The Obama Administration and the Middle East

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Obama Administration and the Middle East


Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review


I must begin with a disclaimer: I have no insight knowledge about the present US Administration. The Bush years were those of a neo-conservative cabal whose mindset was clear from the outset. In the present one, it is President Obama's convictions which count. The nuances come from his advisers. They are motivated, like their predecessors, by the need to protect US interests, but the way they approach the task is subtler. In these early days the advisors appear to have differing impulses: some claim that Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, is showing signs of sympathy with the Palestinians but President Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, served as a civilian volunteer with the Israeli Army during the Gulf War in 1991. Yet it is how conviction and practicality mesh together that will produce policy and the process will not always be easy to read. By May the new Administration was moderating some of its campaign rhetoric repudiating the Bush policies about dealing with terrorism. Even the strongly pro-Obama New York Times has said 'Faced with the choice of signaling an unambiguous break with the policies of the Bush era, or maintaining some continuity with its practices, the president has begun to come down on the side of taking fewer risks with security, even though he is clearly angering the liberal elements of his political base' (16 May).

Moreover, my perceptions about the Middle East are really little more than guesses. I have not visited the region for more than ten years and though I served, almost continuously, in it throughout my professional life as a British diplomat, I was never directly involved in what is known as the 'Middle East Problem', the Arab/Israel dispute. There is not much comfort to be gained by knowing that there is already a surfeit of material about the Middle East, new and old. The chief components of the situation have been in place for so long that there now seems little new to say about it. The audience is bored, the actors have spoken their lines so often that they scarcely any longer resonate. Their characters have become stereotypes - and not always attractive ones - and the stage props need a coat of new paint. It is time for a new production. But at least there has been a change of cast.

Every US Administration is urged to grasp the Arab/Israel nettle. Each has tried to do so. Lessons have been learnt and there have been successes about which US diplomacy can congratulate itself. But the secret about grasping nettles, as every country child will know, is that the firmer you hold them the less you will be stung. The recent Bush Administration's grasp was scarcely firm and in consequence it was badly stung, in spite of The 'Road Map' and the Annapolis Agreement. In its eight-year term, Israel had two destructive confrontations, with the Hezbollah in 2004 and with Hamas in 2009. Neither advanced Israel's entirely justifiable determination to ensure the safety of its population an iota. Nor did it do the Palestinian cause much good. Pictures of jubilant militiamen were juxtaposed with those of the suffering populations of South Lebanon, Beirut and Gaza. To the ordinary man these militias did not look particularly heroic. If they were not actually terrorists they came pretty close to what, in most people's eyes, a terrorist is, the same balaclava-ed, black-clothed, heavily-armed young men chanting the same mind-benumbing mantras. The downside of the euphoria - dazed and frightened populations, the tear-stained faces and lamentations of grief, bloodied hospital beds, tense and heavily protected infantry men moving warily past spouting water mains in a landscape of shattered buildings and burnt-out cars to the accompaniment of a stream of casuistry from spokespersons of all sides - has become so much of a commonplace in recent years that no-one can be blamed for thinking it set, as it were, in concrete.

President Obama has promised a new 'aggressive' foreign policy.

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