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Obama is back from vacation, so expect the worst

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

One of the funniest jokes told about the former U.S. President George W. Bush’s vacations was what Pam Spaulding said on August 12, 2007: “I guess you could look at it this way—the more he’s on vacation, the less damage he can do to the country.”

The current U.S. president Barack Obama came back yesterday from a week-long vacation he spent in the state of Massachusetts. The vacation comes at a bad time in terms of Obama’s Middle Eastern policy. With the accumulation of the U.S. administration’s mistakes as well as the increase in Washington’s hypocrisy towards the Middle East, I believe that Spaulding’s remark applies to Obama as well.

The worst that the Obama administration has brought to the peoples of the region—who naively believed its much vaunted ideals—are the illusion of “positive engagement” and the lie of Washington’s ethical commitment to justice, human rights, public freedoms and democracy. Today, all illusions are dispelled and lies are uncovered a little more than four years after Obama’s Cairo speech—which he delivered on June 4, 2009—promising us with more U.S. understanding based on mutual respect and common interest.

Palestinians and Israelis genuinely seeking a just and lasting peace and the freezing of settlement have woken up to the bitter reality. Syrians who believed that Washington would eagerly rescue them from a corrupt, sectarian and bloody regime, as well as the Egyptians—who had big hopes for Obama whom they thought would understand the deep meaning of democracy in countries that rarely experienced it and endured the consequences—were confronted with the same reality.

Clearing the water

In this painful and decisive period for the region it has become clear for Arabs, first, and their neighbors, second, that the Obama administration attaches weight neither to positive engagement based on mutual respect, nor to ethical commitments, save in clichés. These clichés might fool an honest U.S. voter who is able to hold his politicians accountable when they lie, but they are no longer convincing to the Arabs who have been deceived by U.S. policy over and over again, particularly during the last two years.

The worst that the Obama administration has brought to the peoples of the region—who naively believed its much vaunted ideals—are the illusion of “positive engagement” and the lie of Washington’s ethical commitment to justice

Eyad Abu Shakra

Obama’s ideals failed in the first real test represented by Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on building and expanding settlements. The American president turned his back on the moderate Palestinians willing to negotiate and the Israelis who believe in peace, granting hardliners on both sides—Hamas and the Likud as well as similar-minded factions— an invaluable favor. Now we are witnessing new, farcical negotiations which Netanyahu’s government preceded by approving more settlement units. As usual, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry only expressed his regret and urged both sides to go ahead with their empty and fruitless negotiations.

In Syria, the situation is just as bad. The Obama administration is no longer interested in toppling the Assad regime which successive U.S. administrations persevered to put on the list of countries supporting terrorism, and which had carried out the most appalling massacres and crimes. This U.S. administration is, actually, continuing what the George W. Bush’s administration started; namely leaving the region an easy victim to Israel’s and Iran’s intersecting ambitions.

Obama, I think, remembers well enough how the U.S. dealt with Iraq. He also remembers how Iraqis—whose main interest was to topple an oppressive regime that only knew the language of murder—were deceived, and later realized that their country has become a fragile entity subordinated to Iran, with its Kurdish-dominated north almost independent, internal security absent, and future uncertain.

Although Obama endeavored to adopt policies completely different from the ones George W. Bush and his pro-Likud neocons had pursued, especially in Iraq, he is currently following in the footsteps of his predecessor, albeit in a different manner. He is handing Syria to Iran on the pretext that more serious danger is posed by the Syrian opposition, namely radical Islamists and the similar-minded Takfirist groups. However, the problem here is that Washington realizes only too well that the presence of Takfirists in Syria is only accidental and the majority of them came to Syria from abroad several months after the popular, peaceful revolution erupted.

Distancing themselves

The “self-distancing” policy adopted by the U.S. towards the most horrific crimes committed against civilians in the Middle East’s modern history has been part and parcel of the Syrian tragedy. Furthermore, following the PR-style bluff of Iran’s presidential elections, the obvious intersection of interests between Israel and Iran in the region suggests that we have moved to a more serious political and military stage. The serious consequences of this stage may become even worse in light of emerging hostility between Erdogan’s Turkey and Egypt following the military-backed popular uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Mursi.

The Turkish democratic model has already suffered a loss of prestige around the world following the Taksim square protests, as well as Recep Tayyeb Erdogan’s awkward take on the transformation taking place in Egypt. In turn the Egyptian military’s attempt to rescue the country from a destructive state of polarization has provoked the anger of the West that deplored its purge of democracy.

Incidentally, here we are faced by a West that refuses to provide aid to Syrian rebels on the pretext of its Islamist Takfirists, while failing to realize that Egypt’s Brotherhood represented a hotbed for radical Islamists. In fact, Hamas, which both Israel and the U.S. accuse of terrorism and radicalism, is the Palestinian franchise of Egypt’s Brotherhood.

In contrast, Iran managed to depict the election of Hassan Rowhani as a “quantum leap” marking the return of discretion, moderation and the desire to arrive at an understanding with the world, after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s aggressive term and its provocative discourse. Ahmadinejad’s term, however, was fairly beneficial to Iran’s promotion of its “regional project” which on the surface claimed to be confronting the West and Israel while embarrassing the Arab regimes which Tehran bellicosely accused of weakness and cowardice. Today, it is noted that Western capitals are willing to believe the so-called quantum leap in Iran’s policy although they do know it is a fake one.

In brief, Western capitals, particularly Washington, do not mind being deceived because they have—contrary to what they claim— a vested interest in Iran playing a significant regional role in the Middle East. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s recent and recurring comments on the danger of Takfirists simply signal the implicit agreement among the U.S., Israel and Iran. In fact, the true relationship between Iran— and its lackeys in the region such as Assad’s regime and Hezbollah—and the Takfirists is worth investigation and serious review.

Sponsoring Takfirists and facilitating their movement through the Middle East have been a part and parcel of Iran’s strategy, with Israel’s consent and perhaps the U.S.’s blessing.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on August 22, 2013.

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Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with An-Nahar 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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