Not an open letter to Obama

By Michael Marten
November 14, 2008

The President-elect, global expectations and the Middle East

Since the recent American election victory for hope, trust and understanding, rather than fear, worry, and xenophobia, I have seen countless ‘open letters to Obama’ appearing in the press, in online media, and elsewhere – a protracted series of wishes from various constituencies to the new President-elect of the United States of America.

Though some writers seem to regard Barack Obama as almost saintly, and therefore perhaps in a position to read all their individual communications before acting on them, I confess to some scepticism in this regard! While I have considerable regard for Obama, I do also expect him to be subject to the vicissitudes of public office, to find himself taking positions he would perhaps rather not, to be forced into compromises of one kind or another, and so on. He will not save the world, or the Middle East, or even the USA – though he does have the potential to help the processes along that other people might take in this direction. So this is Not a Letter to Obama. Instead, it’s more of a letter to those interested in justice and peace in the Middle East, wherever they may be.

What Obama needs, more than well-intentioned advice from pundits and commentators such as myself, is the grassroots support and pressure that brought him into office in the first place. One of the most notable aspects of his campaign was his ability to engage people from a wide range of backgrounds. Now the grassroots, not just in America, that brought him into office needs to take the lead, supporting (and when necessary pushing) Obama in decisions he needs to make. In terms of foreign policy, the Middle East plays a key role, and activists might worry about the problematic nature of his first major appointment in precisely this area: Rahm Israel Emanuel, a notable pro-Zionist, is to be his Chief of Staff.

This is perhaps the single most powerful position after the President and Vice-President. However, Emanuel’s appointment can also be interpreted as a positive sign: Obama knows that his own party has been very good, especially when in power, at pursuing damaging internal conflicts (just think of the Clintons’ proposed medical reform). Obama’s apparently affable nature will tend to encourage such divisive tendencies for some – but Emanuel will be sure to work hard at keeping the party together. And that is going to be necessary, since many difficult decisions lie ahead.

In relation to the Middle East, Emanuel’s background might even play an important role. Most people recognise that progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is desperately required, and that Bush has singularly failed to achieve any positive steps in the last eight years. Progress now will be even more difficult than it was eight years ago: Israel has moved significantly to the right, and the conflict has moved from one of ‘occupation’ to one of the ‘warehousing’ of ‘surplus people’ (to use Jeff Halper and Naomi Klein’s language). For Obama, having Emanuel ‘on side’ rather than attacking him from the sidelines on this issue is an advantage in itself, but Obama may also have chosen a candidate with the potential to ‘sell’ any reasonable peace agreement that might come about to the Zionist elements in the American body politic. After all, if the rabid anti-communist Richard Nixon could ‘sell’ rapprochement with China to the American public, Emanuel/Obama could potentially do the same for Israel/Palestine.

So where does this leave the Middle East? The most obvious situations needing urgent attention are the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars America is pursuing in/against Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran.

Obama clearly does ‘support Israel’ (for example, he blamed Hizbullah for the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon that resulted in over 1000 dead – most of them Lebanese – and during his campaign he made all the ‘right’ noises at the Zionist lobby events that he attended, for example the AIPAC policy conference). But, unlike the present incumbent in Washington, he also engages with other thinkers on this issue (including the late Edward Said and Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi). If, as he has allowed himself to be presented during the election campaign, he is someone who seeks to live out truth in his actions, then this alone offers more hope for any potential resolution of the conflict than anyone has seen in recent decades, even if it is but a small hope.

GW Bush’s attempt to suggest that Baghdad (rather than Jerusalem) represented the route to wider Middle East peace has been shown to be catastrophically wrong, as many predicted at the time. Now, eight long Bush-years later, it seems likely that Binyamin Netanyahu will become the next Israeli Prime Minister, probably making cooperation between the newly-elected centrist American president and Israel more difficult. The priority for those who supported Obama in his quest for the presidency should therefore be to exercise pressure towards an equitable process and just resolution of this conflict, for the Zionist right is already pushing for its own neo-conservative agenda to be continued under Obama. He needs alternative pressure in order to be able to have the freedom to act differently.

