RAMALLAH: Many critics of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy seemed to preserve a degree of hope, especially during the run up to the 2012 president elections, in spite of numerous letdowns. During his second term, it was oft repeated, Obama will be free of the constraints that accompany worrying about reelection, and he will be able to inject into US foreign policy a stout dose of justice.
Obama’s cautious posturing towards the Arab Spring and failure to press for any meaningful justice for Palestinians were both repeatedly forgiven by analysts, pundits, and polemicists who naively believed that the only thing standing between fixing America’s image in the Middle East was the threat of a Mitt Romney election and a throng of Republicans in Congress.
The president’s record suggests otherwise, however. As the leader of a two-party government dominated by corporate influence, foreign lobbies, interest groups, and still committed to hegemonic aspirations, Obama neither desires nor is capable of redressing legitimate grievances in the Middle East. His own record, spotted with dubious diplomacy and a highly questionable claim to human rights, allots us a preview of what to expect of American involvement in the Middle East during his second term.
Egypt, Bahrain, and other troublesome American real estate
Only after the ouster of Egypt’s former tyrant Hosni Mubarak was imminent did the Obama administration grant the January 25 revolution its blessings. As the administration belatedly declared that Mubarak ought to step down and clear the path for democracy, the regime continued its vicious crackdown on protesters, employing American arms in a fruitless attempt to asphyxiate the revolution.
Since the moment the morally tenuous endorsement was proclaimed, the United States has been several steps behind every development throughout the course of the revolution, the period of military rule, and the present epoch of Muslim Brotherhood patronage.
While the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), essentially the same faces and framework of the former Mubarak regime, brutally smashed demonstrations in now-famous Tahrir Square, security forces clouded Egyptian streets with the fog of tear gas, the canisters of which were abhorrently labeled with an American-made stamp.
Once the SCAF finally did step aside for democratic elections, for which a proper incubation period of preparation and campaigning had not been adequately conducted, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, one of the only permitted to organize under three decades of Mubarak tyranny, captured the presidency.
A shrewd and calculative strategist, the newly-crowned President Mohammad Morsi waited for the right moment to effectively assume the dimensions of Mubarak’s former power. After satisfying the US by successfully brokering a ceasefire between the Hamas-led militants of the Gaza Strip and Israel, Morsi wasted no time in issuing a presidential decree that essentially abolished the newly-acquired trappings of Egyptian democracy.
Much like his predecessor, Morsi sacrificed his prior commitment to pursuing justice for the Palestinians in order to consolidate his throne in Cairo, and he did so with full American support, punctuated solely by sparse and unconvincing proclamations of disappointment and concern.
In Bahrain, where a similar uprising was raging on at roughly the same time, American officials couldn’t even be moved to express verbal support for democracy. In March 2011, as former Defense Minister Robert Gates arrived on a visit to the cringing little island’s royal family, tens of thousands of protesters were being stomped into submission by Saudi-assisted and American-armed security forces.
The roughly 70 percent Shia majority is regarded by the minority ruling sect as a fifth column for Iran, and thus, in the US government’s eyes, has no right to demand legitimate representation in a government not doomed to toil under the sectarian-centric concerns of a autocratic monarchy.
Authentic Bahraini self-determination, the sculptors of US foreign policy decided, does not mesh with imperial designs for the region, especially not on an island that serves as the parking lot of the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and is cursed to be situated immediately between the increasingly-bellicose theocracy in Iran and the generous oil fields of the Saudi Arabian police state, the most despotic and important American ally in the Gulf.
In Syria, where the most horrifying show of bloodshed presses on, Washington and Moscow have played a crude game of geopolitical posturing. As the balancing act goes on, Russia hoping to preserve its client and the US seeking to destabilize the balance of power against Iranian influence, over 60,000 Syrians died since the civil war broke out, according to a recent UN report. Other reports have alleged that certain factions of the anti-Assad resistance have received American arms, while others have been placed on the official terrorist list.
