Is Obama a realist?

"On the one hand, but on the other..."An interesting take on Obama's foreign policy at Duck of Minerva:

Obama is a realist in style but not in substance. His realism is evident in how he approaches decisions, not in the decisions that he makes. This type of realist has what psychologists call “cognitive complexity” – they weigh the pros and cons of a multitude of different considerations before settling on the proper course. This was evident in the recent speech on Libya that has been proclaimed the new Obama doctrine. America will consider both humanitarianism and strategic considerations when it judges whether to use force, just like Wilson did. It will consider whether there are allies to shoulder the burden and how the international community feels, but will act unilaterally if there is a compelling interest. It is cognitive complexity that drives Obama’s favorite rhetorical “tic”, that of the ‘false choice.’ It is not one or another; it is both, when it comes to race relations, abortion, or diplomatically engaging Tehran. Others have called it being an “intellectual.”

If you've been reading this blog, you know I'm not the biggest Obama fan. But one thing I very much like about him is that he seems to ponder consequences seriously. His shift of the burden onto the EU in Libya is a great example of a correct policy carried out even though it goes against the American instinct, as developed in the last 30 years. His decision to implement in NFZ in Libya but reluctance to turn it into something else (let's hope that last) is another example of caution and willingness to implement limited goals.

It should be said, as Obama launches his 2012 campaign, that he should be held to account. There's no great sense of progress in Iraq (the US is still there?!?) and Afghanistan. One of the first thing he promised when he became president was to close Guantanamo, and he hasn't. He made grand statements on Israel/Palestine but then backtracked or was unwilling to push further. So perhaps he's learned to be more cautious. On these issues, he inherited a criminal presidency's problems — and his biggest failure was not holding his predecessoraccountable for his crimes. But if, come election day, US troops are in Libya and progress hasn't been made on the other issues, I don't think I would vote for him. 

1 Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Obama and R2P

Via POMED, the conservative Heritage Foundation raises the alarm that Obama may be committing the US to the Responsability to Protect doctrine after the Libya intervention:

Therefore it would appear that the Obama Administration has adopted both the basic philosophy and the operational characteristics of R2P. This should come as no surprise when the key decision makers regarding Libya included Samantha Power, who authored a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on genocide, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who promised during her presidential campaign to “operationalize” the R2P doctrine and “adopt a policy that recognizes the prevention of mass atrocities as an important national security interest of the United States, not just a humanitarian goal” and “develop a government-wide strategy to support this policy, including a strategy for working with other leading democracies, the United Nations, and regional organizations.”[5]

Read More

Illegitimate... but not illegal?

That phrase precisely describes the Obama administration's claim to leadership in the Middle East. It is also the factually wrong and conceptually confused defense of its decision to veto a Security Council resolution against Israel's settlement expansion that had wide support:

The Obama administration issued its first UN Security Council veto Friday, when U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice voted alone against a resolution declaring Israeli settlement activity to be illegal.

Read More

Column - Bullies can't be bribed

My latest column at al-Masri al-Youm is up — it's about the US-Israel "90-day deal" and the bad habit of rewarding Israel's behavior.

Obama blew it in 2009

I don't often post on things that are not Mideast-related, but this article by John Judis really captures Obama's missed opportunity for radical policies:

To succeed requires some knowledge of the task at hand, which Hoover did not have; it also requires a vulnerable opposition, which Franklin Roosevelt had, and which Obama certainly had in the first months of his presidency, when Republicans were in disarray and Wall Street was disgraced. Two things are then required of a president: bold and unprecedented initiatives that address the underlying economic problems, and a populist—and sometimes polarizing—politics that marshals support for these initiatives and disarms the opposition. Obama failed on both counts: His economic program—no matter how large in comparison to past efforts—was too timid, as many liberal economists recognized; and Obama proved surprisingly inept at convincing the public that even these efforts were necessary.

Update: To be fair I think the following commentary should also be mentioned.

I also think the guy who put up this site has good points:

1 Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

NSC killing time, talking about Egypt

Laura Rozen of Politico has gotten us the details of the recent Working Group on Egypt meeting with the National Security Council (including grandees Dan Shapiro, Dennis Ross and Samantha Power) which gives us some ruminations about what new take on democracy promotion the Obama administration might take. Considering it has been consistently ignored when making public (or private) statements I fear this will take the kind of initiative that would be completely unnatural to Washington. I also love Rozen's last paragraph, which suspects that dealing with the Egypt question was merely a form relaxation for a White House that definitely asks a lot of its allies, but never gets anything. In this way Israel and Egypt are similar.

