Only fifteen months after his historic Cairo speech, there are alarming signs that President Obama’s new engagement policy with the middle east may soon find its place in history’s dustbin. The Obama administration’s withdrawal announcement of US “combat” troops from Iraq by the end of August is nothing more than a PR campaign to rename the occupation. Similarly, the newly announced direct peace talks between the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian Authority seem little more than a tactical move for political gains in the current conjuncture, aimed at securing the Jewish vote in the mid-term elections in November and easing the Netanyahu government’s unprecedented isolation before the international community. To make matters worse, the war drums echoing between Israel and both Hezbollah and Iran raise fears that the region may be plunged into a greater chaos, which would mean a disaster for all actors involved, including the United States.
Barack Obama’s election victory inspired unprecedented hope around the world but especially among the people of the middle east, where eight years of George W Bush’s unilateral policies virtually destroyed US reputation. When he decided to make his first overseas trip to Turkey in April 2009, Turks embraced Obama. During his trip, an opinion poll conducted by Infakto Polling Company showed that 52 percent of Turks trusted Obama, a huge improvement compared to their two percent confidence in President George W Bush in 2008.
Turks’ crisis of confidence that year, the lowest in the world, was mainly the result of two factors. Firstly, the two US wars in the region, but especially the Iraq war which had a devastating effect on the Turkish economy and undermined Turkey’s security by transforming northern Iraq into a sanctuary for Kurdish separatists. Second, the continued push for an Armenian genocide resolution in the US Congress. For Turks, judging their nation’s history one-sidedly for political reasons in a foreign parliament was an openly hostile act.
The Turkish public hoped that Obama’s strong message of change would translate into a significant change in the US middle east policy. But, this hasn’t been the case. Iraq remains unstable and we are still far from the end of the war. Despite the media hype about the withdrawal of US “combat” troops, this move doesn’t signify the end of combat mission in Iraq. There remain 50,000 US troops in 94 US bases with significant combat abilities and moreover, private contractors will simply be taking over many of the responsibilities of the withdrawn US troops. In other words, this is nothing more than renaming the occupation for political purposes. It is not hard to see the largely symbolic nature of this withdrawal just by looking at the size of the US bases and diplomatic facilities and the huge number of private contractors in Iraq. In terms of security, July was the deadliest month for civilians for more than two years and the political stalemate still continues, even more than five months after the March elections, with no hopes of any solution in the near future. What is even more worrisome for Turkey is the increase in PKK’s deadly attacks in Turkish soil, with the current political chaos and the lack of federal authority in Iraq.
On the Afghanistan front, the war seems unlikely to end in the near future either and, on the contrary, has shown signs of spreading into Pakistan, further destabilizing the region. The Obama administration’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan was another important factor leading to the questioning of Obama’s credibility in the region.
Meanwhile, the Armenian genocide resolution, which passed the House Foreign Relations committee in March 2010, created an uproar among the Turkish public. As a consequence, Turkish confidence in Obama dropped to 23 percent in May 2010, down more than half from only a year before.
In June 2010, the Obama administration attempted to water down the UN Security Council condemnation of Israel’s deadly assault on the Turkish humanitarian aid ship in international waters of the Mediterranean. Vice-President Joe Biden, meanwhile, offered unconditional US support for Israel after the flotilla incident. This deadly attack and its aftermath had two important consequences. It put Turkey right at the centre of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and inevitably further tarnished the US image in Turkey. Consequently, if the current UN Panel of inquiry put together by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon fails to come up with tangible results such as an Israeli apology and compensation, which seems unlikely, a break in Israeli-Turkish relations and further deterioration in the US-Turkish relations should come as no surprise.
In the Arab world
The Obama administration’s relations with the Arab middle east have fared little better. The blurry picture both in Iraq and Afghanistan raises fears that the US will not leave the region any time soon. In addition, US military attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, and Obama’s failure to build bridges with Syria further tarnished his image in the region. In his attempt to restore ties with Syria, the US demand about distancing itself from Iran and Hezbollah in return was viewed as illusory by many. And Obama’s renewal of economic sanctions, first imposed by Bush in 2004, for another year ended hopes for a US-Syrian rapprochement before they matured.
