Just Call Him OyBama

Barack Obama. Berlin, 2008.

As the United States moves toward elections, we’re facing a grim future in the Middle East. Not only do electoral politics dictate that nothing positive is likely to come from Washington for the next five months. November’s poll holds little promise for the next four years, no matter who the victor is.

The Obama Administration has little to be proud of in its Middle East policy. It has not promoted democracy in the region. It has presided over the most hopeless period of the Israel-Palestine conflict ever, and it has seen Turkey and Israel drift far apart amid extreme diplomatic tensions. It has continually tolerated human rights abuses from allied oil-rich dictatorships, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, while causing a great deal of destruction with its favorite toys, drones, in pursuit of the “war on terror” in Yemen. Obama’s first term in office has been characterized by craven kowtowing to AIPAC, which hasn’t worked. Neither has he quelled right-wing hysteria over his Middle East policy. His relationship with Israel is the most rocky of any American President since the elder Bush. Is it any wonder his management of the Israel portfolio is such a failure?

That’s not likely to change in a second term. If he wins,  Obama will want to cement a legacy. Foreign policy is not the place he is likely to do it. But he needs Congress, at least that part of it that is controlled by his own party, to try. And while Obama and the Executive Branch of the US government can be much more resistant to AIPAC and the various lobbying groups it directs, Obama will continue to have to make unpleasant compromises. Especially in a post-Citizens United world, congressmen will take their cues from AIPAC – except for those, largely Republicans, who will be more beholden to Christian Zionist lobbying groups, like Christians United for Israel (CUFI.)

The one thing we can say about Obama, though, is this: things would have been worse under John McCain and will be so if Mitt Romney wins.

Say what you will about Obama, but he has at least resisted the strong push for an attack on Iran, knowing the disaster that it could well bring about. Such was certainly not the case with George W. Bush, who had not only Dick Cheney at his side, but a cadre of neoconservatives calling the foreign policy shots. Romney promises to be little better on this score. Those who believed that Bush couldn’t be that much worse than essentially continuing the Clinton regime with Al Gore were proven tragically wrong. And the same is true today.

Obama has many failures on his resume in the Middle East, and virtually all of them can be traced back to our “special relationship” with Israel. It is, however, fair to say that in many cases, Obama really hasn’t had any good choices, especially after even the meager pressure he put on Israel over a settlement freeze nearly put the fundraisers in his party into open revolt. Indeed, given the ongoing constraints on Capitol Hill, it is hard to see too many good options here that one can imagine Obama taking.

Let’s take a look around the region.


The biggest concern of the moment is clearly Iran. With Russia and the United States standing on different sides of the issue, Tehran is no more inclined than Washington to make the sort of concessions that would lead to a resolution. The collapse of the talks in Moscow was expected. It means the major sanctions slated to start in July could be unavoidable. While virtually all military leaders, including in the US and Israel, consider an attack on Iran unwise, politicians continue to push toward war.

Still, both American and Israeli intelligence continue to maintain that the casus belli, an Iranian decision to actually build a nuclear weapon, has not occurred. Without that, concern over the repercussions of an attack will, I believe, be sufficient to stave off the neo-conservative and AIPAC-driven push toward yet another self-defeating armed conflict.

Nevertheless, it will continue to be a concern until November. It’s no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prefers a Republican in the White House, despite the fact that Obama has raised US-Israeli military cooperation to unprecedented heights and, while less gushing in his public statements than his immediate predecessor, has actually been even more accommodating to Israeli desires than any president before him. Your AIPAC dollars at work, as many peace advocates have consistently pointed out.

Shepard Fairey reproduction. New York, 2008.

If Bibi decides that complaining about a lack of American military action against Iran could help defeat Obama, he might just do it. Despite the fact that Netanyahu seems to have been convinced by his own military that an attack on Iran is too risky, he might gamble that Obama won’t launch an attack, but would be harmed in the election by an Israeli portrayal of him as weak.

All of this adds up to a situation where a military campaign against Iran is being resisted, but that resistance is fragile and a sudden shock, in a region where unforeseen developments are the norm,  could send events spiraling out of control and steamrolling towards war. Wth or without an attack on Iran, this issue is likely to be one that Obama is not going to come out looking good on.

Rightly so. His actions have not appeased the hawks. However, on the other hand, Obama has not shown the leadership required to calm the US public down on the issue. It’s the worst of both worlds.


Obama miscalculated badly in releasing US aid to Egypt in March. By granting the funds, Obama squandered the most important asset he had to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) into allowing democratic reforms to move forward. With the recent decision to nullify parliamentary elections and dissolve Egypt’s first freely-elected Parliament, SCAF has gone a long way to reversing the gains of last year’s revolution.

Statements yesterday seemed to indicate that Obama was considering threatening the aid again, but there would have been much more pressure before SCAF took their recent actions had the President not acted so hastily and forced SCAF to reveal their intentions.  The US, which was seen, correctly, in Egypt as being less than enthusiastic about the revolution in Egypt from the start, is continuing to see its image erode. There is little taste in Washington for a government in Egypt led by Muslim groups.