It may also be a sign as well that Ross and Shapiro basically had both time and reason to devote to the issue because the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is currently on hold, and the Obama administration is “looking for a positive agenda in the region to talk about," a participant posited. The Obama administration is also concerned, he suggested, that its previous diplomatic efforts to press Cairo in private conversations and in written statements to repeal its Emergency Law and to accept international elections monitors have been rejected or ignored.

I am rather concerned, though, to see that not was Working Group member Elliott Abrams attending, but also another prominent Israel lobbyist, Rob Satloff of WINEP. I figure these guys will support US pressure on Egypt as a means of getting even more pro-Israel positions from Cairo, which will turn to the Lobby to defend itself if it really gets into trouble with Obama. This is after all what happened when Ariel Sharon was PM.

The eunuchs of Washington


Chas Freeman, the man passed over as Obama's intelligence czar, shared his thoughts on the recent appointment of Tom Donilon to replace James Jones as Obama's National Security Advisor. Freeman quoted over at Mondoweiss:

. . . there's a broader issue with the appointment of Tom Donilon, a creature of Congress whose professional formation has taken place entirely within the Washington bubble. Nothing in his background as a lawyer or aide to elected officials and political appointees hints at any skill at strategic thinking, foreign policy formulation, or diplomatic maneuver that is directed at anyone other than domestic constituencies. He gives every sign of faithfully reflecting the political risk aversion, venal deference to campaign contributors, and constipated strategic imagination of the Washington establishment. We Americans have spawned our own version of the eunuchs of old, who flourished inside the walls of the Forbidden City or Topkapi/Dolmabah?e Palace. Their counterparts now practice the arts of the courtier within the Beltway at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. (It is said that Afghanistan has jirgas to make village-level decisions and loya jirgas to decide things at the national level, while Washington now makes decisions in circle jirgas.) Donilon is exhibit A of this archetypal Washington type; his presumed successor, Denis McDonough, is exhibit B.
Note that the principal argument for Donilon and McDonough is not their competence or mastery of the subject matter of national security affairs in its diplomatic, intelligence, and military dimensions, but the trust the president has in them. To me, this underscores that American politics has become entirely self-referential and solipsistic. We have evolved the world's most militarily powerful autistic government. The Obama Administration is practicing non-partisanship by carrying on the foreign policy of its predecessor. Mr. Magoo is still at the helm, as I discovered he was years back. See: "America in the World - Magoo at the Helm" -- , now a chapter in the book Just World Books just brought out, "America's Misadventures in the Middle East." )

Read the whole thing. For dissenting opinions, see Steve Clemons and Helena Cobban (update: also Peter Beinart. I know I'll be getting a copy of Freeman's book (click here to get it from Amazon and send Arabist some baksheesh).


Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

On American Jews and Obama

I posted in yesterday's links a long, five-part series on Jews and Obama by Edward Klein and Richard Chesnoff. I had only read the first part when I did so, and, having now read four of the five (the last one still isn't up), I feel it's worth making a few comments on it, especially as it has gotten some considerable attention in some circles.
Read More

On Cordoba House

My new column at Masri al-Youm, on Obama's communication problem, is out. It argues that despite the recent polls showing disappointment with Obama in the Arab world, the real communication problem with regards to Islam that the administration has is with the American people. I've been following with horrified fascination the development of the "controversy" over Cordoba House, which has been cathartic in that it had revealed the strong unease — far beyond the lunatic fringes, the professionals manipulators and the populist opportunists — have with the project. This is America's Danish cartoon crisis.
Read More

Now that would be change I can believe in

Via Coteret, a great blog translating from the Hebrew media, this piece in today's Yediot Ahronot:

The lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip and permission for Palestinians to leave the Gaza Strip freely through Israeli border crossings. These are the unequivocal demands that President Barack Obama is expected to make during his meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the White House in two weeks.

