bound to make it plunge into a spiral of war and death without any hope of stability (it should be borne in mind that despite US ‘efforts’, the Taliban now have a stable hold over 80% of the country). One thing that not many people know is that in addition to the 30,000 troops to bolster US regular forces in Afghanistan there will be other ‘reinforcements’ to consolidate the US war machine: more than 50,000 contractors, private mercenaries working for American corporations like Xe (former-Blackwater) and DynCorp (both active also in Pakistan, as recently confirmed by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates), and hundreds of CIA agents besides Defense Dept. personnel.  All this will fuel a partly privatized war machine (not only due to the contractors, but also because a series of services for the logistics of the US armed forces have now been contracted out to private US companies), which is increasingly obeying to its own logic and seems to be more and more unstoppable.

Of course, this war machine had been tried and consolidated in the ‘new Iraq’ after the ousting of Saddam Hussein. Iraq is a country which, after almost 7 years of US presence, seems to be once again on the verge of sectarian violence both due to dramatic inner strife and to the fact that it is the theater of a clash ‘by proxy’ between Washington and Teheran.

Military strategies like those used in Afghanistan are being pursued by the US in Pakistan, where the remote-controlled pilotless drones continue to strike not only al-Qaeda and Taliban objectives, but also civilians (often because of the scarce quality of intelligence based on which the objectives are chosen), dramatically fueling the hostility of Pakistanis towards the US. In the meantime, just a few days ago, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave another excellent example of US policy in recent years by traveling to India and Pakistan to sign deals for the sale of arms to the sworn enemies, who both happen to be nuclear powers. Gates’ explanation to reporters was that Washington hopes that military cooperation with the two countries will help the US gain their trust, which is necessary to advance US objectives in the region. Leaders in Washington state that the Pentagon will make sure not to alter the balance between the two South Asian powers.

In Yemen, the US, in its effort to ‘free’ the country of al-Qaeda, will once again enter an alliance with a non-democratic ruler, president Ali Abdullah Saleh, actually supporting yet another despotic regime in the region through military aid, which – as in the past – risks being used by the regime to pursue its objectives usually to the detriment of large parts of the local population.

The rhetoric of the war against al-Qaeda and the need to protect America by stabilizing unstable regions of the world is a new trap, which only exports war and fuels new extremism and more hatred against the US and the West, making the message of dialogue and peace launched by Obama at the start of his presidency appear simply as a pale memory if not even a tragic deception.

By stating that it intends to fight a few hundred al-Qaeda affiliates with scarce links to one another, hiding among a few thousand local militiamen in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Yemen, the United States has set in motion one of the most costly war machines of all times spending more than USD 1,000 billion starting from 9/11 for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. A few days ago, President Obama asked for an additional $33 billion for the 2011 Defense budget. As revealed by Winslow T. Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information based in Washington D.C., this amount will raise the Pentagon’s annual budget to a staggering $708 billion, the highest ever since WWII and slightly less what the rest of the world spends on defense.

Clearly, this gargantuan machine has objectives stretching well beyond the fight against al-Qaeda and aiming at protecting Washington’s strategic interests around the world.

However, the huge flood of money fueling this machine not only has trampled any praiseworthy call for dialogue made by Obama in the past and any effort he has made to improve America’s image in the Arab-Islamic world, but also risks crushing the US economy, which is already heavily tried by the current global crisis.

Will Barack Obama be able in the 3 years left of his administration to stop this ‘runaway train’ and the hemorrhage of money draining Washington’s finances?

Even if he were fully aware of the situation, the task before him appears to be daunting.

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