Obama effort to recalibrate Mideast policy likely to frustrate reformers and conservatives alike
US President Barak Obama is likely to find difficult to be all things to all people when he lays out his vision on Thursday for a Middle East enthralled in a bitter struggle for greater political freedom.
The stakes are high for Mr. Obama as he seeks to balance US principles of liberty and justice with what he defines as America’s national interest.
At times, those principles and interests clash; at other times they coincide and when they do, that creates challenges for US diplomacy in the region.
Mr. Obama’s greatest challenge will be restoring US credibility. Militarily, Mr. Obama did so when US Navy Seals earlier this month killed Al Qaeda Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan. But restoring US political credibility is a more difficult nut to crack.
The US earned a degree of street credibility with its support for mass anti-government protests that toppled the autocratic leaders of Egypt and Tunisia as well as stalled Saudi-led efforts to ease Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office and the US’s role in imposing a UN-sanctioned no-fly zone in Libya.
The US support put at least a temporary dent in a decade of post 9/11 anti-US sentiment across the Arab world because of Washington’s past unqualified backing of autocratic regimes in the Middle East and North Africa as well as its unqualified support for Israel.
Washington’s enhanced street credibility in Cairo and Tunis is, however, counterbalanced by the alarm bells that its support for the overthrow of Egypt President Hosni Mubarak, one of the US’s staunchest Arab allies, set off in conservative Arab capitals as well as by the US refusal to condemn the harsh crackdown in Bahrain and its reluctance to back calls for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Reformers have accused the US of applying double standards.
Mr. Obama’s toughest challenge may be reversing a serious downslide in US-Saudi relations.
Nawaf Obeid, a fellow at the Riyadh-based King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies that is headed by former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, argues that post 9/11 US policy has ruptured the two nations’ historic alliance based on the principle of oil for security. As a result, Mr. Obaid predicts that Saudi Arabia, the world’s foremost oil producer and the custodian of Islam’s most holy sites, will chart its own course that at times will coincide with US interest but more often will not.
“Riyadh has often protested but ultimately acquiesced to what it saw as misguided US policies. But American missteps in the region since September 11, an ill-conceived response to the Arab protest movements and an unconscionable refusal to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement building have brought this arrangement to an end,” Mr. Obaid says.
The straw that seemingly broke the camel’s back was US pressure on Saudi Arabia not to send troops into Bahrain to help quell the unrest, which Riyadh sees as a product of increased Iranian meddling in the domestic affairs of the Gulf States and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa.
Another major breaking point was last year’s US veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity on the West Bank. Saudi Arabia blames the Iraq war for the rise in Iranian influence in the region and feels that the United States has failed to back it wholeheartedly in its cold war against Iran despite common concerns about the Islamic republic’s policies.
The Teutonic shift in US-Saudi relations, as Mr. Obaid puts it, is likely to mean that US and Saudi interests will clash as often as they coincide. The Saudis, he predicts, will continue to view the elected, US-backed government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an Iranian puppet.
Mr. Obaid signals further that with regard to Syria, Saudi Arabia, in contrast to the United States and Europe, has decided that Mr. Assad must go.
“As Riyadh fights a cold war with Tehran, Washington has shown itself in recent months to be an unwilling and unreliable partner against this threat … With Iran working tirelessly to dominate the region, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt and unrest on nearly every border, there is simply too much at stake for the kingdom to rely on a security policy written in Washington, which has backfired more often than not and spread instability,” Mr. Obaid writes.
If Mr. Obama’s remarks following his meeting in Washington on Tuesday with Jordan’s King Abdullah are any indication, the president’s speech on Thursday is unlikely to salvage the US’s historic relationship with Saudi Arabia, one if its most crucial in the region, or put US relations with the region on a new footing.
Mr. Obama said in his remarks that the region’s “old structures” have dashed the aspirations of young Arabs for freedom and economic progress and “have to be reworked.”
In his speech on Thursday, Mr. Obama is expected to support nonviolent protest and call on Arab leaders to take the demands of their people seriously without further violence. The president, US officials say, is eager to position the US as willing to help peaceful transition, which he believes raise the prospect for progress, but wants to avoid being accused of meddling in domestic affairs or instigating the protests.
Mr. Obama described in his remarks Tuesday efforts to revive moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as “more vital than ever,” but gave no indication that he was willing to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, whom he’s scheduled to meet later this week.
The president is further expected to oppose a proposed UN resolution that would recognize Palestinian statehood and emphasize that direct talks between the parties, not unilateral efforts, are the best way to forge a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. US officials say that Mr. Obama will not put forward new American peace proposals.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wrote in an opinion piece published this week in The New York Times that in the absence of negotiations with Israel the Palestinians would unilaterally seek United Nations recognition of an independent state within the 1967 borders.
Such a move would put the US in a difficult position. Backing Israel by voting against recognition would amount to the US taking a stand against Palestinian statehood, which it advocates, at a time that public opinion is asserting itself in the Middle East with the anti-government protests.
At the bottom line, Mr. Obama’s speech is unlikely to provide a rational for US policy in a region in turmoil that will satisfy reformers and conservatives alike. On the contrary, Mr. Obama’s tightrope act seems destined to create more problems for the US than it averts. For Mr. Obama, the real question is whether the time has come to embark on a bold policy initiative, which sides with the way the winds in the region are blowing rather than seeks to accommodate immediate developments while trying to hold the fort.
US policy threatens to put Washington’s relationship with Riyadh at a crossroads. Pursuing a more equitable approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would go a long way in resolving US problems in the Arab world, but would put its relations with Israel at a crossroads. These are stark choices that Mr. Obama makes apparently as much on the basis of his definition of US national interest as with an eye on next year’s US presidential election.
(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)