Read More

Once again, Bush nostalgia

Oh, come on Saad Eddin Ibrahim, for God's sake:

When a billboard appeared outside a small Minnesota town early this year showing a picture of George W. Bush and the words "Miss me yet?" the irony was not lost on many in the Arab world. Most Americans may not miss Bush, but a growing number of people in the Middle East do. Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain unpopular in the region, but his ardent support for democracy was heartening to Arabs living under stalled autocracies. Reform activists in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait and elsewhere felt empowered to press for greater freedoms during the Bush years. Unfortunately, Bush's strong support for democracy contrasts sharply with President Obama's retreat on this critical issue.

I understand Dr. Ibrahim has reasons to be grateful towards George W. Bush, who forcefully pressured the Egyptian government to release him when he was on trial in 2002-03. But he should remember that Bush's support evaporated in January 2006 after Hamas' electoral victory (and the Muslim Brothers' electoral advance in Egypt). What reform activists in Lebanon — surely this should be "March 14 partisans", who for the most part did not seem very interested in democratic reform and are quite committed to Lebanon's twisted sectarian system, even if they rightly opposed Syrian interference in their own affairs. More reform activists in Egypt were anti-Bush. I could go on about "reform activists."

Also, no need to cite elections over 2005-06 as proof of reform. Egypt's were deeply flawed. The CIA funded Fatah's campaign in Palestine. Most of these elections were already scheduled — Bush did not order them to be held! There are other problems with the piece, but I'll stop here on the details. Ibrahim concludes:

Democracy and human rights advocates in the Middle East listened with great anticipation to Obama's speech in Cairo. Today, Egyptians are not just disappointed but stunned by what appears to be outright promotion of autocracy in their country. What is needed now is a loud and clear message from the United States and the global community of democracies that the Egyptian people deserve free, fair and transparent elections. Congress is considering a resolution to that effect for Uganda. Such a resolution for Egypt is critical given the immense U.S. support for Egypt. Just as we hope for a clear U.S. signal on democracy promotion, we must hope that the Obama administration will cease its coddling of dictators.

This is ill thought out. Obama has actually this year taken a few steps towards pressuring Egypt.

1. The US expressed disappointment over the renewal of the Emergency Law in May, which is more than the EU, which unbelievably put out the following crap under French and Italian pressure:

"I note Egypt's decision to limit the new State of Emergency to fighting terrorism and its financing and drug-related crimes. However, I strongly encourage the government to speed up the steps needed for the adoption of an antiterrorism law compliant with international human rights standards as soon as possible, noting the government's commitment to this goal in the EU/Egypt Action plan and in other forums".

"Note"? As in, "I note you're not wearing glasses today"? Pathetic.

2. Vice President Joe Biden raised the UNHCR's Universal Periodic Review of Egypt with Mubarak. At least there's a sign they're talking about it.

3. The State Dept. has called for an investigation into the death of Khaled Said. The day after that, a new investigation was ordered.

Bottom line: there's been a slight improvement since last year, but it could go much further. Rather than aping a Congressional resolution on Uganda Ibrahim could have called for specific measures, such as: the imposition of conditionalities for the disbursement of aid and the negotiation of any endowment for Egypt, sending messages that arms sales are conditional on freer elections after the disaster of the recent Shura Council elections, and holding to the Egyptian government to account on its claim that the Emegency Law will only be used in drug and terrorism cases. 

Ibrahim had a chance at making a much stronger case with specific recommendations. Claims of "Bush nostalgia" won't win friends in the Obama administration — just among the Washington Post's neoconservative editorial board.

Where is Obama?

GC at the The Majlis points out Obama's thundering silence:

As a journalist covering this story, it's been striking to see Washington's irrelevance over the last 72 hours. We've heard almost nothing from Obama or other US officials -- one 20-second sound bite from Hillary Clinton, that's it -- compared with (literally) hours of material from Turkish, Israeli, Arab and European leaders. The White House has gone out of its way to avoid taking a high-profile stance on the flotilla attack.

But here's the thing: Nobody in the Muslim world seems surprised! After the US ran interference for Israel at the United Nations, there wasn't much anger in the Arabic press. Instead there was mostly a sense of cynicism, like nobody expected America to behave differently.

We've seen a few anti-American protests over the last few days -- there was a small demonstration outside the US consulate in Adana, for example -- but overall there's been very little vitriol directed at the United States.

It's not for lack of interest in the flotilla attack, which has been covered almost non-stop on Arabic news networks for three days. But you get the sense nobody had higher expectations for the White House.

