The Region: Radical regimes rethink Obama

Their initial enthusiasm is tempered by strategical considerations.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
Everybody in the Middle East faces the challenge of how to deal with President Barack Obama, a decision with huge implications for the next four years. The radicals praised Obama during the campaign and some even tried to help him. On the eve of the vote, however, they reconsidered their enthusiasm for three reasons:
  • First, the radical regimes and revolutionary movements need anti-Americanism to maintain their popular support and distract from their failures.
  • Second, they are starting to distrust Obama. The closer he comes to the White House, the more he dons the institutional mantle of America rather than the personal clothes of an individual. Won't he, then, be like all the rest? Pushed by criticism, Obama took a stance more favorable to Israel, tougher against America's enemies and stronger for the preservation of US interests. His sincerity is irrelevant; what's important is whether he and his team calculate such positions are vital now to avoid political problems, embarrassing mistakes, and/or a reelection defeat.
  • Third, the radicals believe that Obama is weak - which may well be true - and aggressiveness for them is a no-lose policy. They can both advance their interests and get more American concessions - simultaneously. Indeed, the nastier they sound, the more Obama will be scared. THE ALTERNATIVE is to welcome Obama, negotiate with him, and get concessions from an American president eager to please. Getting others to like us is important, Obama said. Fine, they will now present their bill for smiling at America. This technique of pretending to be conciliatory and moaning, "I'm a poor misunderstood moderate" was developed brilliantly by Yasser Arafat. Indeed, if he had not received the Nobel Prize for Peace, Arafat should have received one for acting. Even Hamas is catching on, though its performance is probably too little, too late. When nine European members of parliament sailed into Gaza to express their opposition to anti-Hamas sanctions - as opposed to any opposition to Hamas terrorism, rockets, teaching little children to blow themselves up, or anti-Semitic diatribes - here's what Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader, said: "Our ties with Iran are like those with other Muslim states. Does a besieged people that is waiting breathlessly for a ship to come from the sea want to throw the Jews into the ocean? Our conflict is not with the Jews, our problem is with the occupation." As President Abraham Lincoln famously remarked, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Fortunately, Western gullibility does have its limits, and besides, perhaps more important, misplaced humanitarian impulses can be directed at Hamas opponents Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) it runs on the West Bank. At any rate, given its own ideology and internal politics, Hamas will take the tough route, not giving much opening for Obama. THE IRANIAN government now seems to have decided on an anti-Obama line. It really does believe most of its own rhetoric. Teheran could have insisted that it was eager for conciliation. Of course, this would have been hypocritical, a strategy to lure Obama into massive concessions. But if Obama is going to withdraw from Iraq any way and will be less tough than his predecessor regarding Iran's nuclear program, why give up anything? In contrast, Syria has a different approach, though one not jeopardizing its close alliance with Iran. It offers a deal: we will restrain Hizbullah and "allow" America to withdraw from Iraq if you grant us hegemony over Lebanon (as US governments did in the past), stop the sanctions, and give Damascus various economic goodies. Peace with Israel? Well, no, not interested. But if you really want - and are willing to pay us for it - we will talk indirectly with Israel and pretend to be seeking a deal. WHAT OF the PA? The first thing it needs, and will get, is US support for "President" Mahmoud Abbas unilaterally extending his own term in office. (If Hamas names its own "president" that gives the West another incentive to sustain sanctions against it.) The PA is also doing a better job of policing - though not governing - the West Bank which ensures continued Israeli support and the flow of Western aid money. With an administration in Washington more eager for a successful peace process than the PA itself, Abbas should have an easy time getting along with Obama. To what extent he can get Obama to pressure Israel for more concessions, in response to which he would supposedly make peace but never will, is an open question. He probably won't get too much. But hotels in the Holy Land should start raising their rates because large numbers of American envoys will be arriving on futile missions. The biggest dilemma is faced by the more moderate Arab states which will have the horrible experience of getting what they said they wanted. Or, to paraphrase William Shakespeare's great opening speech for Richard III - you won and now's the time to be discontented. Unhappy with the American presence in Iraq? "Good news," the Americans are leaving. Publicly proclaiming you don't see Iran's nuclear weapons drive as a threat? No worries, the United States will ease up. Angry at the previous president's "saber-rattling"? Great, Obama doesn't want ever to use force, even to protect you. Oh, it is all going to be very interesting. One can only hope that it isn't going to be very bloody. The writer is director of Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA).