Edition 43 Volume 6 - November 20, 2024

President Obama and the Middle East II

Lebanon and US foreign policy -   Nizar Abdel-Kader

Lebanon's independence and transition to democracy will be a by-product of an honorable exit strategy from Iraq.

President-elect Obama, Is Turkey western and European? -   Soner Cagaptay

Turkey is the rare country in which anti-western statements actually matter because they help shape people's identity.

Concerns about the region -   Rana Sabbagh-Gargour

Jordan is not perturbed about the future of bilateral relations.

Limited expectations for a central role -   Gamal A. G. Soltan

Egypt is concerned that a hasty American withdrawal from Iraq could cause further deterioration there.

Lebanon and US foreign policy
 Nizar Abdel-Kader

People in Lebanon closely followed the election of Barack Obama as the forty-forth United States president. They now speculate whether his policies will deliver positive changes to their country and to the Middle East as a whole. Mostly, they think that the American president will attempt to master all the dynamics of the games in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq. Many comments in the media assess that the "change" promised during Obama's campaign will affect US behavior toward Iran and Syria as well as Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.

Prominent politicians like Walid Jumblatt describe Obama's election as "an achievement and a sign of a continuous revival of democracy regardless of the position of the Arab world toward US policy in Palestine and in the region". This great achievement comes at a time when many western democracies have become "old" and while the Arab world has not moved forward toward better governance.

The government of PM Fuad Siniora and the March 14 coalition are expressing the hope that Obama will keep backing the legitimate government of Lebanon in its struggle to ensure implementation of the "Cedars Revolution" objectives: to achieve total independence and sovereignty for the country and to ensure justice through the Hariri international tribunal that is expected to start functioning at about the same time Obama takes office.

There are hopes within the March 14 coalition that Obama's policy will be based on some of the promises he made during his campaign: "It's time to engage in diplomatic efforts to help build a new Lebanese consensus that focuses on electoral reform, an end to the current corrupt patronage system and the development of the economy that provides for a fair distribution of services, opportunities and employment." Yet this prescription to solve some aspects of the Lebanese crisis does not represent a clear understanding of the dynamics in Lebanon and especially of the role played by Hizballah inside and outside the government and its key role in Iranian and Syrian designs for Lebanon and the region. Obama ought to recognize that Syria and Iran are not playing a constructive role in Iraq and Palestine and they remain the masterminds behind the violence and the continuous crisis in Lebanon.

In reality, only minor changes in US foreign policy toward Lebanon and the Middle East are expected from the Obama administration in the foreseeable future, particularly in view of the heavy burdens left by the Bush administration, especially regarding the economic situation. There are other more important Middle East issues than Lebanon that will take priority on Obama's agenda, e.g., Iraq, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Lebanon, however, will benefit from a positive outcome on any of these issues.

There is conviction among government officials in Beirut that the basics of US foreign policy do not change very quickly with the change of presidents and that consequently the Bush policy of backing the legitimate government and the Lebanese armed forces will continue. From 2024 to 2024, the US government provided more than one billion dollars in assistance to Lebanon, including nearly $380 million in military aid. It's expected the new administration will remain convinced that Lebanon cannot survive if the US ceases its help to strengthen the Lebanese army. In this regard it is unimaginable that any difference could exist between Obama's and Bush's policies because both reject the idea of Lebanon falling under the hegemony of Hizballah and other Syrian proxies.

The Obama administration should continue backing the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions, with special care to stop Israeli violations of Resolution 1701 that ended 33 days of war between Israel and Hizballah and created a buffer zone between the two belligerents. While the majority of Lebanese agree that US policy toward Hizballah is unlikely to change, the new administration should not pressure the Lebanese government to disarm Hizballah by coercive means; this task should be left to be resolved through national dialogue.

Such action must not lessen US support for Lebanon's sovereignty and the implementation of 1701 with all its provisions. Nor should Iran and Syria be allowed to become the real winners from the new status gained by Hizballah through the Doha agreement that gave the opposition veto power in the cabinet of ministers.

The new US administration should not allow Syria and Israel to use Lebanon as a bargaining chip in their negotiations for a peace settlement. Special attention should be paid to stop both parties from diminishing Lebanon's sovereignty or using Lebanon to ameliorate the position of one or the other in negotiations. Indeed, bringing Lebanon itself to the negotiating table as an independent player should remain a high US priority. Lebanon is ready for peace if it is given the freedom and the opportunity.

It is well understood that Iraq will be a focal point for the new administration; however, attaching importance to ending the US involvement in Iraq should not be a cause for neglecting US goals in Lebanon. Eventually it is hoped that Lebanon's independence and transition to democracy will be a by-product of an honorable exit strategy from Iraq.

