Monday, May 23, 2011


President Obama's speech on May 19th, focused on the Middle East and has been portrayed by himself and by some others, as a significant change in U.S. foreign policies towards that region. But essentially it signifies a continuation of very broad American policies but for a significantly changed region. How could an American president not support popular movements claiming to seek democracy? In fact that has been a theme in American foreign policy sine the Truman Doctrine in 1947, up to and including the Bush doctrine and the war in Iraq.

Obama summarized the changed political and social environments as: " . . .people have risen up to demand their basic human rights." This is undeniably true, but what he described is an ongoing process the true nature of which in each of the nations involved, remains to be seen. Although the President proclaimed that ". . .strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore" these are the very "strategies" which are still playing out in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Iran. However, Obama may well be correct that at least in some of these states, the die is cast and ultimately the current authoritarian governments will fall, ostensibly to more populist regimes.
Thus a problem arises with overly optimistic predictions and early promises of political and economic support for as yet undefined new political forces. The populist revolution which overthrew the harshly repressive and U.S. supported regime in Iran in 1979 did not produce an even modestly liberal or democratic government. In the current environment, Obama specifically cited Egypt as the key example of the "new" Middle East. Egypt's importance can't be overestimated. It is the largest Arab nation, controls the vital Suez Canal, and made another general Arab-Israeli war impossible by signing a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

The protestors in Tahrir Square demanding political freedom and economic opportunity stimulated a sympathetic response across the world. But democracy is not part of the political culture of Egypt and a considerable amount of "hope" in Israel and the West accompanies the "change" that is occurring. The Egyptian army remains in control, viable political parties still need to be organized, a new constitution needs to be written and approved, elections need to be held, and the true character of the most organized opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood has still not been determined. In spite of Obama's assertion that ". . . sectarian divides need not lead to conflict", the new populist movement in Egypt includes Muslim attacks on Coptic Christian churches and early reports of the reception Obama's speech received in Egypt described a significant lack of enthusiasm in spite of the President's promise to provide one billion dollars in debt relief and another one billion in loan guarantees.
While it is appropriate for the U.S. to express its support for fundamental human and civil rights in a rapidly changing political environment, going beyond that and promising "partnerships" with governments that have yet to be established could create serious problems in the near future if those governments, when established, adopt policies that are inimical to U.S. interests. Offering significant financial rewards to such governments now, also gives up leverage or incentives that could be applied to influence important policies, both domestic and international, that are important to the region such as reaffirming the peace treaty with Israel and cooperation in efforts to defeat terrorism.

Obama has also used "broad brush" rhetoric which places himself in a contradictory position with our "other" allies, the authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan. "It is the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region" and "support transitions to democracy”, he says. This is very close to a stated position in favor of regime change, if applied to these states.
However, in an apparent unspoken acknowledgement of the real world contradictions between "values" and "interests" he seems to have applied a sliding scale of rejection of the most prominently repressive regional governments. The harshest reaction has been the U.S. participation in NATO's military operations against the Ghaddafi government in Libya. Then there is the recent policy of economic sanctions against the leadership in Syria. Apparently willing to abandon the government of Yemen which appears to have passed the point of no return in terms of the populist uprising, he has simply said President Saleh must go. Obama adopted a somewhat softer his approach towards Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, saying only that "Bahrain must create the conditions for dialogue." and that "Sectarian (Sunni-Shi'ite) divides need not lead to conflict." Saudi Arabia, which is an important regional counterweight to Iran and which controls the largest single portion of the world's oil reserves, was conspicuously missing from Obama's list of "musts" and "shoulds" but the King and his extended family which runs that country and controls its oil wealth, must have taken note of Obama's seemingly new and idealistic foreign policy agenda for the Middle East, and be concerned about the strength of the U.S. relationship.

The President could not ignore the important events in the Arab world and has given the impression of confusion and hesitancy to acknowledge them. Now Obama is reacting to events not leading them in terms of the context of U.S. policy. The U.S. has no choice but to “support” quests for democratic governance as new regimes develop but not before. That is, working to "reform" from the outside, existing sovereign governments with whom we share mutual interests would be folly unless those governments were teetering on the edge of dissolution, as in the case of Egypt, Libya and Syria.
In his speech, Obama essentially read the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to the world:

"The United States supports a set of universal rights. And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders -- whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran."

