Obama’s Middle East moment of truth

Trying to figure out what Barack Obama intends to do in the Middle East is like trying to read the leaves in a cup of tea stirred by Jackson Pollock. For every signal Obama has given that he intends to break decisively with Bush’s failed approach to the Middle East, he has given another that indicates he plans to simply give the same policies a fresh coat of paint.

Obama took what many regarded as a backwards step even before assuming office by appointing Hillary Clinton, who supported the Iraq war and as senator toed the establishment line on Israel, as secretary of state. But then he gave his first presidential interview to the Arabic-language station al-Arabiya and announced that his administration would approach the Arab-Muslim world with a spirit of respect and willingness to listen. He said, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” But then he named as his Iran advisor the right-leaning Dennis Ross, who signed a threatening Iran paper drafted by two hard-line neoconservatives, claimed, in a statement to Congress accompanying his renewal of sanctions against Iran, that the country posed “an extraordinary threat” to the U.S. and gave every indication that he would continue Bush’s failed carrots-and-sticks approach. Obama has ordered a top-to-bottom strategic review of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, but sent 17,000 more troops there and has continued to assassinate militants in Pakistan with missiles fired from Predator drones. He announced that he was winding down the Iraq war, but is doing so at a hyper-cautious pace.

Not surprisingly, Obama’s most contradictory messages concern the most important, and politically radioactive, issue of all: the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. His appointment of the respected negotiator George Mitchell as special envoy for the Middle East was taken as strong evidence that he was prepared to challenge Washington’s blank-check support for Israel. In a major break with the Bush administration’s refusal to deal with Hamas, Mitchell told Jewish leaders that a Palestinian unity government made up of the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority and Hamas would be “a step forward” for peace. Similarly, after Britain announced that it would break with U.S. and European policy by beginning low-level contacts with Hezbollah, an anonymous State Department official told reporters that the U.S. might enjoy some benefits from the diplomatic rapprochement. “We are looking for a comprehensive approach” in the Middle East, the official said. For her part, Secretary of State Clinton, on her first trip to the Middle East, criticized Israeli house demolitions in East Jerusalem, albeit in feeble, Condoleezza Rice-like terms as “unhelpful,” and hinted that the Obama administration was prepared to challenge the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. She also pledged $900 million in U.S. aid to rebuild Gaza after Israel’s devastating 22-day onslaught earlier this year.

All of these developments represent a significant change from Bush administration policies on Israel-Palestine. But the Obama administration’s right hand proceeded to undo what its left one had done. [continued…]

Israeli view of Clinton: “You’ve got to give her credit for one thing. There is nothing new here. The players are the same. The plot is the same. The solutions are the same.”

An Israeli diplomat apprised of Clinton’s recent Jerusalem meeting said that Netanyahu was forthright in telling her that Iran is his top priority.

“Netanyahu brought up Iran,” the Israeli diplomat told Foreign Policy. “He told her it was the be all and end all. And [he said] that there is a reverse link: If [Washington] wants anything to move on the Palestinian front, we need to take head on the Iranian threat, diplomatically, with sanctions, and beyond that.”

Clinton responded, “I am aware of that,” the Israeli diplomat relayed.

“They both had a perfect excuse not to say anything blunt,” the diplomat continued, “Until Iran gets through the elections in June, nothing can be done.”

From the Israelis’ perspective, the timing of Clinton’s visit was a bit premature.

“There was one positive coming out of her decision to come here,” the Israeli diplomat said. “To make sure everyone realizes that a) she is into this topic, b) that the Obama administration will not let it drop in the priorities list.”

“As for substance, there is no policy, which is more or less in a mild way, something she admitted,” in her meeting with Netanyahu, the diplomat said. “Again, not in those very words. She was there to let those there understand that the Obama administration is in an exploration phase. You’ve got to give her credit for one thing. There is nothing new here. The players are the same. The plot is the same. The solutions are the same.” [continued…]

Arab alarm over role for Lieberman

Arabs greeted with alarm the news that Avigdor Lieberman, the controversial far-right politician, looks set to become Israel’s foreign minister, with many suggesting it signalled the death knell for any lingering hopes of reviving the stalled Arab-Israeli peace process.

