President Obama at the State Department
Building a New Order In the Mid-East
AS the long suffering oppressed masses in the Muslim world rise up against entrenched autocrats, military and civilian, the world looks on in amazement or bewilderment while the US scrambles to construct a policy to accommodate the changing realities. Given the rapidity and spontaneity of the uprisings that have popped up in twenty countries, threatening to wash entire regimes into the sewers of history in a fortnight, US policy makers are like Alice in wonderland: everything around them is moving so fast they have to run just to stay where they’re at! Under the best of circumstances formulating an effective foreign policy is both a science and a fine art. In the current situation foreign policy wonks are all dancing it the dark alas.
The success or failure of US policy in the Middle East will be largely determined by the ideology of the new regimes that arise from the present turmoil. From what we have been able to glean from the attitudes of many of the protesters, the new leaders of the Arab world will not be as malleable to American concerns as the old regime.
That’s why the charges from Left wing and Black Nationalist circles that the CIA is behind the overthrow of these regimes are absurd! It demonstrates a thorough misunderstanding of the character of the populist revolts sweeping the Islamic countries, and a willingness to believe conspiracy theories no matter how improbable. The US, like everybody else, got caught napping. Now the CIA is everywhere on the ground as nations crumble all over the region. But they cannot predict the future; they are simply trying to gain some measure of understanding as to who is who and what their vision for the new order is.
In the absence of clearly identifiable leaders and well defined ideologies, this is no easy matter. Since each of these situations is unique, there is no cookie cutter policy that can address each crisis. None-the-less the architects of our foreign policy must still find a way to steadfastly pursue American interests in the world, while accommodating the interests of each country with whom we have diplomatic relations.
That’s why everybody stood with bated breath waiting to hear from the President what the new marching orders are going to be. He gave a great speech on Middle East situation that began with a concise historical narrative of the development of the massive upheavals throughout the Arab world that has become popularly known as “The Arab Spring;” a term with poetic resonance but little in the way of specificity.
However there are some underlying themes that resonate through these populist revolts: more personal freedom, an end to tyrannical regimes, and greater economic opportunity. In spite of the absence of clear cut intelligence about the rebels, President Obama enunciated a set of broad based policies that seeks to address these general aspirations:
“First, the United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region. Second, we support a set of universal rights including free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly and association; equality for men and women under the rule of law; the right to practice your religion without fear of violence or discrimination; and the right to choose your own leaders through democratic elections. Third, we support political and economic change in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of the people throughout the region.”
Beyond the allusions to general principles, United States interests in the Middle East region is clear: to guarantee an unimpeded flow of cheap oil; to defeat the militant Islamic Jihadist movement, and the defense of Israel. Historically US policy toward the Arabs has been to march in lock step with the policies of the Israeli government.
In the case of Arab countries that task is made immeasurably more difficult by the fact that we cannot know what their national interests is because they are in the process of radical change and we don’t know what interests will be paramount in the eyes of the new regime. But even so, in some areas no matter how much things change, some issues will remain the same; the Arab Israeli conflict is first among them.
How the US seeks to resolve this issue will be a major factor in determining the extent to which we will have harmonious relations with the Arab world and, given the power of the US Israel Lobby, it could also determine whether the President will be elected to a second term. The amazing reception accorded to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu when he addressed a joint session of Congress earlier today does not bode well for the President’s attempts to find a solution to the festering Arab/Israeli conflict. Netanyahu played the Congress like a like a master fiddler plays the violin.
Bibi received over two dozen standing ovations – more than the President got at his last state of the Union Address – as he trashed the basic negotiating principles enunciated by Mr. Obama just days ago, It was like stabbing our President in the back in the interest of a foreign nation! And it has fairly destroyed the President’s credibility in his dealings with the Muslim world. Furthermore, we may well end up as the only country in the UN to oppose the recognition of the emerging Palestinian nation when the General Assembly votes on the issue later this year.
Rachid Arieikat, the Palestinian Representative at the UN, quickly rejected Netanyahu’s vision for the region. As President Obama hop scotches around Europe like Netanyahu’s errand boy, trying to convince the Europeans to support the American position, the world watches in horror while the possibilities for peace in the Middle East evaporates like snowflakes in a microwave oven.
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 25, 2011