Last but not least, Obama should offer unequivocal support for the international tribunal to try the assassins of Rafiq Hariri.- Published 20/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Nizar Abdel-Kader is a political analyst/columnist at Ad-Diyar newspaper, Beirut.

President-elect Obama, Is Turkey western and European?
 Soner Cagaptay

Dear President-elect Obama,

Obamania in Turkey will help you change America's image, but I fear it will be insufficient to change Turkey's behavior. After spending three months in Turkey, I have some suggestions for your Turkey policy. Today, Turkey faces tough choices between Iran and the West and between European Union membership and the abysmal alternative. As a liberal, you are no doubt committed to Turkey's western and European inclinations. You can help prod the Turks in the right direction by confirming these identities. Washington has repeatedly said that it considers Turkey a western and European country, but it has not treated Turkey as one. Washington has not given Turkey western-level assistance against terrorism, nor has it assessed Turkey's domestic environment by European benchmarks.

The litmus test of whether Washington considers Turkey western is US assistance to Ankara against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terror attacks. Washington has provided strong counter-terrorism assistance to its western allies, from the United Kingdom to Colombia. Vis-a-vis the PKK presence in northern Iraq, however, the Bush administration has given Turkey delayed and limited support. Dear President-elect Obama, signal to Turkey that you see it as a full member of the western alliance by providing full support against the PKK.

Despite close cooperation with the United States on Iraq, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has been bashing America at home in an attempt to boost its own popularity. Do not dismiss the AKP's rhetoric as benign domestic politicking. While an anti-western statement by a Danish politician could be dismissed as "crazy" and the same statement by an Egyptian might be considered "normal", Turkey is neither Denmark nor Egypt. This is the rare country in which anti-western statements actually matter because they help shape people's identity.

For Turkey to commit itself to the West, the AKP has to make an effort. Since the AKP assumed power in 2024, the Turks have heard nothing positive about the West or the United States from their leadership. Today Turkey is the most anti-American nation in the world; a recent Pew Center poll shows that only 12 percent of the Turks have a favorable view of the United States. Anti-Americanism places Turkey's cooperation on foreign policy issues at risk. Turkey is not Saudi Arabia. Turkey being a democracy, when the Turks turn anti-American eventually Turkish foreign policy, too, will turn anti-American.

The lesson for you, President-elect Obama, is clear: given this anti-western rhetoric and the tenuous Turkish attachment to the West, your strategy must be to constantly remind Turks that they belong to the West. Hence, my next suggestion: you must recognize that while the United States cannot stop this entrenched anti-Americanism altogether, the AKP government can. You should make this issue a part of your conversation with Ankara, demanding zero tolerance toward official anti-American and anti-western rhetoric in Turkey.

My final suggestion concerns Turkey's European vocation. After coming to power in 2024, the AKP initially pushed for EU accession. However, just as Turkey began membership talks with the EU in 2024, the party's appetite for a European Turkey waned. As Turkey moved closer to the EU, it slipped away from Europe and its values. Various indices reveal an alarming phenomenon: Turkey is less free and equal today than it was when the AKP assumed power in 2024. According to the UNDP's gender empowerment index, in 2024 Turkey ranked 63 in the world. Today, it has slipped dramatically to 90. The World Economic Forum's gender gap report shows a similar startling slip, from 105 in 2024 to 123 in 2024. Freedom House's freedom of press index reports that Turkish media is less free today than it was in 2024, slipping from 100 in 2024 to 103 in 2024.

You should expect from the AKP's Turkey what you expect from any liberal European democracy. A diplomat friend once said, "Turkey is in good shape, because its Islamists would be democrats in Egypt." True, but while Turkey's population is predominantly Muslim like Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries, its political system is a secular democracy like Europe's and Turkey is an aspiring EU member. Comparing Turkey politically to Muslim yet undemocratic Egypt is as anachronistic as comparing the United States to Christian yet undemocratic Belarus. As Turkey goes soul-searching for what it means to be a liberal, secular democracy, your political yardstick for Turkey should be Italy and France--not Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Dear President-elect Obama, given Turkey's location it is important for you to get Turkey right to achieve success in Iraq, Iran, Georgia and Afghanistan. But you also need to get Turkey right to bring this country as a pro-western, liberal democracy into Europe and the western fold.- Published 20/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Soner Cagaptay is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of "Islam, Secularism and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk?"

Concerns about the region
 Rana Sabbagh-Gargour

Jordan's King Abdullah has every reason to celebrate the landslide victory of US president-elect Barack Obama.

