Can Obama win the Middle East?

Expectations for the new president were high, but the reservoir of goodwill in the Arab world is being drained

Can Obama win the Middle East?

The early reviews were ecstatic. Al Chourouk, an Arabic daily in Tunisia, dubbed the newly elected Barack Obama “The President of the World.” The Jordan Times called him “the American leader we need.” And Okaz, a pro-government paper in Saudi Arabia, found reason to praise not just the man, but the republic for which he stands. “For the millionth time, America disappointed its critics and mocked those who expressed doubts about the truth of its democracy,” read the editorial. “For the millionth time, America proved, by action and not merely words, that it is the country of equal opportunity, social justice, real freedom, and creative democracy.”

Obama’s campaign message of change resonated far beyond the confines of America’s borders. And the millions of Arabs who gathered around television sets in the early hours of Nov. 5 found as good reason as anyone to cheer his victory speech. “All those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world: our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared. A new dawn of American leadership is at hand,” promised the president-elect. But the sky-high expectations that a new man in the White House might help bring an end to the Middle East’s decades-old conflicts are quickly fading as fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip looks to stretch into its fourth week.

“Obama’s election was greeted a little like the Second Coming,” says Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. “But in the Arab world the skepticism is already sinking in. The belief is that if there is a change coming, it won’t be that large.”

What makes good strategy at home—staying out of the fray, and concentrating on the economic crisis in advance of his Jan. 20 inauguration—is rapidly draining Obama’s reservoir of goodwill in the Middle East. Few in the region expected a new American administration to truly alter Washington’s steadfast support of Israel, but some of Obama’s key appointments have raised eyebrows (not to mention the Arab world’s never-far-from-the-surface anti-Semitism). It has not escaped notice that Obama’s hard-driving chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel’s Jerusalem-born father was a member of the Zionist militant group Irgun, and that Rahm held dual citizenship until he was 18. And even the appointment of Dennis Ross, a veteran Mideast peace negotiator for both Bill Clinton and the first president Bush, as Obama’s point man on Iran has drawn fire. “The Arabs believe these people are partisan,” says Ottaway.

A complicating factor is the absence of concrete indications of just how Obama intends to carry out his promised transformation of U.S. foreign policy. On the campaign trail he vowed to seek peace between the Israelis and Palestinians “from the moment I’m sworn into office.” And in her confirmation hearings this week, incoming secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton called for a “strategy of smart power in the Middle East.” But his advisers have made it sound more like a smorgasbord than à la carte, signalling a desire to take a broader, more collaborative approach to a laundry list of Middle East problems—the war in Afghanistan, a fragile regime in Iraq, a surge in Islamic radicalism, and oppressive governments.

“If the Obama administration could show that there are real payoffs for moderation, reconciliation, negotiation, and political and economic reform, it would recoup considerable U.S. influence throughout the region,” Richard Haass, a diplomat under both presidents Bush, and Obama’s rumoured pick for special Middle East envoy, writes in the current issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. In contrast to W.’s election-focused “freedom agenda” (which handed Hamas the keys to Gaza when it won a free and open 2006 vote), Haass and his co-author Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, argue for a “more sustainable balance between U.S. interests and U.S. values.” The right answer for the Middle East’s problems is not shock democracy, they say, but an “evolutionary process of liberalization,” focusing on game changers like judicial independence, freedom of the press and governmental transparency. Above all, they conclude, “the United States needs to focus on supporting efforts to provide a vast and growing young generation in the region with hope for the future and reason to resist the dark visions purveyed by religious extremists.”

To many minds, the most likely departure point for a new U.S. policy in the Middle East will be a rather stale idea—forging a separate peace between the Israelis and the Syrians. For more than a year now, Damascus and Jerusalem have been engaged in Turkish-brokered negotiations that would see the Golan Heights returned in exchange for a full and formal peace between the two states. It’s not the first time that such a swap has been contemplated—current Syrian President Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, came close to signing off on one in the late 1990s—but a deal is reportedly all but done, requiring only signatures. And now, an agreement to bring Syria in from the cold would come with an added strategic benefit for the U.S.: separating Iran from its only real ally in the region.

And while the crisis in Gaza hasn’t improved the atmosphere between Israel and its neighbours—100,000 people took to the streets of Damascus in protest last week—Ephraim Kam, deputy director of Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center and a former senior intelligence officer with the Israeli Defense Forces, says it won’t necessarily derail this agreement. “Unlike the Egyptians and the Sinai 30 years ago, the Syrians have never made the link between the Palestinian problem and the return of the Golan Heights,” says Kam. “The bigger question mark is who is going to be the next prime minister of Israel.”

Indeed, the outcome of the scheduled Feb. 10 Israeli elections may be the single biggest factor in whether Obama will be able to succeed where so many of his predecessors have failed. Before the Gaza offensive was launched, a solid win for the right wing and the installation of Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu as the next PM seemed a forgone conclusion. (When Netanyahu was last in power in the late 1990s, his intransigence in negotiations was legendary. Dennis Ross describes him as “insufferable” in his memoir The Missing Peace.) But the success of the attacks have bolstered the popularity of Defence Minister Ehud Barak and his Labour party, offering the possibility of a more moderate type of coalition government, even with Netanyahu at the helm.

Obama’s most pressing challenge, however, will be the same as George W. Bush’s: Iran. With its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, support of Gaza’s Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and soon-to-be-fulfilled nuclear ambitions, Tehran’s Islamic regime has succeeded in placing itself at the centre of most of the region’s problems. Efforts by successive American administrations to “contain” the ayatollahs have clearly failed. And, for the first time since the 1979 revolution, it may be time to try formal talks, a possibility to which Obama remains open. (There are really no other options on the table. According to a recent New York Times report, Bush and the Pentagon rejected a proposed Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program last fall, denying the IDF both the “bunker bombs” it needed and permission to overfly Iraq.)

Baqer Moin, a Iranian analyst and broadcaster living in London, England, says the Iranians are as eager for change as anyone. “The Americans have always thought that if you corner Iran it will give in. And that’s just psychologically wrong,” he says. “Iran wasn’t a colony, but one of the slogans of the revolution was ‘Independence.’ They would like to be taken seriously as a state.” With the precipitous drop in the price of oil, the Islamic regime is under more economic pressure than ever, notes Moin, and perhaps ready to compromise in exchange for an end to the trade embargo. And even if negotiations fail, they may be to America’s benefit, strengthening the case for more drastic action and building international support.

For a politician who is burdened with such high expectations and faces challenges on so many different fronts, it is possible that Obama’s rhetoric about a “new” direction in foreign policy will remain just that. Certainly, that is the advice he will receive from the bureaucracy in Washington, where the conventional wisdom has long been that a new president shouldn’t waste his capital on the Middle East. Elections are upcoming not just in Israel, but also Lebanon, Iran, and Gaza, offering the possibility of more willing partners down the line. (Although the smart money says the votes will make things more complicated, not less.) And with the Palestinian leadership—the linchpins of a wider peace deal—more divided and weaker than perhaps ever before, the biggest question for Obama might be: “why bother?”

But as with the Gaza crisis, it could be that events force his hand. Or that the new president simply becomes captivated by the promise that has ensnared so many of his predecessors. “There’s been a framework for a peace deal for years,” Moshe Ma’oz, a Hebrew University peace and conflict specialist, says from his Jerusalem home. “If there is goodwill and leadership it can be done in no time.” But Ma’oz has a warning for the new American president. “Here, there is no love. Nobody loves anybody. It is all a matter of self-interest.”

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