“Cynicism may be a sign of wisdom,” says a well-known Arab saying. With that in mind, it may be advisable at this point to seriously contemplate U.S. strategic priorities in the Arab world during the era of Barack Obama.
The features of America’s strategy in this regard have become clear to everyone except those addicted to optimism, not to mention the huddle of those convinced that the U.S. is constantly preoccupied in thinking up ways of strengthen its relations with the Arabs. Unfortunately, what happened during the past few weeks demonstrates the fact that the future of the Arabs is at the bottom of Washington’s list of priorities, while the sovereignty of Arab states barely occupies a higher position.
Dealing with Syria, Egypt and the Palestinian–Israeli conflict
The Syrian ordeal has been a significant challenge that demonstrates a painful aspect of this truth. Yet the Syrian crisis remains merely a part of a whole. It goes without saying that Washington’s strategy to resolve the Palestinian file continues to be congruent with the Israeli vision. Furthermore, from the way the U.S. recently dealt with Egypt, it has become clear that Washington has adopted a hesitant approach based on reactions, rather than a long-term strategy commensurate with Egypt’s political and demographic position in the region. Last but not least, Obama’s recent “openness” with Iran proves the passivity and the serious structural defects in Washington’s current Middle Eastern policy.
Another thing that has distinguished Obama’s policy from his predecessor is his “liberalism,” which prevents him from committing himself to any value system or ideological principles.Eyad Abu Shakra
As pertains to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, Obama was defeated in the battle of wills with Tel Aviv after he moved away from any serious endeavors to secure a settlement freeze or rescue the two-state solution that would supposedly lead to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. It is well known that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the receding tide of left-wing, secular politics weakened the Palestinian Left. Thus, the Palestinian people have found themselves increasingly pushed towards accepting and adopting “political Islam.”
However, it should be remembered that the Afghanistan war—a crucial factor in the acceleration of the collapse of the Soviet Union—would have never been resolved without “political Islam,” and more specifically its “jihadist” face—something that Washington nurtured before abandoning it in the wake of its victory against the Soviet Union. Following this, the U.S. found itself in a state of conflict with the same “political Islam” and its “jihadist” currents, before finding itself in a state of open war with it following the 9/11 attacks. What I mean here is that Washington, at one stage, was not opposed to “political Islam”; rather, it benefited from it in its global war against Moscow.
A few years ago, Obama inherited the White House from George W. Bush, capitalizing on his anti-war election slogans, particularly since Bush’s aggressive course had inflicted human and material losses on the U.S. This was echoed by millions of Americans who voted for the Democratic candidate in the fall of 2008. After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize during the early days of his first term in office, Obama found himself in a “gilded cage,” thus becoming keen to avoid wars and foreign adventures amid a growing economic crisis.
Another thing that has distinguished Obama’s policy from his predecessor is his “liberalism,” which prevents him from committing himself to any value system or ideological principles. In contrast, Bush served as the façade of a hardline, right-wing trend that holds consistently extreme views on all levels, whether we are talking religious, social, economic or military.
Due to the difference between these two schools of thought—one liberal and free from any commitments and the other extremist basing its views on a binary system of enemy/friend, black/white—we, as Arabs and Muslims, are paying the price. This is no different to the price we paid when the Bush administration adopted the point of view of the “Likudnik neocons” regarding the Middle East.
Obama today has reduced the Palestinian Cause to the issue of defending Israel’s security without seriously touching the subject of settlement or contemplating the risks of the organic link between Israel’s political and military institutions and the Jewish “biblical” pro-settlement groups. In fact, Washington’s policy today is based on neglect of the political solution based on the two-state solution as long as the Likud refuses it on the pretext of the threat of radical Islam.
Regarding Syria, Obama reduces the entire Syrian ordeal to the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Washington’s main preoccupation has become ridding Assad of weapons he was not supposed to stockpile in the first place, never mind use against civilians. After reaching a deal with Moscow to dismantle Syria’s chemical arsenal, the U.S. has turned a blind eye to all of the other issues, including the regime’s war on its own people, resulting in the deaths of more than 150,000 people by its use of conventional weapons. Now Obama feels that he has done enough by solely concentrating on the chemical massacre, particularly since he does not intend to confront Russia or challenge Iran. Furthermore, let us remember that the Damascus regime serves as an Iranian–Israeli “mailbox” par excellence, with Israel also desirous of Syria becoming a battlefield of a regional sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites.
As for Iran, the U.S. president has chosen to exclusively pin Washington’s relation with Tehran on the issue of its development of nuclear weapons. This means that neither the U.S. nor the Israeli administration mind working out a formula to share influence in the region with Iran, providing it refrains from developing nuclear weapons. By looking at the geopolitical status quo, this hoped-for formula will not be hard to achieve: Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have indeed become Iranian protectorates.
The defining factors
Based on the above, it is now possible to define the Middle East policy of Obama’s Washington as follows:
◘ Total disregard of the issues Arabs are losing sleep over, whether we are talking about Palestine or the Arab Spring states, against the backdrop of growing despair and the failure of the rule of political Islam, whether securing power through peaceful or violent means.
◘ Agreeing to Syria remaining a fiefdom of the Assad clan and its partners and sponsors in exchange for Damascus giving up its chemical weapons, which Washington and Tel Aviv worry may fall into the wrong hands—as opposed to the hands of the regime that has kept the Golan Heights completely calm for four decades.
◘ Last but not least, Washington accepting Iran as a partner in the project of hegemony in the Middle East, including its full control over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as respecting Tehran’s interests in the region, in exchange for Iran’s developing its nuclear capabilities for peaceful purposes only, rather than production of nuclear weapons.
This reading of Washington’s vision may appear pessimistic, but it is realistic all the same. It is high time we dealt with Washington’s policy as it is, rather than falling prey to delusions.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Oct. 3, 2013.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.
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