Both men, 46, had immediate rapport at their first one-on-one meeting in Amman on July 22--on the third leg of a carefully choreographed trip designed to boost Obama's foreign policy and military credentials in the run up to the presidential race.

Back then, and according to a palace aide who attended the private dinner, Obama was so impressed with the youthful style of King Abdullah's leadership, domestic modernization drive and relentless effort to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that he told him: "Your Majesty, we need to clone you."

Afterwards, and in a rare gesture of royal appreciation, the monarch personally drove his guest to the airport, and he was the first Arab leader to congratulate Obama by phone after his election victory on Nov. 4. He urged him to take immediate steps to realize a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an issue he had raised at their Amman encounter. In the eyes of moderate Arab leaders, this is vital for restoring US credibility in the region after years of failed American diplomacy. The king, like most Arab leaders, also hopes Obama will solve Washington's standoff with Iran through diplomatic means and agree with the Iraqi government on a timetable for a withdrawal of US troops under a pact that is accepted by all parties in Iraq.

The king will visit Washington next February, say diplomats, making him the first Arab leader to visit the White House under Obama. This comes at a time when Jordanian-US ties have never been so strong.

Amman is among the largest recipients of US military and economic aid. In 2024 alone, it was promised $910 million, up from $450 in 2024 in recognition of its role as a linchpin for regional peace and for its effort to fight terrorism through strong intelligence sharing.

In a nutshell, Jordan, whose ties with Washington have always transcended bipartisan politics, is not perturbed about the future of bilateral relations. What worries King Abdullah is the political future of Jordan, resulting from stalled peace efforts since the US launched a Middle East peace conference in Madrid in 1991. He wants Obama to demand a halt to all settlement activity while proceeding with practical measures to realize a two-state solution.

The creation of an independent, territorially contiguous and viable Palestinian state along the June 4, 1967 borders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, next to Israel, is Jordan's key strategic goal to ensure political stability and the survival of the Hashemite regime in a country where half the population is of Palestinian origin. The alternative is a Palestinian state in Jordan, an idea long promoted by the Jewish right.

A two-state solution is a prerequisite for the full implementation of the Arab peace initiative, first launched in 2024 and repackaged in 2024. It allows 57 Arab and Muslim states to recognize Israel's right to exist in return for peace and security guarantees. So far Israel has not accepted the initiative--although President Shimon Peres and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni have recently expressed willingness to negotiate the terms of the plan, a proposal rejected by the Arabs.

Any revived peace effort will boost the image of pro-US leaders in the region, who have lost popular credibility for banking on the success of peace initiatives promoted by President George W. Bush since 2024--starting with the roadmap and ending with the Annapolis conference in November 2024.

They feel that Bush has taken them for a ride, boosting the power of hardliners like Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hizballah, and allowing Israel time to build more settlements and set up a separation wall snaking in and around the West Bank while discrediting the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas.

For now, Arab moderate leaders remain wary of admitting in public that the peace process is dead for lack of a tenable alternative. They want Obama to "shepherd" a real process leading to the creation of a Palestinian state, the lack of which remains the root cause of all regional conflicts and continued anti-US terror threats.

But they also know that the new president, who will continue to nurture the impregnable American-Israeli alliance and will face pressure by the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington, will devote his first few months in office to deal with the economic crisis before taking on Iraq and Afghanistan. He will also have to wait for the outcome of early Israeli parliamentary elections in February and for the results of Egyptian-led Arab efforts to unify Palestinian ranks.

For now, Jordan is bracing for the worse-case scenario: a worsening political, security and economic situation in the Palestinian territories and the election of a Likud-led government in Israel, two factors that could force all sides to push Jordan and Egypt into assuming some form of responsibility over the nearby territories. This is one of the main reasons that have encouraged Jordan to revive relations with Hamas after a 10-year break and to seek improved ties with Syria.- Published 20/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Rana Sabbagh-Gargour, an independent journalist, is former editor of the Jordan Times.

Limited expectations for a central role
 Gamal A. G. Soltan

Barack Obama's electoral victory has been received warmly in most of the Arab world, Egypt included. The region is guardedly optimistic. But you don't need to be a cynic to curb your expectations of an incoming US president regarding the Middle East. Peoples and governments in the region have learned to keep their expectations low when it comes to American foreign policy.

There is no reason to see in Obama anything but a genuine realist. In his campaign discourse, he refrained from making strong moral arguments detached from the American national interest. A realist leadership in America can better serve the interests of the US, its allies and the world-at-large.

