The Obama effect on the Middle East

When Lebanon’s elections went to a pro-West coalition last week, hopes were soon raised in the western media that Iranian voters would choose a similar patch and oust incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad from office. While still hotly contested, it would appear the election will instead leave Iran with the status quo. There was similar anticipation ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech that he might use the opportunity to respond to the initiative Obama launched in Cairo. His speech fell short of what Obama asked and it has been widely panned in both Gaza and the West Bank by the Palestinian leadership. The pessimists about peace in our lifetime are certainly reinforced by the events of the last 48 hours.

Already, Republican spokespersons like Representative Mike Pence are calling on Obama to move away from what he called “the olive branch and apology”-strategy to a more hardline stance. In other words, go back to the approach and policies of the Bush-Cheney years. Others are concluding that there is no Obama effect in the Middle East. This morning, the New York Times editorialized that Ahmadinejad may now have a stronger hand. Soon, opinion leaders will surmise that Obama may have to change course. I disagree.

Change never comes easy. In the Middle East, it is made more complicated by religious and political struggles with biblical origins. Recent history is not encouraging—we have moved from war to occupation to terrorism and to aborted peace processes. That Obama tried so early in his presidency to break the cycle is change in itself. Furthermore, the weekend’s events show that Iran is changing and the West would be wise to let the universe unfold as it should. It is time to be patient and wise instead of acting in haste.

With 70% of the population under 30 and with the pervasive effect of technology, it is reasonable to expect that Iran is on an inevitable course of change. In remembering Tiananmen Square last week, there were questions about the impact it had. One thing is sure: China is far from a liberal democracy, but it is far different from what it was 20 years ago. The involvement of Iranian youth took the Supreme Leader Khamenei and the religious/political elite by surprise, which may account for the results, the credible doubts about the outcome and the harsh reaction from the authorities. But make no mistake about it, this election was not a marginal event.

As for the Israeli Prime Minister, I believe he went as far as he could given the circumstances. I am not a big Bibi fan, but recognition of a Palestinian state, no matter what limits he would want to impose on it, is a significant step forward. What more could he do with a fragile coalition, especially when the very neighbour he is being asked to appease still questions Israel’s right to exist and has not rejected the use of terrorism? There is no doubt that Israel outlined a negotiating position and not a final outcome scenario.

Israeli leaders are in wait-and-see mode to evaluate the Obama effect in the Arab world: is Obama succeeding in giving voice to the Arab youth of the streets or the moderates in the political world? No president has gone as far or has appealed so openly for transformational change in the region. This brand of change will require attitudinal and rhetorical changes by all concerned in the region. It will not come easy. But if peace is a shared goal, then it is too early to conclude the Obama effect is a failure.

Obama may be a novice on the world stage but he has proven himself to be a hard-nosed pol. He may appeal to idealism in his oratory, but his actions speak more of realism and pragmatism. His team in the region includes Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, George Mitchell, Rahm Emanuel, Dennis Ross and others who are capable, savvy advisors and operatives. The challenge for Obama will be to resist naysayers at home who will do their best to undermine the American people’s support of his efforts—opponents like Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity. Until now , Obama has resisted responding to those in doubt or those who criticize. He must continue that kind of leadership. If he is to have any lasting effect on the Middle East, he will have to stay the course he outlined .

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.