Barack Obama’s triple test

Pervez Hoodbhoy
21 January 2009

The new United States president faces challenges in almost every area of the world. The most urgent and unavoidable are Palestine-Israel, Iran, and Pakistan-Afghanistan.

First, a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel must become Barack Obama's top foreign-policy priority. The longer the Palestinians remain a displaced people, the more dangerous the world becomes. Over time, Palestine has acquired the status of a cause celebre for political Islam and a symbol of America siding with the powerful against the weak. Unless the Palestinians are seen to get a modicum of justice, the entire middle east is doomed to eternal cycles of violence and destruction.

Pervez Hoodbhoy is professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad, Pakistan

Also by Pervez Hoodbhoy on openDemocracy:

"Bizarre new world" (17 September 2001)

"Were we hijacked on 9/11?" (10 September 2002)

"Pakistan: inside the nuclear closet" (3 March 2004)

"The nuclear complex: America, the bomb, and Osama bin Laden" (16 February 2006) - with Zia MianThe fact that there is bitter rivalry between the two main Palestinian movements, Hamas and Fatah, makes the problem ever harder to solve. But as long as the issue of statehood is unresolved and conflict continues, the more Muslim anger over Palestine will mutate into new and still less predictable forms. I estimate that the crushed body of every dead Palestinian child in Gaza, flashed on TV screens across the world, costs the United States about $100 million in terms of the protection it must buy to defend itself against retributive Islamist terrorism.

Second, the US must talk to Iran. As Iran gets closer to making a nuclear weapon, there is a danger that a war of words between Washington and Tehran could trigger a real war is real. The choice as US secretary of state of Hillary Clinton, who made hawkish statements about Iran during the election campaign (echoed in part by Obama himself) on balance increases the danger.

Iran's quest for nukes is dangerous and condemnable, and sanctions are quite justifiable in my opinion. But the United States lacks a moral argument for war, because of its own nuclear stance and in light of the fact that it provided Iran with the country's initial nuclear capability during the Shah's rule. Moreover, the US has to various degrees rewarded several countries that have made nukes surreptiously: Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Before and after more hardline statements on the campaign trail, Obama has offered to negotiate with Iran: a good proposal that he should carry through.

After all, nothing has been gained by rejecting Iran's numerous overtures, from the comprehensive approach suggested by Tehran in 2003 to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President George W Bush in 2006. North Korea's nuclear test in October 2006 also showed that US refusals to hold one-on-one talks only reinforced the problem. By contrast, nuclear negotiations in exchange for oil have partially succeeded in halting the North Korean nuclear developments.

Third, the US must take seriously the impact of "collateral damage" on civilian populations as it pursues the war against Islamists.

Since I am deeply fearful of Taliban successes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I have mixed feelings about Obama's planned "surge" in Afghanistan. But heavy use of airpower has led to large numbers of non-combatant casualties. Often the coalition forces refuse to acknowledge such deaths; when confronted with incontrovertible evidence, they apologise and issue miserably small compensation. This approach swells the Taliban's ranks. If there is to be any chance of containing the Taliban menace, the coalition forces must set zero innocent civilian casualties as their goal.

In relation to the larger global environment, America needs an attitudinal change. It must repudiate grand imperial designs as well as its exceptionalism. The notion of total planetary control through "full-spectrum dominance" guided the previous Republican administration well before 9/11. The Democrats, many of whom later turned against the Iraq war, limit their criticisms to the strategy and conduct of the war, the lies and disinformation dispensed by the White House, suspicious deals with defence contractors - rather than its very conception and underlying attitudes (see Paul Rogers, "The world as a battlefield", 9 February 2006).

Barack Obama must convince Americans of the need to obey international laws and etiquette, that they do not have some divine mission to fulfil and that its sinking economy cannot afford such fantasies now or in the future.

The lengthy political transition in the United States is over. The perils facing the new president are clear. He will need much more than rhetoric to meet them.

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