Barack Obama's middle east: pragmatism and hope

Robert G Rabil
3 June 2009

President Barack Obama is expected to address the Arab world by delivering a speech on 4 June 2009 in the most populous Arab state, Egypt. The event is important for the United States in two main ways: as a continuation of the slow work (begun to a degree in the president's visit to Turkey on 6-7 April) of rehabilitating the American image in the middle east, and as an attempt to give renewed momentum to the search for a peace agreement in Israel-Palestine that can win regional consent.

Robert G Rabil is associate professor of middle-east politics and director of graduate studies in the political-science department at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (Lynne Rienner, 2003) and Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Praeger, 2006)

Also by Robert G Rabil in openDemocracy:

"Lebanon, Syria, Iran: lessons of Sharm el-Sheikh" (11 May 2007)

"Lebanon divided" (7 August 2007)

"Hizbollah and Lebanon: the curse of a state" (21 May 2008)

The signals may be better than some analysts fear. The meeting between the US president and Israel's prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on 18 May may have ended without any expression of support by Netanyahu for a Palestinian state, but it did hold out the prospect that Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations would resume.

What happened behind the scenes, however, was even more significant. This included Washington's message that it would establish a timetable for talks with Iran, and (confirmed in a message delivered from Israel to the Central Intelligence Agency chief Leon Panetta before Netanyahu's arrival at the White House) Israel's promise not to attack Iran's nuclear plants while the US was engaging with Tehran.

These developments suggest that the Obama administration is laying the ground for a comprehensive and ambitious middle-east policy that attempts to link the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict to a response to Iran's alleged nuclear-weapons efforts. This ambitious and complex agenda raises the question of whether crucial regional realities will allow the administration to set such a course before the policy can take a definite shape.

The Iran-Israel knot

The matter of Iran is crucial. Washington's concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions and its rejectionist middle-east policy long predated Barack Obama's arrival in the White House, but the president's nowrooz (Iranian new-year) message to Tehran on 19 March 2009 is clear indication of his belief that the predecessor administration's policy of "containment without engagement" was not working. Thus, Obama has been paving the ground for direct talks with Tehran following Iran's presidential elections, whose first round is held on 12 June 2009.

Besides attempting to engage Iran, the administration also looks to Syria as a potential vehicle in helping to reduce Iran's support of its proxies Hizbollah and Hamas, and thus neutralise Tehran's influence in the Levant. In line with this broad objective - and reflecting its inclusive policy outlook - the Obama administration has already considered a practical approach toward Syria premised on the objective of weaning Damascus from the Iranian-Hizbollah axis and resuming Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations. 

Jeffrey Feltman (assistant secretary of state for near-east affairs) and Daniel Shapiro (senior director of the National Security Council) have visited Syria twice to probe whether Damascus would play a constructive regional role on a range of issues: curbing the power of Hizbollah and Hamas, restoring political stability to Lebanon, checking jihadi infiltration into Iraq, and resuming peace negotiations with Israel. Washington, in return, would be prepared to mediate the peace negotiations and support a security mechanism under which Israel would relinquish the Golan heights to Syria. Washington would also play a role in supporting Syria's economic development.

Meanwhile, President Obama has been privately trying to build a momentum for peace by embracing an updated version of the Saudi-inspired Arab peace initiative, proposed initially in the Arab League summit in Beirut in March 2002. This could involve support for King Abdullah of Jordan's idea of formulating a comprehensive plan in which the Muslim world would recognise Israel - an initiative Netanyahu may find hard to resist if pressed by Obama to force a two-state solution on his government.

The regional challenge

The contours of the United States's emerging middle-east plan reflect impressive ambition. The plan may also appear, on closer examination, unrealistic - especially because the security concerns of some Arab countries are not yet fully accommodated.

Egypt, for example, strongly feels that the Obama administration should formulate a policy in concert with them to contain rather than engage Iran. In Egypt's view, Iran and its proxy Hizbollah have already made a key move by threatening Cairo's national security in its effort to sway regional politics in the direction of "resistance" against Israel and western influence in the region. In the wake of the arrest of a Hizbollah cell in Egypt that may (according to the Egyptian government) have been trying to carry out terror acts on its soil, Cairo has waged a furious and unprecedented propaganda campaign against Iran and Hizbollah. It's inconceivable that Egypt would genuinely support Obama's plan if its concerns about Iran are not addressed.

Syria too has its own strategic concerns, and Damascus's reluctance to sever its relationship with Iran or Hizbollah makes the idea of weaning Syria from either highly unlikely. Each link offers Syria a strategic depth in the region that was lost in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 and the fall of the Ba'ath regime in Iraq in 2003. In consequence, it is impractical to expect that Damascus might be able either to check Hizbollah's power in Lebanon or its regional reach.

What Damascus would prefer to do is to persuade Washington to engage Hizbollah (and Hamas) in addition to Iran, and act as a mediator among the three parties. In fact, this approach has been gaining traction in Europe among other circles. For example, Britain may list Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation, but this did not stop a Hizbollah parliamentary deputy from being invited to address members of the House of Commons in April 2009. 

The unintended consequence of generic engagement will no doubt alienate Binyamin Netanyahu's government, for its agenda goes against the grist of engaging Hizbollah or Hamas - neither of whom recognises Israel.

It is no less important for President Obama to repair Washington's strained relations with the Arab world than to unequivocally support human rights and civil-society organs there. Even more so how to mobilise the Arab world to bridge the divide between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Palestinian Authority-led West Bank.

The diplomatic test

The tense political landscape of the middle east means that the Barack Obama administration needs to formulate its comprehensive middle-east policy based less on a hopeful "grand plan" than on practical measures whose effect is positive and accumulative across the region. The idea of engaging Iran is sensible, but this should include a timetable with benchmarks that assess Tehran's intentions - in part to prevent what might otherwise become a crisis with Egypt, the Europeans and Israel over defining when "soft diplomacy" has run its course.

In the same way it is prudent to engage with Syria, but the Palestinian-Israeli track should have priority. For in contrast to the recent past, the resolution of the Israeli-Syrian conflict now goes beyond the Golan heights; it now involves Damascus's relationship with Hizbollah, Lebanon, Hamas and Iran. Israel, for its part, is more interested in neutralising the immediate threat from Hizbollah on its northern border by having Syria cut off the overland arms-supply route from Iran to the group's Lebanese heartlands.

President Obama faces a daunting challenge in helping to bring peace and stability to the middle east. The urgency of progress is - or should be - clear to all. The combination of the US president's leadership and communication skills and his practical policies could yet prove the difference between success and even greater regression. 

openDemocracy authors analyse the middle-east kaleidoscope:

Carsten Wieland, "The Syria-Israel talks: old themes, new setting" (27 May 2008)

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Change?" (2 December 2008)

Avi Shlaim, "Israel and Gaza: rhetoric and reality" (7 January 2009)

Paul Rogers, "Gaza: the Israel-United States connection" (7 January 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Egypt's dilemma: Gaza and beyond" (12 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "The failure of force: an alternative option" (16 January 2009)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)

Fred Halliday, "The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Carsten Wieland, "The Gaza war and the Syria-Israel front" (5 February 2009)

Tarek Osman, "The Islamic world, the United States, democracy" (15 May 2009)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon: chronicles of an attempted suicide" (20 May 2009)

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