Regarding Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama seems keen to increase the military in the former, and escape from the latter. There are deeply problematic elements here: whilst arguing against Bush’s violations of international law in relation to Guantanamo Bay, for example, Obama has also spoken of his willingness to engage in attacks on militants in Pakistan itself if Pakistan ‘cannot or will not act’ against them – hardly a consistent position when thinking of international law. Escalating troop numbers in Afghanistan to counter the ‘central front’ (as he put it) in the fight against terrorism barely differs from Republican neo-conservative paradigms. However, recognising three key elements would go a long way to creating conditions of stability in Afghanistan: (a) an awareness of the range of tribal, ethnic and other differences in Afghanistan, (b) the (resulting) unlikelihood of ever being able to put in place an American-oriented central government in Kabul, and (c) the need for some realistic steps to enable Afghanistan’s integration into the global political and economic system.

Resisting the war against Iraq was one of the key factors in propelling Obama to victory, but this position is no longer relevant: in the meantime, Obama has promised withdrawal, on terms remarkably (suspiciously?) similar to those the Iraqi government is demanding: that the USA remove its troops from major population centres by the middle of 2009, and withdraw completely by 2011. Obama’s smartest move here would perhaps be to make such concessions as are needed to ensure the 2009/11 timetable works, leaving as stable an environment as possible: the nuances of this stability to be determined primarily by Iraqi expressions of their own needs, rather than the American military’s needs, and, similarly to Afghanistan, this kind of nuance offers an avenue for seeking to exert influence on Obama. In our globalised world, the opportunities for alternative news sources such as Electronic Iraq to inform and educate on such issues need to be grasped, and utilised in campaigning.

Related to Iraq, and in direct opposition to Israeli positions, the new president needs to engage differently with Iran than Bush and his clique have done. Iran is an ally of the USA in Iraq and not an adversary, for it is only through working with Iran rather than threatening it that American aims of a stable Iraq can be achieved. So much damage has been inflicted on Iraq by the USA (and as a result by the USA on itself) that opportunities for help in repairing some of this damage need to be grasped, not spurned. Obama needs to recognise that whilst most of Iran’s younger generation (approximately 70% of the population is under 30) welcomed his election, wariness of threats of ‘regime change’ haunt the governing elite, and he is undoubtedly the one who needs to make the first move here. And addressing the nuclear weapons issue in the context of regional nuclear arms acquisitions (India, Pakistan, and yes, Israel) is an integral part of this, and something that Obama needs to be pressured on in order to be able to engage with it more creatively than current hegemonic thinking allows.

What is notable about each of these ‘issues’, and many more, is their interconnected nature. Positions on Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran and many more (nuclear weapons in Europe and the USA, for example), need to be seen as part of a wider network of issues, not as individual ‘problems’ that sending in 7,000 more troops (as Obama proposes for Afghanistan) can solve. Connecting these issues will be resisted by those such as the Zionist lobby, amongst others, whose interests are served by the existing disconnections. Obama’s understanding of the world appears to be a more inclusive one that that of Bush, and this needs to be something that he is repeatedly reminded of. Nothing about this will be quick, and it certainly will not be easy, but, to quote Obama’s election victory speech, this ‘victory alone is not the change we seek; it is only the chance for us to make that change’. Obama will need all the support – and pressure – he can get if he is to effect any change at all in the Middle East, for without grassroots involvement, the danger is that the dominant paradigms overwhelm him, and nothing really changes.

© Michael Marten is lecturer in postcolonial studies with religion at Stirling University’s School of Languages, Cultures and Religions. His research centres on religion, history and politics in an international context, with a particular focus on the involvement of Europeans overseas and especially in the Middle East. He has taught Middle East history and politics in the Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, has published widely, and is a guest lecturer at the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Pavia, Italy. Michael is an Ekklesia associate.

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