Such "support" is not a major change in the world view of American presidents. George Bush based his invasion of Iraq on these same principles and has been attacked by political liberals and right wing libertarians ever since. It is the application of these principles and the configuration of the "support" along a reality based spectrum from rhetoric, to diplomatic pressure, economic assistance or the denial of that assistance, political or economic assistance to resistance groups to the overt use of military resources, as in the case of Libya, that is important. A "one size fits all", "values vs. interests", vs. political reality, based foreign policy should not be implied or imposed. The lessons of Iraq loom large in this respect.

Much controversy has been generated by Obama's specific inclusion of the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in his speech. The President has been accused of derailing that process by asserting that negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories. A reality check in this respect is appropriate.

First, there is currently no Israeli/Palestinian peace process underway. The history of the current Israeli occupation is instructive with respect to Israel's position on the geographical conditions for a settlement.

After two general wars (1948 &1956) against a coalition of Arab countries, the Israel government in 1967 reacted to massive military buildups by Egypt and other Arab nations along its borders by a highly successful pre-emptive attack which became known as the Six Day War. The outcome included the occupation of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip, Syria's Golan Heights, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem which were controlled by Jordan. All of these territories were occupied for strategic/ defensive purposes to provide geographical buffers in the event of future hostilities. The Sinai Peninsula was later returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty. The Golan Heights was retained in the face of ongoing political hostilities with Syria. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2009. However, since 1967 Israel has remained in control of the West Bank and has since made all of Jerusalem its capital.

As Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pointed out in response to President Obama’s assertion, the 1967 borders are not defensible. A look at a map of the region confirms Netanyahu’s claim that Israeli territory opposite the territory of the West Bank is only “nine miles wide”.

Obama's stated position regarding 1967 borders reflects that of many supporters of the Palestinians and the Palestinian leadership itself at times during the negotiating process since the Six Day War. Palestinian supporters cite UN Security Resolution 242 (1967) as the governing authority which they interpret as requiring full Israeli withdrawal. However, the Resolution also requires security for the Israeli state and the withdrawal provision has been subject to interpretation. During the Clinton Administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the U.N. Security Council:

"We simply do not support the description of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 as 'Occupied Palestinian Territory'. In the view of my Government, this language could be taken to indicate sovereignty, a matter which both Israel and the PLO have agreed must be decided in negotiations on the final status of the territories. Had this language appeared in the operative paragraphs of the resolution, let me be clear: we would have exercised our veto. In fact, we are today voting against a resolution in the Commission on the Status of Women precisely because it implies that Jerusalem is "occupied Palestinian territory".

So it is hard to understand why President Obama would choose to adopt such a position. He has essentially made it U.S. policy to establish an unacceptable pre-condition to negotiations which Netanyahu's Likud Party will never accept. He seems to once again be motivated by his fixation on extending the hand of friendship to Arab/Muslim nations without any kind of mutuality.

Obama said there is a "deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world" that needs to be reversed.” That may be true but not at the expense of relationships with valuable allies.
Legalistic debates aside, Netanyahu has pointed out that the real world situation on the ground has changed significantly since 1967. As part of their efforts to expand defensible borders, Israel has built large numbers of settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. There are now approximately 300,000 Israeli citizens living in the West Bank and another 200,000 living in East Jerusalem. This presents a physical and political fact of life that makes it obvious that the 1967 borders are obsolete.

Obama mentioned land swaps to accommodate these existing settlements, but if adopted as a strategy it will be a tortuous process requiring demonstrable good faith on the part of both parties to achieve a final settlement. This now has been made almost impossible since the two Palestinian factions, Fatah which controls the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas which controls Gaza, have announced a "unity government". Hamas is considered a "terrorist organization" by the United States and the European Union and still refuses to accept Israel's right to exist, making them an unacceptable negotiating partner in the effort to establish a Palestinian state on Israel's borders.

Obama has made a serious diplomatic error which will make his decision on the Palestinian Authority's upcoming attempt to get the United Nations to declare Palestine a state potentially contradictory. The Obama Administration is expected to veto that effort in the Security Council but that position will negate any support he may have thought to gain in the Arab world by adopting the impossible goal of pre-1967 political borders for any new Palestinian state.

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