Papa’s got a brand new bag

What’s an American president to do once he’s secured a historic reform at home?

By STEFANIE GARDEN
March 26, 2010 17:25
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama.

Obama serious 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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United States President Barack Obama managed this week to do what no American president has been able to do in over 100 years – reform the country’s health care system.

The health care plan has been a point of serious contention among Americans, fueling a bitter debate that will undoubtedly last for years as the different stages are gradually implemented. Obama’s plan has left many Americans confused and many others ecstatic, but while the changes proposed in the bill are of a domestic nature, the political aftermath of its passing will be felt globally, particularly in the Middle East.

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The man who made history with his presidential election has once again made history with a health care reform bill. Domestic issues? Check – and with 1,030 days left to go! What’s an American president to do once he’s secured such a victory at home? Tackle the Middle East, of course.

Every American president since Eisenhower has sought to distinguish himself through his own version of a Middle East policy. It seems that the ultimate legacy for any US president is to have brought peace to what the Western world considers the most volatile and hostile region in the world. I say “considers,” as the West still seems largely unaware of the entire African continent. Obama will be no different. If anything, the level of confidence this major domestic victory has granted him puts him in a unique position to change the face of US Middle East policy forever, particularly toward Israel.

SINCE HIS election, Obama has made his position on key Israeli issues clear, particularly his opposition to the expansion of settlements – not an unusual official stance for the American presidency, but something Israel has managed to work around. Until now.

Surely the past week has been somewhat humiliating for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Having been in this business longer than Obama, Netanyahu’s political career has been typified by the cozy relationship Israel has enjoyed with the United States under presidents like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Gone are the days when the Israeli prime minister had a direct line to the American president, the days when the Israeli leadership could sleep soundly at night knowing that no matter what, at least the US was behind them. Sure, there have been tensions between the two countries before, but as Examiner columnist Jim Kouri expressed this week, what is particularly telling is that “this is a president who bowed to a Saudi king, who has repeatedly held his hand out to Iran only to have his face slapped in response, and who has regularly suffered the slings and arrows of insults from Russia, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, to name a few. For whom does he reserve his anger, toughness and vehemence? For Israel, the only reliable ally we have in the Middle East.”



WHY THE hostility? What happened to the “special” relationship with which Israel has gotten so – perhaps too – comfortable?

It looks as though the Obama administration is operating under a misguided belief that by pressuring Israel into a full-blown settlement freeze, the Arabs will respond favorably by taking significant steps toward normalizing relations with Israel. A naïve and deeply flawed take on the Arab-Israel conflict to be sure, but if the Netanyahu government believed that Obama’s lackluster first year in office meant his presidency could just be waited out, this health care victory must have been a nasty surprise.

Obama has successfully cemented his position as a strong leader and a powerful negotiator domestically. How far this course can take him abroad remains to be seen, but who among the world’s leaders wants to take on an American president who is currently 2-for-2 when it comes to making history?

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