Sunday, June 13, 2010

What Makes Obama Tock in the Middle East

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By Barry Rubin

In critiquing the Obama Administration, I don’t mean to suggest it has no reasons for desiring to please Arabs and Muslims as one of its highest (sometimes seemingly its highest) priorities. Unfortunately in practice this often means flattering the more extremist forces in those groups and giving short shrift to the more moderate among them.

This strategy isn’t a conspiracy; it just doesn’t correspond to the realities of the region or work particularly well.

The main factors inspiring this effort in terms of foreign policy--in contrast to ideological premises about America itself--are as follows:

1. The hope that Arab governments will help the United States extricate itself from Iraq and ensure there is a stable regime there that is friendly to the United States.

Leaving aside U.S. efforts within Iraq itself, there is no visible pay-off on this issue. Even relatively moderate (Sunni-led) Arab states are keeping the (Shia and Kurdish-led) Iraqi regime at arms'-length while still favoring Sunni rebels. Syria continues to back Sunni terrorists in every way and if their effectiveness is declining that's not due to Syrian moderation but to U.S. and Iraqi defensive efforts.

2. The hope that Arab governments will help the United States against Iran, especially in trying to stop Tehran from getting nuclear weapons and, if that fails, containing Iran. Clearly, some effort is needed here to assure basing rights. Yet here, too, the policy makes little difference. Arab regimes need U.S. protection against Iran and want American weapons for themselves.

At the same time, though, Arab states are also intimidated by Iran (especially given their perception that the Obama Administration is weak), and worried about internal subversive forces and their rivals portraying them as lapdogs of the West. They also know that nationalist and religious sentiments run high, in part because these same governments have long encouraged them further. Thus, their help will be limited no matter how much Obama tries to persuade them that he is a nice guy, sorry for the past, and not too close to Israel.

3. The hope that if sufficiently soothed, flattered, and appeased, Arabs and Muslims are less likely to join or support anti-American terrorist groups. Here, no doubt there is some limited success but very limited. Al-Qaida has been weakened more by U.S. offensive actions and, in some cases, regime repression than a pro-American shift by the population.

4. The hope that the United States can stay out of crises, including Israel-Palestinian, the struggle over power in Lebanon, the intervention of Syria and Iran backing terrorists in Iraq, of Pakistan backing terrorists in India; and others. Obama succeeds in avoiding such entanglement but the cost is victories for revolutionary Islamists (Hamas entrenches itself in the Gaza Strip; Syria recaptures control over Lebanon and Hizballah becomes stronger; Iran and Syria can intervene in Iraq and kill Americans there without cost; moderate regimes lose faith in America; etc.)

There is also some domestic advantage for Obama, who can argue that he has made America (or at least himself) popular and reversed the armed engagements and anti-Americanism that developed during his predecessor's administration.

Among those who support the administration, there is an assumption that the whole strategy of apology, empathy, the Cairo speech, the Istanbul speech, the distancing from Israel, the redefinition of the "war on terror" into a narrow "war on al-Qa'ida," has brought benefits. Yet it is rather difficult to define precisely what those benefits have been.

The costs of this policy are much easier to measure.

For the administration's ideological premises about America that shape this policy, see here.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (PalgraveMacmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; The West and the Middle East (four volumes); and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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