As changes continue in the region, the Obama administration and its Democratic Party backers have sought to seize the opportunity to ensure American hegemony in the region in a manner that effectively functions as a present-day Sykes-Picot Agreement, redrawing the borders of influence and installing new client regimes and preserving existing ones elsewhere.
As the latest Israeli military offensive against the already besieged Gaza Strip got under way in November, and while what must have seemed to Gazans an endless onslaught of death fell from above, President Obama ironically declared that no nation, least of which Israel, should be expected to tolerate rockets hitting the residential areas of its territory. The president firmly reiterated that Israel reserved the unconditional right to “self-defense,” which he ostensibly viewed the latest war on Gaza.
But the offensive was by no means necessary from a security perspective. The assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmad Ja’abari, which broke an informal ceasefire and began the latest war, was a carefully planned attempt to spark another round of fighting that would secure Israeli hegemony and win back the sympathy of an increasingly pro-Palestinian international community.
That the offensive was unnecessary from a security perspective became even clearer when Gershon Baskin, an Israeli peace activist and negotiator for the 2011 release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, revealed that Ja’abari had just hours before received paperwork for a final truce agreement with Israel, including a detailed strategy to maintain a lasting ceasefire.
Until Ja’abari’s assassination, no Israeli civilians had been killed by rocket attacks in 2012. According to thePalestinian Center for Human Rights, during the eight days that followed, around 160 Palestinians were killed, 102 of which were civilians, by far reaching Israeli airstrikes across the 136-square-kilometer coastal enclave. Five Israelis died, including three civilians, as a result of rockets launched from Gaza.
Less than a month after the tenuous ceasefire was reached, the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority sought a peaceful and diplomatic path by seeking the approval of the United Nations General Assembly for a resolution recognizing an independent, sovereign Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, encompassing all of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and including East Jerusalem as its capital.
The overwhelming majority of the world supported Palestine, though the United States, Israel, and a handful of their allies opposed it. After this astounding display of hypocrisy, it quickly became impossible for the Obama administration to declare its commitment to a two-state solution: Israel immediately announced a plan to settle the E1 area of the West Bank, dividing the West Bank into two separate slithers of land and enclosing a circle around occupied East Jerusalem with Jewish settlements.
A few half-throated groans alighted from Washington, but Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, unfazed as usual by hollow American objections, promised to move forward with plans to settle the E1 and elsewhere in the West Bank. By not acting, it became perfectly clear that the two-decade peace process, always under American auspices, has been little more than a smokescreen for Israel’s project to colonize the embattled remains of Palestine one plot of land at a time.
Now many Palestinians are abandoning the call for territorial liberation and turning their struggle towards equal national and political rights in a single secular and democratic entity. Will the Obama administration still be able to tout its Israeli ally as “the Middle East’s only democracy” as more and more of the world comes to understand it as an apartheid state governed by laws that historically echo America’s own Jim Crow era?
Obama’s New Year: Hopeless after all
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama introduced in America a new “politics of hope.” After eight difficult years of toiling under the patronage of George W Bush and his neoconservative outfit, Americans sought to repair America’s badly damaged international image. The president initially ran on a platform of withdrawing from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, closing the morally shameful Guantanamo Bay, and, as he proclaimed in a 2009 Cairo Address, building a new relationship “based on mutual interest and respect; one based on the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition.”
Yet, as Obama enters his second presidential term, little has changed. Although the Iraq disaster was finally put to an end, life in Post-occupation Iraq is still marred by sectarian violence, economic disaster, and political disunity. It’s impossible for the Middle East to view America as an improved entity as that hangover persists, and it doesn’t help that the Obama administration has continued to employ torture, fill Guantanamo with detainees, execute a drone program that costs hundreds of civilian lives, and has hitherto been on the wrong side of every uprising in the Middle East since the awesome string of revolutions first erupted in Tunisia in December 2010. Once again standing in the way of Palestinian self-determination only makes matters worse.
Those who still believe that President Obama is capable of saving America from its spiraling moral decline would be well advised to examine his record. For the Middle East, far from being a period of reversing imperial injustice, all the evidence suggests that the president’s second term will shape up to be another epoch of hopelessness.