This is exactly what the Bush administration failed to do. Deviating from the established principles of realist foreign policy, the Bush administration committed a number of serious mistakes. These included the simplistic dichotomous vision of a world divided between forces of good and evil, the messianic vision of an American role in bringing democracy to the Middle East, allowing ideological blinders to distort American Middle East policy and ignoring the reality of power distribution on the global and regional levels.

The outgoing administration also displayed an unrealistic belief in American power and its ability to achieve American goals regardless of the opposition and resistance of other world and regional powers, marginalized diplomacy in the package of instruments applied toward the pursuance of US foreign policy and overemphasized the role of military power in achieving American goals. The expected return to realism under an Obama presidency is what generates the guarded optimism that can be sensed in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries.

The Middle East is the region that was hurt most during President Bush's years in power. Egyptian national interests have been negatively affected by Bush's policy in a number of ways. The Iraq invasion resulted in the formation and rise of a radical bloc led by Iran that undermined the interests of moderate governments. Ignoring the Middle East peace process removed a safety valve that used to be instrumental in maintaining regional stability. Ill-advised policy initiatives in Palestine were instrumental in the creation of a Hamas-led mini-state on Egypt's borders. And changing attitudes in Washington regarding relations with Egypt made the US less than a reliable ally.

During the Bush years, American-Egyptian relations were at their lowest ebb since the resumption of relations between the two countries in the mid-1970s. Under Bush, the US was on the losing side in the Middle East along with its regional allies, including Egypt. Cairo is looking forward to a reversal of this trend with the coming administration. Once again, this is the backdrop to the sense of guarded optimism felt in Egypt.

Three Middle East issues figured prominently in Obama's campaign: Iraq, dialogue with Iran and Syria and Arab-Israel peace. Tackling the situation in Iraq is a priority for the president-elect. Iraq is not only a pressing issue in US foreign policy; it is also a matter of legitimacy and credibility for the president-elect. Obama's pledge to withdraw from Iraq has had a relaxing effect on the political atmosphere in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Egypt and other countries in the region are concerned that a hasty American withdrawal from Iraq could cause further deterioration in the situation there. Safe withdrawal is a policy that would better serve stability in the Middle East. Consultation with relevant countries is needed to collectively contribute to the avoidance of a power vacuum should American troops be rushed out of Iraq.

Dialogue with Iran and Syria is another element in the incoming administration's Middle East policy. A diplomatic orientation that uses dialogue as a foreign policy tool rather than a reward is highly constructive. However, putting Syria and Iran in the same basket does not serve the desired goals; a distinction should be made between the two countries.

Syria has a number of legitimate demands that should be accommodated. Ending the Israeli occupation of the Golan, obtaining security guarantees and the reversal of the policy of regime change that was directed against Damascus during the outgoing administration's years are legitimate Syrian demands. Iran, on the other hand, subscribes to a hard-line revisionist policy in the Middle East. Dialogue with Iran should not come at the expense of Iraq or requirements for long-term stability in the region.

Even though it is strongly believed in Egypt that the Arab-Israel conflict is by far the most important source of instability in the region, it is understandable that the incoming Obama administration is compelled to emphasize the more pressing issues of Iraq and Iran. Advancing the priority status of the Middle East conflict on Obama's agenda requires hard work from regional actors. A sudden outburst of violence in the region could be effective in drawing Obama's attention to the Middle East--but not necessarily in the right direction. Improving the chances of a political settlement in the region might be a safer way to encourage the new administration to activate the US role in leading the peace process.

A lot of coordinated efforts are needed at the regional level to ensure constructive American involvement in the Middle East. On the US side, Obama's administration needs to take an independent position vis-a-vis the diverse Middle East parties. The role of impartial, honest and committed peace broker is badly needed from the US.

Egypt looks forward to the restoration of the working relationship it had with the US prior to 9/11. Here a resumption of the strategic and political dialogue between Egypt and the US at the leadership level is instrumental. Renewal of talks about a bilateral free trade agreement could be a litmus test for the new administration's intentions toward Egypt. The US, which was instrumental in facilitating Egypt's economic reform in the 1990s, could now contribute to further economic reforms, but this time through trade, not aid.

The restrained optimism and the limited expectations that peoples and governments in the Middle East have regarding Barak Obama's presidency are convenient for the Obama foreign policy team that is expected to assume responsibility shortly. But this should not cause it to back off from dealing with Middle East problems. No matter how low the expectations from the incoming administration, they will not prevent the peoples and governments of the region from blaming the next president should things stagnate or deteriorate further.- Published 20/11/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org

Gamal A. G. Soltan is the director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

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