Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The U.S. Elections and the Middle East: How Many Barack Obamas Do You Need to Change a Light Bulb?

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By Barry Rubin

What effect will the congressional elections have on U.S. foreign policy generally and Middle East policy in particular?

It isn't a matter of the individual candidates, since nobody lost or won who will have some big influence on U.S. policy in the next couple of years. The important factor is to what extent the White House hears the message being delivered by the electorate, which of course is largely concerned with domestic issues. Even, by itself, will a Republican majority in the House of Representatives force any shift since the White House really does control foreign policy?

And so this brings us to the central issue not only for U.S. policy but also for the world today: Is President Barack Obama both pragmatic and a politician, or is he an ideologue who has no grasp of the real world? After almost two years we are still asking this question because very little is really known about this man.

If Obama is pragmatic and a politician he will take note of three things. First, his foreign policy has not won great applause from the American people. Second, his foreign policy has not won great applause--at least outside of Western Europe, and even there they are having doubts--from foreign leaders. Third, his foreign policy has not won any real successes or resolved any issues.

In addition, much of his policy in the Middle East has failed, certainly regarding Israel-Palestinian issues, Lebanon, and Syria.

Regarding Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan one can argue that he has succeeded, respectively, in putting on tougher sanctions, withdrawing U.S. troops, and continuing the war against the Taliban. This success, however, may be most deceptive. Iran is hurt by the sanctions but is racing full speed ahead toward nuclear weapons. Iraq is in crisis, with no government, continuing violence, and growing Iranian influence. Afghanistan is teetering between the government's collapse and some kind of poisonous deal with the Taliban.

Here, though, we see the secret of Obama's Middle East policy, which has worked relatively well for him at home: try to maximize quiet and minimize conflict. What many have failed to recognize is that by appeasing, flattering, and engaging, Obama has avoided any open crisis or confrontation. This makes it possible to tell the American public that things are going well, they are not hated, and there is no new impending war. On terrorism, the United States has been lucky to avoid some new catastrophic attack. It is possible to argue credibly, then, that things are going okay.

Of course, the problem with this approach is that a crisis postponed is a crisis intensified. As Iran moves toward nuclear weapons, the radicals advance, Lebanon is lost, the Turkish regime joins the enemy, Hamas is made secure in the Gaza Strip, the U.S. position in the region deteriorates.

But returning to Obama, the question is whether he will act pragmatically and as a politician, or be deaf to experience and information in order to act as an ideologue. We will only know next year.

I must confess that it is hard for me to believe that Obama and his administration will act in a suicidal manner both politically and strategically. But it could happen. One concern is the policy process. After all, if Obama is going to change course someone on his team is going to have to persuade him to do so.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton can't do it because she is distrusted as a political rival. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates can't do it because he is distrusted as a Bush Administration carry-over and is too much of a careerist to speak out. This leaves the White House staff, the most ideological and internationally inexperienced sector of the government. The national security advisor is now a "yes-man" who isn't going to persuade the president of anything.

At some point, there might be a political operative who will say: If you are going to be reelected you must do things differently. That man is David Axelrod, architect of Obama's rise, who is now working on his reelection. It is hard to imagine anyone else capable of turning around Obama unless he himself decides that major foreign policy shifts are needed.

The word "pragmatic" here means that he will take note of failed policies and adjust them. The word "politician" means that he will not follow the unpopular course of bashing Israel. He will also want to avoid looking foolish, promising to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons and failing; pledging a quick solution to the Israel-Palestinian issue and failing.

And the goal of this new realism, of course, would be his reelection as president in 2012.

It is a measure of Obama's unpredictability and uniqueness that the above cannot be taken for granted. Obama may really believe that he is anointed to bring about an Israel-Palestinian "solution." By trying to impose a settlement? By recognizing a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence? Who can say?

Equally, he can continue to be blind to Syria's behavior, Turkey's regime, Lebanon's drowning, and the Arab loss of faith in a strong, protective America. The interesting question then is whether the foreign policy disaster will be clearly visible before or only after the 2012 election.

How many Barrack Obama's do you need to change a light bulb? Only one. But he's going to have to want to change it.

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 (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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