(photo credit: courtesy)
What effect will the congressional elections have on US foreign policy, and on
Middle East policy in particular? It isn’t a matter of individual candidates,
since nobody lost or won who will have a big influence on US policy in the next
couple of years. The important factor is to what extent the White House hears
the message delivered by the electorate, which is largely concerned with
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Will a Republican majority in the House of
Representatives force a shift, since the White House really controls foreign
policy? This brings us to the central issue: Is President Barack Obama
pragmatic, or is he an ideologue with no grasp of the real world? After almost
two years we are still asking because very little is really known about this
If Obama is a pragmatic politician, he will take note of three
things. First, his foreign policy has not won great applause from the American
people. Second, his foreign policy has not won great applause – at least
outside Western Europe – from foreign leaders. Third, his foreign policy
has not resolved any issues.
In addition, much of his policy in the
Middle East has actually failed, certainly regarding Israel-Palestinian issues,
Lebanon and Syria.
Regarding Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, one can argue
that he has succeeded in putting on tougher sanctions, withdrawing US troops and
continuing the war against the Taliban. This success, however, may be
deceptive. Iran is hurt by the sanctions, but is still racing toward nuclear
weapons. Iraq is in crisis, with no government, continuing violence and growing
Iranian influence. The government in Afghanistan is teetering between collapse
and some kind of poisonous deal with the Taliban.
Here, though, we see
the secret of Obama’s Middle East policy, which has worked relatively well for
him at home: try to maximize quiet and minimize conflict. What many have failed
to recognize is that by appeasing, flattering and engaging, Obama has avoided
any open confrontation. This makes it possible to tell the American public that
things are going well, that they are not hated, and there is no new war looming.
Meanwhile, the US has been lucky to avoid a new catastrophic terror attack. It
is possible to argue credibly, then, that things are going okay.
course, the problem with this approach is that a crisis postponed is a crisis
intensified. As Iran moves toward nuclear weapons, as the radicals advance, as
Lebanon is lost, as the Turkish regime joins the enemy and Hamas is made secure
in the Gaza Strip, the US position in the region deteriorates.
RETURNING to Obama, the question is whether he will act pragmatically, or be
deaf to information and act as an ideologue. We will only know next
It is hard for me to believe that Obama and his administration will
act in a suicidal manner, but it could happen. One concern is the policy
process. After all, if Obama is going to change course, someone on his team is
going to have to persuade him to do so.
Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton can’t do it because she is a political rival. Secretary of Defense
Robert Gates can’t do it because he’s distrusted as a Bush carryover, and is too
much of a careerist to speak out. This leaves the White House staff – the most
ideological yet internationally inexperienced sector of the
government. The national security adviser is now a “yes-man” who isn’t
going to persuade the president of anything.
At some point, there might
be a political operative who will say: If you are going to be reelected, you
must do things differently. That man could be David Axelrod, architect of
Obama’s rise, who is now working on his reelection. It is hard to imagine anyone
else capable of turning Obama around unless he himself decides that major
foreign policy shifts are needed.
The word “pragmatic” here means that he
will take note of failed policies and adjust them. The word “politician” means
he will not follow the unpopular course of bashing Israel. He will also want to
avoid looking foolish by promising to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons and
failing, for example, or by pledging a quick solution to the Israel-Palestinian
issue and failing.
The goal of this new realism, of course, would be his
reelection in 2012.
It is a measure of Obama’s unpredictability that the
above cannot be taken for granted. He may really believe he is destined to bring
about an Israel-Palestinian “solution.” But how? By trying to impose a
settlement? By recognizing a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence?
Who can say?
Equally, he can continue to ignore Syria’s behavior, Turkey’s
regime, Lebanon’s drowning and the Arab loss of faith in a strong, protective
America. The interesting question, then, is whether the foreign policy
disaster will be clearly visible before or only after the 2012
How many Barack Obamas do you need to change a light bulb? Only
one, but he has to want to change it.The writer is director of the
Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of Middle East Review
of International Affairs Journal and Turkish Studies.