So when Gibbs says Obama's weak response won't affect his outreach to the Muslim world, maybe he's right. Obama's outreach has been stalling for months, particularly in the Arab world. He increasingly looks like just another American president: The promises of his Cairo speech are fading, he refuses to take strong public stands against Israel, and he's carrying on many of the Bush administration's most inflammatory policies (stepping up drone strikes, failing to close Guantanamo Bay, etc.).

The flotilla attack was a golden opportunity for Obama to reverse that trend, to demonstrate that he's serious about shifting US policy in the region. He passed on that opportunity -- and, in doing so, merely confirmed what many people in the region already suspected about his presidency.

While the US is now backing some relief for the Gaza blockade, no real change of approach is being seriously considered, apparently. They want to relieve the blockade, not really end it and restore Palestinian economic integrity.

Joe Biden says the problem is Hamas, Laura Rozen points out:

The Vice President also said Hamas shares blame for Palestinian suffering and said Hamas should join a Palestinian reconciliation government with its political rival, Fatah.

"So the problem is this would end tomorrow if Hamas agreed to form a government with the Palestinian Authority on the conditions the international community has set up," Biden said.

Except the "international conditions" are ridiculous and designed to prevent a national unity government while going ahead with a West Bank First policy. Rozen cites Biden's interview with Charlie Rose:

Joe Biden: Yes, we know that, but they could have easily brought it in here and we'd get it through. And so now the question is what do we do? Well, we had made it clear, the President of the United States has spoken three times, yesterday with Bibi, or the day before yesterday, he's spoken once yesterday with a guy that I have spent a fair amount of time with, with Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey; the Turks, we passed a resolution in the U.N. saying we need a transparent and open investigation of what happened. It looks like things are -- 

Charlie Rose: International investigation -- 

Joe Biden: Well, an investigation run by the Israelis, but we're open to international participation, just like the investigation run on the sunken sub in — off the coast of Korea. That was run by South Korea, but the international community joined in that investigation. And so that is very possible here as well. I might add by the way for all those who say the Israelis, you know, you know, you can't trust them, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled today that every one of the people on those ships had to be released immediately, immediately.

So in the Korean case, the victim gets to do the investigation, whereas in the flotilla case, it's the aggressor? Of course, no surprise to see this: AIPAC embraces Biden statement.

The Obama administration has no moral ground to stand on in this case, so it's either spinning by keeping focus on the investigation rather than ending the blockade or keeping silent. Shameful. The US needs a clean break in its relationship with the Israeli regime, a radical departure. Will we ever get it?

Because the other alternative will become, over time, at the region's stronger states solving the problem by excluding the United States, rather than calling for it to play a greater role. Right now, the net balance points towards Washington being a liability for regional peace — in Iraq, in its attitude towards Iran, and of course in its defense of Israel no matter what.

Get rid of Ross

Laura Rozen of Politico talks to US officials who see Dennis Ross continue being Israel's lawyer rather than America's troubleshooter. It's scathing:

“He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests,” one U.S. official told POLITICO Saturday. “And he doesn't seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this Administration.” 

Last week, during U.S.-Israeli negotiations during Netanyahu’s visit and subsequent internal U.S. government meetings, the official said, Ross “was always saying about how far Bibi could go and not go. So by his logic, our objectives and interests were less important than pre-emptive capitulation to what he described as Bibi's coalition's red lines.” 

Ross, the U.S. official continued, “starts from the premise that U.S. and Israeli interests overlap by something close to 100 percent. And if we diverge, then, he says, the Arabs increase their demands unreasonably. Since we can't have demanding Arabs, therefore we must rush to close gaps with the Israelis, no matter what the cost to our broader credibility.” 

A second official confirmed the internal discussion and general outlines of the debate. 

Obviously at every stage of the process, the Obama Middle East team faces tactical decisions about what to push for, who to push, how hard to push, he said. Those are the questions. 

As to which argument best reflects the wishes of the President, the first official said, “As for POTUS, what happens in practice is that POTUS, rightly, gives broad direction. He doesn't, and shouldn't, get bogged down in minutiae. But Dennis uses the minutiae to blur the big picture … And no one asks the question: why, since his approach in the Oslo years was such an abysmal failure, is he back, peddling the same snake oil?” 

Sounds like Ross is wasting everyone's time. Why keep him around?

