The Region: Is Obama a pragmatic politician or ideologue?

To be reelected, he’ll need to make major foreign policy shifts – among them: quit bashing Israel.

November 8, 2010 21:58
4 minute read.

BARRY RUBIN. (photo credit: courtesy)


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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 domestic issues.

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 man.

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One more time for Giuliani, and lets say good bye to Obama

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.

Of 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.

BUT 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 year.

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 election.

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.

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