On the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, rated the most important factor in the Arab public’s disappointment with Obama policies according to a recent Arab opinion poll, Obama’s failure to pressure the Netanyahu government into stopping new Jewish settlements in occupied territories, lifting the Gaza blockade, and starting peace talks with Palestinians played an important role in the dramatic decline in the hopes for Obama administration’s middle east policy. Only sixteen percent of the Arab respondents said they were hopeful in 2010, down from 51 percent a year ago, according to the survey.
In addition, Israel’s humiliation of Joe Biden by announcing 1,600 new housing units during his visit to Israel in March 2010 – and the Obama administration’s limited reaction – have strengthened the common view in the region that the US has lost its influence. Moreover, Obama’s efforts to kiss and make up with Netanyahu during the 6 July summit in Washington did little to raise the peace-making profile of the administration among Arabs.
As a result, Arabs in the middle east are increasingly coming to the same conclusion. Obama has good intentions, but he is unable to make any changes in US policies and has to defer to Congress and the Washington lobbies. Accordingly, 38 percent of the people surveyed in the same Arab opinion poll said that “they have favorable views of Obama, but don’t think the American system will allow him to have a successful foreign policy.” Obama is not simply handcuffed by dynamics in the region. He must also face the financial reality that pro-Israeli sentiments play a major role in the Democratic Party and among party contributors. In a political system, where as much as 40 percent of all contributions to Democratic candidates are donated by Jewish Americans, any pressure by the Obama administration on the Netanyahu government before November doesn’t seem very likely.
There are also legitimate fears that the region may plunge into a larger scale chaos. In a recently released "Contingency Planning Memorandum" from the Council on Foreign Relations, retired US Ambassador Daniel C Kurtzer argues that a third Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah is imminent. According to the report’s scenarios, Israel might attack Hezbollah or lure it into a war. Or it might use a conflict with Hezbollah as a cover for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. If Israel attacks Hezbollah or Iran, or in the case of a joint US-Israeli attack on Iran, the conflict is likely to spread throughout the region and have devastating effects.
The middle east's last hope?
During the Bush era, many Muslims thought it was neoconservative-led US foreign policy that created all the disasters in the middle east. Obama’s name represented hope for a change in US foreign policy toward the middle east that no other American presidential candidate could have delivered. If Obama could have changed the current trajectory and shifted from a military to diplomatic approach, the American image could have been revived in the region.
If Obama doesn’t reverse course, the region will lose one of its last hopes for a diplomatic solution to its simmering conflicts. After the possible elimination of Turkey as a mediator in the region, as a result of severed Israeli-Turkish relations, diplomacy will become increasingly dysfunctional. Radicalism will grow, and as a consequence military responses will become even more popular.
As hope in Obama fades, support for a nuclear Iran increased significantly over the last year. Among the Arabs surveyed in the Zogby/University of Maryland poll, 77 percent now supported Iran’s right to its nuclear program, compared to 53 percent one year ago. And 57 percent said Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons will be more positive for the middle east, up from 29 percent last year - a huge increase that says a lot about the loss of hopes for diplomacy in the region.
Clearly, the only way to restore peace in the middle east is by avoiding military confrontation and restoring diplomacy. Therefore, the US should first end its occupation both in Afghanistan and Iraq, instead of attempts to rebrand and continue them under a new name. On the diplomacy front, the Obama administration should offer a bigger carrot and engage with Syria and Iran with genuine intentions, and, at the same time, drop its short-sighted domestic political worries and pressure the Netanyahu government not to ignite any new military confrontations in the region, and to avert the approaching break in Israeli-Turkish relations. An active Turkey, with leverage on Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria, can achieve things in the region that the Obama administration cannot. But only the Obama administration can deter Israel from sparking new conflicts in the region.