The Region: Why charisma is not enough

Before Obama learns the ropes, Iran could go nuclear, Lebanon and Iraq could become Iranian satellites, and Hamas could take over the West Bank.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit: )
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
The US presidential election is not - at least not supposed to be - like electing a high school class president. Vague promises, glib speeches and personal popularity shouldn't be enough to gain victory. This should be especially true this year since so many Americans don't seem to think they did such a great job of choosing the last time they voted. All these points go double and more for the Middle East, an area too dangerous and important to deal with lightly. Yet since these debates are so highly partisan there has been a huge amount of distortion and self-interested blather on all sides. So let's sort it out. The first issue must be whom you trust to deal with the Middle East. The question is definitely not Israel, or even Arab-Israeli issues, in isolation. The next American president will face a lot of other problems, too, including, at a minimum: Afghanistan, attempts to take over states, Egypt's post-Mubarak president, Hamas, Hizbullah and Lebanon, Iranian expansionism and nuclear threat, Iraq, oil supply and prices, radical Islamist movements, the stability of relatively moderate Arab regimes, Syria and terrorism. The overriding question is a struggle between a well-organized radical alliance (HISH: Hamas, Hizbullah, Iran, in Iraq both insurgents and radical Shi'ites, and Syria) and a relatively moderate though completely uncoordinated set of states. In addition, there are radical Islamist forces that don't work with the HISH bloc but seek revolution in their own countries. Failure to recognize that reality is extraordinarily dangerous. FACING THIS very tough situation, it is hard to believe that Barack Obama has the experience, understanding or world view to manage the virtually continuous crisis the region faces. The critical point here is not whether he says the "right" things, but whether he understands things the right way. Speaking as an analyst, my main concern is not whether or not Obama is elected, but that if he becomes president he will do the best possible job. The best-case conclusion - a combination of wishful thinking and sober assessment - is that sooner or later he will reach what I will call the default position for US Middle East policy. In other words, he might start out convinced that he can persuade the Iranian and Syrian governments, along with other enemies of the United States, to play nice. Along the way, one hopes, he will learn that this does not work. The main problem is that they don't just object to US policies (or values even, at least if those stay confined to America) but that they rightly see the US as a barrier standing between them and a Middle East filled with Islamist states under their hegemony. ALL PRESIDENTS need to learn in office. In relative terms, though, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain are pretty much ready now. Obama is going to need two or three years. So the good news could be that Obama will eventually understand what needs to be done; and the bad news is what happens during his learning period. Given current trends, it is quite possible that by the time he gains the needed comprehension, Iran will have nuclear weapons, Lebanon and Iraq will be satellites of Teheran, and Hamas will run the West Bank. In addition, conceiving of Obama as naive and appeasement-oriented - not my invention but an inevitable perception in the region - will embolden extremists and make relative moderates rush to cut a deal with what they will see as the winning side. Or, to put it another way, the economist John Maynard Keynes said that in the long run we are all dead. In the Middle East, in the medium-run we will all be in very serious trouble. Aside from the default policy factor there is something quite important but never discussed: the division of labor. Strong criticism of Obama's ideas and positions goes hand-in-hand with friendly efforts to change them. Only because he was hit so hard - and rightfully so - regarding his views on Israel did Obama shift ground, eliminate his most objectionable advisers, and change his talking points. Equally, there are many who praise him and denounce criticism because they want jobs, seek to influence Obama, or want to ensure that he and his supporters don't view certain communities and countries as enemies. If he's going to be president, no one wants to stir up a feud. And it is best to have good people being appointed to important positions. Consequently, both approaches are appropriate behavior, and indeed complement each other. BUT WHILE we are on the subject, let's talk about US-Israel relations. In this regard, there are three basic types of US presidents: • those who see the Middle East in terms of radical versus moderate forces and view Israel as an asset in this struggle. Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush belong in this category. • Conservative presidents who also see the region in these terms but think that Israel is a liability because their priority is on keeping Arab allies like Saudi Arabia happy with Washington - such as Dwight Eisenhower and George Bush senior. Richard Nixon was in this category, but switched when he recognized Israel as an asset in the Cold War. • presidents whose main priority is to reconcile, rather than combat, radical regimes, proving America is friendly and eager to respond to their grievances. So far, only Jimmy Carter fits here. And so far, also, there is every reason to believe that Obama is more likely than not to follow in this path. After all, this is precisely how he views the Middle East. Obama said that one can oppose the Likud viewpoint and still support Israel. True. But note that the Likud, in Obama's sense, has not been in power since 1999. In fact, if this is Obama's view, he should be 100-percent supportive of the current Israeli government. BUT THAT is beside the point. The important issue is not whether one favors a compromise peace agreement, Palestinian state, and territory for peace. The real question is: Who will you blame when this doesn't happen? Remember, Israel has been harshly criticized during the last 15 years (since the Oslo Accords) despite the fact that during 12 of them it followed the policy Obama says he likes. Yet due to the intransigence of Hamas and the continued radicalism, disorganization, incompetence or ambiguity (call it what you will) of Fatah, there is not going to be a comprehensive peace settlement. Would a president Obama conclude that Israel took risks and tried its best, or will he see a need to give the Palestinians, Arab states and even Iran more and more concessions in the belief that this will eventually work? Again, though, the key question here is not US-Israel relations or Arab-Israeli issues, important as they are. The critical test for the next president is to wage a strategic struggle with radical forces that are becoming both stronger and more confident. If you have a vote, it is for you to decide who that should be. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs. His latest book is The Truth About Syria.