Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Hopefully we are not headed for disaster in Cairo

Barack Obama really feels US positions are more reasonable, he likes using the word modest, than most people in his audience will on Thursday. This gap in perceptions will certainly be accentuated by the speech, and the US will certainly be seen more negatively than before. When Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah give their post-speech criticisms, most Iranians and Lebanese will agree with their co-religionists. Obama does seem to be cautious enough that there will not be a "birth pangs"-level mistake. Instead it will just be a reinforcement of what people in the region already understand to be US policy - which means that it will be a dashing of hope that Barack Obama ever represented a change in US priorities or policies.

Obama recently did an interview with NPR, the US left-leaning National Public Radio:

Norris: You've mentioned many times the importance of reaching out to Iran with an open hand, trying to engage that country. Are you also willing to try to engage with Hezbollah or Hamas, entities that have now had significant gains in recent elections?

Well, let's just underscore a point here. Iran is a huge, significant nation state that has, I think, across the international community been recognized as such. Hezbollah and Hamas are not. And I don't think that we have to approach those entities in the same way.

Norris: If I may ask though, does that change with their electoral — does that change with their electoral gains?

Well, look, if at some point — Lebanon is a member of the United Nations — if at some point they are elected as a head of state or a head of state is elected in Lebanon that is a member of that organization, then that would raise these issues. That hasn't happened yet.

With respect to Hamas, I do think that if they recognize the Quartet principles [referring to the United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations] that have been laid out — and these are fairly modest conditions here — that you recognize the state of Israel without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate, that you abide by previous agreements, that you renounce violence as a means of achieving your goals — then I think the discussions with Hamas could potentially proceed.

And so, the problem has been that there has been a preference oftentimes on the part of these organizations to use violence and not take responsibility for governance as a means of winning propaganda wars or advancing their organizational aims. At some point though, they may make a transition. There are examples of, in the past, organizations that have successfully transitioned from violent organizations to ones that recognize that they can achieve their aims more effectively through political means. And I hope that occurs.

And another interview with BBC:

Justin Webb: Do you regard President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler?

President Obama: No, I tend not to use labels for folks. I haven't met him. I've spoken to him on the phone.

He has been a stalwart ally in many respects, to the United States. He has sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region.

But he has never resorted to, you know, unnecessary demagoging of the issue, and has tried to maintain that relationship. So I think he has been a force for stability. And good in the region. Obviously, there have been criticisms of the manner in which politics operates in Egypt.

And, as I said before, the United States' job is not to lecture, but to encourage, to lift up what we consider to be the values that ultimately will work - not just for our country, but for the aspirations of a lot of people.

These are pretty much the answers the US' opponents would expect from a US president, Obama, Bush, Clinton or anyone capable of being elected. The US positions themselves, without any exaggeration or distortion, are outside of the mainstream of political thought in the region.

Obama will not provoke the amount of anger Bush would have, as Bush would have been more clumsy if he attempted a speech like this, but Bush did something better. He didn't attempt a speech like this. The US seems hypocritical and biased in its policies because US policies are hypocritical and biased, but Obama is clearly if unintentionally delivering the hypocrisy and bias directly to a large Muslim audience.

I expect both Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah to do a little better in their elections this month than if the speech hadn't been given, but the speech will not be a huge issue in either direction.


Ziad said...

Its too early to tell, but I think the U.S. is starting a slow process of shifting policy from Israel to Iran. Today we see Obama mention that Iran has 'legitimate energy concerns' a sign that the U.S. has a much more realistic vision about where negotiations will go. Now I'm reading on the Haaretz ticker that the U.S. is inviting Iranian officials to 4th of July events. Symbolic but very powerful symbol. Not the sort of things one does before a military campaign.

The reason may be that the U.S. is entering a world where it must compete against China and Russia. In such a world, Israel is essentially dead weight, whereas Iran is a potentially very powerful ally.

The transition will be slow and there will be set backs. We will hear about unending support for Israel, military 'options' against Iran and so on. There will be great resistance. But I think Obama will have a lot of establishment support. The James Bakers and Zbig Brzezynskis know how to read and can see the writing on the wall.

Arnold Evans said...

Israel never, in strategic terms, was a good ally for the US. The Shah and Saudis, who are naturally good allies for the US, along with Turkey, aligned with the US despite Israel. US Mid-East foreign policy post WWII would have been a dream if not for Israel, as the US is "people of the book" and the communists were militant atheists. The US alliance with Israel has always been motivated by the power of mostly US Jewish people to skew US policy towards Israel which they feel an intense emotional attachment to.

I think the US, or parts of the US are contemplating a soft-landing away from the US pro-Israel alignment. Hopefully (from their point of view) towards a two-state solution, meaning hopefully both the Saudis and Palestinians will make the calculation Sadat made that the conflict is unwinnable for the Arabs.

Sadat made that calculation, but Egypt did not. And Obama was pressed harder than I expected in both the BBC and NPR interviews about the fact that Egypt is an authoritarian dictatorship. His answer seems to be evolving to, "we're openly OK with pro-US authoritarian dictators if the alternative is anti-Israel parties winning elections". I wonder how close to spelling this position out he'll come on Thursday.

Even during the cold war, facing the USSR with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, the US never admitted that it opposed democracy per-se. Obama is coming close to that in the Middle East. I expect the next leftist US president after Obama to reverse that.

If King Abdullah and Abbas make Sadat's decision, but their people do not - which is the best plausible case for the US, then that changes pretty much nothing in the region, Iran still stands opposed to Israel's legitimacy and the US still has to either abandon Israel or remain in conflict with Iran. And the US will not abandon Israel.

So where I'm going is that the United States is structurally tied to Israel. Jewish Americans are full American citizens who participate in the US political system and have a strong bias towards Israel that will be reflected in US policy for the foreseeable future.

Israel is a drag on US policy world-wide - and there is a small and growing faction of US decision-making that acknowledges this, mostly in the military vs. civilian side of the process - but it is a cost the US has no choice but to bear because of its political system.

Arnold Evans said...

So the US is now making a real try at getting regional acceptance for Israel. When, not if, it fails - because Israel cannot meet any set of conditions that the Palestinians would vote for, or even that Abbas would be willing to attach his name to. The US really has no choice but to return to the status quo under Bush.

The US structurally cannot abandon Israel to a one-state solution and has no choice but to conduct its foreign policy with that hand behind its back - meaning at that self-imposed disadvantage.

But the US does have no choice but to accept Iranian uranium enrichment. The US thrust at this point is that by limiting its enrichment, Iran can remove the uncertainty of a potential military intervention even if no attack is foreseeable right now.

Right now, a possible attack sometime after Iran has somehow lost its leverage in Iraq and Afghanistan is the full extent of US leverage other than Israel-inspired economic sanctions that the US cannot offer to remove.

I wonder how much Iran is willing to trade for that. I wonder if the US and Iran can come close in their estimations of the value of that lever. The US is going to want things Iran is not disposed to give, for example a pledge to never leave the NPT. If the US insists on that, there will not be a deal. Maybe there is some way that issue can be finessed.

To conclude, Obama is not that good from Iran's perspective, but he is the best the US political system is capable of producing. If he accepts enrichment, the next president may or may not feel pressure to undo that acceptance.

The US is almost going to fall with Israel. Iran's decision is should it wait for the US to overextend itself to the point of ineffectiveness - or should it make concessions acceptable to the most anti-Israel administration it will see for some time, even though that administration is still heavily biased towards Israel.

Long term though, interest group politics in the US are growing wider. The pro-Israel bias of US foreign policy is slowly declining but probably will be present to a large degree for as long as the US is an active foreign-policy country.