Arab expectations of any progress on the Arab-Israeli peace process were already slim and had been severely dented by Israel’s war on Gaza and the shift to the right in Israel’s elections. If Mr Lieberman is confirmed as foreign minister it would represent Arabs’ worst fears about the direction they perceive Israel to be taking: Mr Lieberman is regarded in the Arab world as racist towards Arabs and someone who has no intention of making peace with the Palestinians. [continued…]

US torture: voices from the black sites

We think time and elections will cleanse our fallen world but they will not. Since November, George W. Bush and his administration have seemed to be rushing away from us at accelerating speed, a dark comet hurtling toward the ends of the universe. The phrase “War on Terror”—the signal slogan of that administration, so cherished by the man who took pride in proclaiming that he was “a wartime president”—has acquired in its pronouncement a permanent pair of quotation marks, suggesting something questionable, something mildly embarrassing: something past. And yet the decisions that that president made, especially the monumental decisions taken after the attacks of September 11, 2001—decisions about rendition, surveillance, interrogation—lie strewn about us still, unclaimed and unburied, like corpses freshly dead. [continued…]

Pakistani political crisis jeopardizes U.S. regional strategy

Pakistan’s ongoing political crisis, the Obama administration’s first real-time foreign policy emergency, threatens to upend a new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy before it leaves the White House drawing board.

Administration officials are putting the finishing touches on a plan to greatly increase economic and development assistance to Pakistan, and to expand a military partnership considered crucial to striking a mortal blow against al-Qaeda’s leadership and breaking the Pakistani-based extremist networks that sustain the war in Afghanistan. Final recommendations on the new strategy may go to President Obama as early as Friday, officials said.

But the weakness of Pakistan’s elected government — backed into a corner by weekend demonstrations that left its political opposition strengthened — has called into question one of the basic pillars of that plan. [continued…]

What worked in Iraq won’t help Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan is somewhat aggravating and a little surreal. We have been there now for seven years – but I don’t know if the British Government knows why. Do we have a policy? Or are we simply waiting to discover what the Obama Administration wishes to do and go along with it?

This year the US is expected to spend more than $50 billion on military and civilian aid. We are talking big sums but we don’t have a clear account of what we are doing.

When the US invaded in 2001, its objective was to ensure that al-Qaeda could never again build training camps in Afghanistan. That was achieved with relative ease and with a limited number of special forces and intelligence operatives.

By 2002 we were beginning to talk about development. We launched national solidarity programmes, gave money to villages. But over the next two years it became fashionable in policymaking circles in Britain and the US to say that there was no point in focusing on Afghanistan as an arena for counter-terrorism or a recipient of charity – we should be building a state. [continued…]

Thoughts on the death of Rachel Corrie

Today is the sixth anniversary of the death of Rachel Corrie. On March 16, 2003, in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, she was run over by an armor-plated Caterpillar bulldozer, a machine sold by the U.S. to Israel, the armor put in place for the purpose of knocking down homes without damage to the machine. Rachel Corrie was 23 years old, from Olympia; a sane, articulate, and dedicated American who had studied with care the methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. At the time that she was run over, and then backed over again, she was wearing a luminous orange jacket and holding a megaphone. There is a photograph of her talking to the soldier of the Israel Defense Forces, in the cabin of his bulldozer, not long before he did it. None of the eyewitnesses believed that the killing was accidental. Perhaps the soldier was tired of the peace workers; it was that kind of day. Perhaps, in some part of himself, he guessed that he was living at the beginning of a period of impunity.

The Israeli government never produced the investigation it promised into the death of Rachel Corrie (as her parents indicate in a statement published today). The inquiry urged by her congressional representative, Adam Smith, brought no result from the American state department under Condoleezza Rice. Her story was lost for a while in the grand narrative of the American launching of the war against Iraq. Thoroughly lost, and for a reason. The rules of engagement America employed in Iraq were taught to our soldiers, as Dexter Filkins revealed, by officers of the IDF; the U.S. owed a debt to Israel for knowledge of the methods of destruction; and we were using the same Caterpillar machines against Iraqi homes. An inquiry into the killing of Rachel Corrie was hardly likely, given the burden of that debt and that association. [continued…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email