Egyptian supporter. Aswan, 2008.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood is very likely being truthful when it says it doesn’t intend to nullify the peace treaty with Israel, there can be little doubt that a Brotherhood-led government will have much colder relations with Israel than Hosni Mubarak did, or the SCAF would. That’s going to cause major headaches for the Americans. In the US, when it comes to the Middle East, what is most sought is stability, even while its own actions often make such a goal harder to achieve. A Muslim-led populist government in Egypt doesn’t fit into that scheme.

The US would probably prefer Egypt’s Supreme Council to craft a “democratic” government that would continue to be controlled by the military in a more subtle way. There is some indication of this thinking in the lack of criticism of the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court, which nullified the elections and which is packed with people appointed by Mubarak, and so are naturally attuned to the SCAF.

But, given the way things are going now in Egypt, a Supreme Council, or SCAF-affiliated government, would be little different from the Mubarak dictatorship, albeit with a minor role for the Muslim parties. And current US policies are creating an atmosphere of resentment toward it in Egypt. Yet Obama has few options, given the near-terror felt on Capitol Hill once it became apparent that Muslim parties were likely to be the people’s choice.


The problems in Syria are numerous, and, like in Egypt, it is not at all clear that Washington is anxious to see Bashar Assad fall. The Syrian opposition is a hodgepodge and it is not at all clear what would emerge in Syria should the government be toppled. As much as Washington wants to see Iran’s staunchest ally get his comeuppance, the uncertainty surrounding the Free Syrian Army, and the extent to which Salafist groups are part of the resistance, is certainly giving many people pause in both Washington and Jerusalem, despite the sometimes fiery rhetoric.

In Lebanon, the security situation is gradually declining, as Hezbollah’s support for the Assad regime is widening existing sectarian gaps, and, as is typical in Lebanese politics, there are a lot of self-serving actions behind calls for national unity. In both countries, there is a limit to what the US can or should do, especially on its own, and there seems to be little appetite anywhere for direct intervention in Syria, although it would not be surprising to see some response to calls for international intervention if the situation persists through the summer.

The Palestinians

There has been almost no mention of the Palestinians for some time, and there likely will be very little until the election. Unfortunately, letting this simmer, especially given the death of the two-state Oslo process, is very dangerous.

Obama has allowed Israel to finish the job of making a viable Palestinian state virtually impossible. The US right has already come up with their own idea of how to move forward – Israeli annexation of the West Bank while still giving Israel full latitude to “address its security concerns,” which, in effect, means instituting permanent apartheid. Obama and his supporters need to come up with their own genuinely democratic alternatives.

A Future Policy

Assuming an even greater disaster is averted and Obama wins re-election, he can no longer afford to continue without a Middle East policy, beyond granting the Israeli government whatever it wants. Indeed, Israel has wisely kept to itself regarding the turmoil in neighboring countries. That, however, is a luxury the United States cannot afford. Its reputation in the region, already tattered, is now getting increasingly soiled to boot.

Some have expressed hope that in a second term, Obama might be more decisive when it comes to Israel. I find this highly unlikely; Obama knows full well that taking on a “bought and paid for” Congress means sacrificing his ability to move other things forward that are more important both to him and to his constituents. But that doesn’t mean that the President has to completely cave in, like Congressmen and Senators who don’t face term limits do.

One thing is clear: If he is reelected, Obama has to come up with a coherent Middle East policy. If he fails to do so, his second term is very likely to be marred by much uglier foreign policy failures and an even more severe drop in US influence in the region. Truth be told, that might not be such a bad thing.

 Photographs courtesy of Matt Ortega (#1,) racoles (#2,) and Heather Wilson (#3.) Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Obama failed to grab the bull by its horns, to cut the Gordian knot and to impose a solution on the I/P conflict when he had the mandate to do it right after his election and with a Democrat Congress. Whether it was inexperience or being a pushover, the last chance to see a solution has slipped by and which for good part of it accounted for the so-called Arab spring, as the issue of Palestine cannot be underestimated in the hearts of the Arab masses.

    The Arab world will continue to be in shambles, Israel has absolutely no interest in ending the occupation as Abbas is effectively doing the job of policing the Palestinians and repressing dissent, the settlements will continue, Iran will continue to be brutally sanctioned even if they empty their pockets and turn them inside out, AIPAC will continue ruling Congress and the US will continue supporting dictatorships in the Middle East as by definition, any true democratic regime in the Arab world is bound to be anti-imperialist and anti-American, in large part because of America’s support for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and its active participation in the oppression of Palestinians.

    Yes, there is little reason to be hopeful, but on the other hand, we cannot foresee events so who knows…

  2. Sometimes, when a total vacuum occurs in foreign policy, an opportunity to present an out-of-the-box solution emerges. Inside both Palestine and Israel are those creative thinkers under the radar screen who see an opening, a space for new thinking.

    The time is now to seize that initiative.

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