Links on the Israel-US spat, 18 March 2010

 ✪ The U.S. quarrel with Israel - - WaPo editorial condemns Obama for having a fight with Israel, takes Israeli reports on administration demands at face value, uses stupid argument that US demands on Israel make Arabs ask for more. Basically, WaPo is simply not credible on Israel/Palestine: it asks that the Obama administration accept humiliation and step down from its goals, stated US policy for decades regarding settlements, and international law, and talks of "intransigence of Palestinian and Arab leaders." You mean the intransigence that caused them to propose a comprehensive peace on the basis of international law since 2003, and which was ignored by both Israel and the US? What a bunch of sellouts.

✪ Informed Comment: Cpl. Jeffrey Goldberg, Guarding the Prison of the Nationalist Mind - Juan Cole really does a wonderful takedown of Jeffrey Goldberg.

✪ 'Just World News' with Helena Cobban: On the current tipping point | A bunch of good commentary from Cobban, esp. on the next steps the administration could take:

A. Announce the launching of an administration-wide review of all U.S. policies that have any relationship to the Israeli settlements including policies affecting economic links and trade preferences being extended to settlements as well as to Israel proper; the activities and tax status of U.S. entities, including non-profit entities, that have dealings with or in the settlements. The terms of reference of this review should explicitly spell out that its purview includes the settlements in Jerusalem as well as elsewhere (including Golan.)
B. Announcement of a similar review of policies and entities related in any way to Israel's illegal Wall.
C. Commit to a series of steps aimed at speedily ending the illegal and anti-humane siege that Israel maintains against Gaza and restoring all the rights of Gaza's 1.5 million people.
D. Sen. Mitchell should be empowered to talk to representatives of all those Palestinian parties that won seats in the 2006 PLC election which was, let us remember, certified by all international monitors as free and fair. Obama and Co. should also inform the Egyptians and all other parties that they want and expect them to be helpful rather than obstructive in the Palestinian parties' efforts to reach internal reconciliation.E. Move speedily toward giving the other four permanent members of the Security Council more real role in Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. They all have a lot to offer and can help the U.S. get out of the very tight spot it currently finds itself in, in the Greater Middle East region.

✪ Obama says no crisis in US-Israeli relations | He should have said no crisis, but big problem.

✪ Israel crisis: Taking cue from US anger, Mahmoud Abbas digs in heels | This is the big AIPAC narrative, that US is enabling the PA to harden its position. It's bullshit, why would the PA take negotiations seriously while settlement expansion is ongoing? All Abbas is doing is sticking to international law, the Quartet guidelines and Obama's demands from last year.

✪ US-Israel crisis reshapes Quartet meet agenda | The basic point: if the US shows leadership as it did after the Biden visit, the Europeans and others will speak their mind more freely about Israel's sabotaging of peace.

✪ US may be seeking Israel 'regime change' This AFP story is mostly based on quotes from pro-Israel, Jewish Clinton administration sources — the very people who failed to act against settlement expansion back in the 1990s.

✪ Taking Sides « London Review Blog | John Mearsheimer: 

Siding with Israel against the United States was not a great problem a few years ago: one could pretend that the interests of the two countries were the same and there was little knowledge in the broader public about how the Israel lobby operated and how much it influenced the making of US Middle East policy. But those days are gone, probably for ever. It is now commonplace to talk about the lobby in the mainstream media and almost everyone who pays serious attention to American foreign policy understands – thanks mainly to the internet – that the lobby is an especially powerful interest group.

Therefore, it will be difficult to disguise the fact that most pro-Israel groups are siding with Israel against the US president, and defending policies that respected military leaders now openly question. This is an awful situation for the lobby to find itself in, because it raises legitimate questions about whether it has the best interests of the United States at heart or whether it cares more about Israel’s interests. Again, this matters more than ever, because key figures in the administration have let it be known that Israel is acting in ways that at best complicate US diplomacy, and at worst could get Americans killed.

He concludes with the $2.5 billion a year question:

There will be more crises ahead, because a two-state solution is probably impossible at this point and ‘greater Israel’ is going to end up an apartheid state. The United States cannot support that outcome, however, partly for the strategic reasons that have been exposed by the present crisis, but also because apartheid is a morally reprehensible system that no decent American could openly embrace. Given its core values, how could the United States sustain a special relationship with an apartheid state? In short, America’s remarkably close relationship with Israel is now in trouble and this situation will only get worse.

✪ The Boston Study Group on Middle East Peace: Two States for Two People: If Not Now, When? [PDF]

✪ This might be a good occasion to highlight's work on making data on lobbying more accessible. They cover all lobbies, and have the goods on pro-Israel campaign financing (Joe Lieberman and John McCain are on the top of the list) and the legislation the lobby supported. They also have listing for pro-Arab campaign contribution: over the last two years, while pro-Israel lobbies gave $6,288,215 pro-Arab lobbies gave... $56,050. So much for the great Arab lobby that Israel apologists always talk about. 

Update: Talking to IDF radio, Elliott Abrams says Obama wants to bring down the Netanyahu government, and makes other noises that suggest he'd make a better Israeli government official than an American one. [Thanks, Mandy.]

Petraeus, Mullen worried about Israeli intransigeance

Following up on my previous post on the "Biden Humiliation," or whatever you want to call this Israeli-US spat, I just came across at this post by Mark Perry at FP's Middle East Channel — it's a must read:

On January 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief JCS Chairman Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM's mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) "too old, too slow...and too late."

The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had  ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus's instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. "Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling," a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. "America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding." But Petraeus wasn't finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with Israel, is a part of the European Command - or EUCOM), be made a part of his area of operations. Petraeus's reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged  in the region's most troublesome conflict.

Read the rest.

The Obama disappointment

HRW's Ken Roth, in an IPS interview:
Q: Are you disappointed with Barack Obama? 

A: I have been disappointed by Obama in a number of respects. First of all I think it’s worth saying that Obama is still a significant improvement over [George] Bush. There’s been a very notable improvement in presidential rhetoric but a failure to apply that rhetoric in many cases. Obama has given a series of quite inspiring speeches but then has not built a policy around those speeches. In Accra, for example, he distinguished himself from [Bill] Clinton’s policy of embracing the so-called new generation of African leaders that turned out to be authoritarian dictators: Paul Kagame [in Rwanda] or Meles Zenawi [in Ethiopia]. Obama said Africa doesn’t need strong leaders, it needs strong institutions and spoke about the rule of law, free press, independent civil society and the like. That was an excellent message, well-tailored to the audience. But the Obama administration has put very little pressure on Meles or Kagame to reverse their authoritarian trends. Similarly, in Cairo, he talked about the importance of democracy and made clear that, unlike Bush, who promoted democracy until the wrong person won, until Hamas won in the Palestinian territories or until the Muslim Brotherhood did better than expected in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, Obama was going to respect whoever was the victor. It was suggested that he would even respect the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. A very important message but he then did not follow up by pressing [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to democratise. Mubarak visited the White House and there was no public mention of democracy. There’s been no pressure on the Saudi royal family, no pressure on other autocratic U.S. allies in the Middle East to democratise. 
The rest of the interview is interesting too.
I know everybody is disappointed with Obama right now — it's hardly an original position. I have to say although I was not an Obama supporter (i.e. I expected him to disappoint, and notably to show a lack of backbone from his behavior during the campaign) I find myself surprised at the extent to which, well, he doesn't seem very good. A more appropriate question to ask of him, rather than whether he's sold out or misled people about his policies, is that he may simply be not very competent. Whether you agree with him or not about policies, if you take him on his own terms, it's hard to come away distinctly unimpressed.
Anyway, this brings me to this op-ed by my friend Ezzedine Choukri in the al-Ahram Weekly, titled "See you later, Mr. President!""

For someone who made a new approach to the Middle East such an integral part of his foreign policy platform, the outcome of a year in power is strikingly meagre. If anything, President Obama's first year has been marked by a surprising lack of leadership on the Middle East. The expectations Obama created about a "new beginning" for America in the region are fast dissipating. While the frustration of the peoples of the Middle East could be of little political significance for the American president, the policy ramifications of missing leadership are not.

On the crown jewel of the region's problems, the protracted Arab- Israeli conflict, Obama's administration failed to come up with a meaningful policy. Unable or unwilling to spend political capital on a showdown with the Israeli rightist government, the administration adopted a hackneyed, stopgap policy. The sterility of its stated goal -- getting Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table -- is plain for all to see. Palestinians and Israelis have been sitting at that table for years; we are all familiar with their endless arguments, complaining and manipulations. Everyone knows that returning them to that table is not going to bring peace or security to either of them, or to the region. But it is a goal that the administration thought attainable and serving to its image at an affordable political price. To add insult to injury, a year has passed without achieving this modest, useless goal. The sense of historic mission of the Cairo speech about reconciling Arab and Jewish narratives has faded, leaving behind a real life-sized political president admitting his earlier miscalculation.

He concludes:

Is this but another complaint by a disappointed Middle Easterner who hoped that Obama would be fair to his region? Not in the least. I don't think that the peoples of the Middle East are politically relevant in this story. They don't vote or fundraise in American elections, they don't take initiative or even help when asked, and they always complain about US policies anyway. What is politically relevant, though, is the consequence of Obama's Middle Eastern choices on the region and on the US standing in it. Inaction and lack of leadership are not a recommended policy for the indispensable superpower. It means passing the initiative to local actors who either advance their own interests regardless of regional stability as a whole, or create crises in order to draw the US back in. In either case, the US administration would be setting itself up for ad hoc reactions. Presidents who choose not to invest in the Middle Eastern quagmire were eventually sucked into it unprepared. This could take the form of another "unexpected" eruption in the Arab-Israeli saga, a "surprise" collapse of a friendly regime, or a major terrorist attack. In a nutshell, every American president who gave the Middle East low priority lived to regret it.

Here I partly disagree, or would go further. The US has an opportunity to redeem itself and re-adjust its involvement in the region by encouraging the emergence of a stable regional order that does not need US initiative to prevent or solve crises. In the long term, this would be the best thing for the region and for the US (in terms of its heavier than necessary footprint in the region and the economic, political and security costs that brings) while still guaranteeing key interests (which should include stable flow of oil and safety of sea traffic, not supporting Israeli expansionism). Obama could have been the president to start this, but instead we see him be half-Carter, half-Bush. What a disappointment.

1 Comment

Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,

Egypt and peace-processing

Here is in black and white what has long been obvious about the Egyptian-mediated Palestinian reconciliation talks — that they were never conducted in earnest:
Senior sources in the defense establishment say that the Egyptians are even willing to agree, albeit belatedly, with the Israeli-American conclusion that nothing good will result from Cairo's effort to mediate between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. The Obama administration fears that intra-Palestinian reconciliation would only bolster Hamas at the expense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad. 

Palestinian unity has been understood to mean that a joint government would involve Hamas and that would also present the United States with a constitutional problem. 

Legislation passed in Congress would prevent the administration from continuing to give aid to the Abbas-Fayyad government the minute it agrees to include Hamas as a partner. Cairo will not admit it publicly but it appears that its reconciliation initiative is dead. 

An Egyptian source says that the mediation efforts stopped because "conditions in the area do not permit it." The source said that the Hamas rejection of an Egyptian compromise proposal, in part because of pressure from Iran and Syria, is preventing progress toward reconciliation. 

On the other hand, the Egyptians are now trying to push for the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the PA, even by indirect American mediation. 
This is a reminder that the Gaza war was a gift for Egypt: Nicolas Sarkozy and the EU, at a time of US presidential transition, restored Egypt's "regional role" by appointing it as the key mediator between Israel and Hamas (for a permanent ceasefire and, separately, a prisoner exchange), Hamas and the PA (for reconciliation), and an important player in the regional peace process and relations between the PA and Israel. Egypt's intention has never been to conclude a Palestinian reconciliation, because Congress and the Obama administration would probably exit the peace process if that happened. Whatever happens, for Cairo, the process — any process — must be maintained in order to generate strategic rent. 

Michael Posner, Egypt and human rights

"Listen to the hand"

Those of you who monitor US democracy promotion efforts in Egypt — you know who you are — will have noticed that 2009 was eerily quiet in Washington when it came to that issue. Apart from the odd WaPo editorial taking the administration to task (as well as US Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey) for not uttering a word about the Egyptian regime's misdeeds, and analysts such as Carnegie's Michele Dunne and organizations liked POMED fighting the fight to keep the issue alive at all, you never heard anything coming from the State Department or the White House. Until a few days ago, that is.

Read More

Links for Jan.06.10 to Jan.07.10

Video: Egyptian police clash with Gaza aid convoy | | Another good video about clashes between Viva Palestina and Egyptian security. ✪ Rebuilding Afghanistan « London Review Blog | Narcotecture = Drug-financed ugly houses in Kabul. ✪ Israeli television confrontation is ‘a metaphor of the moral crisis in which Zionism is found today’ | Fascinating video argument - must watch. ✪ Israel to deploy Gaza rocket interceptor by June - Haaretz | So no more need for blockade, I guess? ✪ Ainsi disait Laroui à propos de la politique. Extraits politiques « min diwan Assyassa ». « Des maux à dire | On new book on M6 era in Morocco. ✪ Security Experts: Administration Overstates Domestic al-Qaeda Threat « The Washington Independent | Sounds familiar. ✪ Pro-ElBaradei campaign seeks collective proxies | Al-Masry Al-Youm | Interesting list of backers for ElBaradei campaign, includes Amr Moussa! ✪ Palestine Vivra! The French Heroes of the Gaza Freedom March | A nice account. ✪ Jerome Slater: On the US and Israel | New blog by academic. ✪ The Settlement Freeze That Isn't | The American Prospect | "The freeze is really a very thin layer of ice atop the river of settlement growth." ✪ BBC News - Egypt police clash with Gaza aid convoy activists | Unbelievable - Viva Palestina convoy sent through Kerem Shalom. ✪ Egypt to import natural gas from Iraq | Al-Masry Al-Youm | I wonder how much it costs compared to the gas sold to Israel. ✪ Saudi Arabia backs Egyptian plan for renewed peace talks - Haaretz | This peace plans sounds dodgy, esp. in its treatment of settlements. ✪ t r u t h o u t | Egypt: Rooftops Empower the Poor | Nice story on clean energy for the poor on Cairo's rooftops. ✪ Support the Cairo Declaration of the Gaza Freedom March Petition |
Read More

Links for Dec.26.09 to Dec.28.09

Get Elected; or, al-Baradei Tryin’ (Part 1 of ???) « THE BOURSA EXCHANGE | TBE translates that ElBaradei interview from al-Shorouq. ✪ Could the Mullahs Fall This Time? - The Daily Beast | Interesting ruminations on whether Iran is near a revolution and the importance of Ashura as a symbol of the fight for justice. ✪ Op-Ed Columnist - The Big Zero - | Economically, the decade produced nothing. ✪ The Angry Arab News Service/وكالة أنباء العربي الغاضب: Saudi Wahhabi Physiognomy: this man should be teaching at KAUST | Funny. ✪ Rasheed el-Enany on modern Arabic lit: not quite a Renaissance | Al-Masry Al-Youm | "I think the status of translated Arabic literature is better than it's ever been." ✪ Two Hamas members killed in Beirut explosion | Unusual... this attack was in a safe, Hizbullah-controlled area. ✪ Activists appeal to Mubarak over entry into Gaza - Yahoo! News |
Egypt said it would prevent their passage because of the "sensitive situation" in Gaza and warned Monday of legal repercussions for anyone defying the ban. Around 1,300 international delegates from 42 countries have signed up to join the Gaza Freedom March which was due to enter Gaza via Egypt during the last week of December.
Exclusive excerpt from Joe Sacco’s groundbreaking new book: Footnotes in Gaza | I'm awaiting my copy of this book from this great cartoonist. ✪ Sic Semper Tyrannis : Men on Horseback | Pat Lang on the Afghan policy war inside the Obama administration. ✪ Ardebili's laptop - Laura Rozen - | Iran holding hikers and others because US holding Iranians? ✪ Anis Sayigh: and Israeli history of letter bombs | Angry Arab has an interesting post on the Israeli use of letter bombs against civilians. ✪ Officials Point to Suspect’s Claim of Qaeda Ties in Yemen - | Rather suspicious, this Yemen angle at a time when people are trying to confuse the Huthis and al-Qaeda... ✪ The Lives They Lived - Ben Ali - The Chili That Shaped a Family - | Sausages and chilli, served to Obama by an Indian Muslim Trinidadian. ✪ Mainstreaming the Mad Iran Bombers | Marc Lynch | Lynch on NYT op-ed's call for war. ✪ The Nevada gambler, al-Qaida, the CIA and the mother of all cons | The Guardian | "Playboy magazine has revealed that the CIA fell victim to an elaborate con by a compulsive gambler who claimed to have developed software that discovered al-Jazeera broadcasts were being used to transmit messages to terrorists buried deep in America."
Read More