Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 01:40 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Feb 2018 | 01:40 | SYDNEY

Obama's Middle East policy



9 March 2009 16:36

Anthony Bubalo's Five Middle East crises facing the Obama Administration gave an excellent overview of some of the problems requiring US attention in this tough neighbourhood. As for its policy responses, Theodore Roosevelt's oft quoted retelling of a West African proverb is an appropriate one to describe the Obama Administration's initial approach to addressing a range of  Middle East issues.   
Major power interventions in the region have a spectacularly poor record. Grand schemes developed in far-away capitals have a habit of rarely being realised, as the legacy of history, entrenched self-interest, cultural relativity, religious bigotry and the tyranny of distance all combine to ensure failure. 

The Obama Administration has been careful; more nuanced in the style it has adopted and substantive in the people it has put on the task than its predecessor. In contrast to the Bush Administration's grandiose democratisation project — a poorly thought-out vision in search of a coherent plan — the Obama Administration is avowedly more realist than ideologue. 

There is no guarantee that the Obama Administration will be any more likely to succeed than its predecessor, but there have been some encouraging initial signs. Its desire to address the Middle East peace issue at the start (rather than at the end) of its time in office has lent it some credibility, for the time being. Similarly, the $900 million worth of aid to Gaza, on the proviso that it not benefit Hamas, was again a pragmatic gesture, even if the mechanics of how to avoid Hamas benefiting were yet to be worked out. 

Understanding that the invasion of Iraq went against the advice of his Gulf allies, upset many of America's regional friends and opened the door for Iran and Syria to wage a low-level proxy campaign against coalition forces, President Obama has moved swiftly to reduce Iraq as a point of contention in the region by setting a timetable for the withdrawal of combat forces.
In the case of Syria, small steps are being made to signal to Damascus that Washington is ready to talk. As this article argues, the future economic needs of Syria may be a means of influence in exchange for Damascus' cooperation on a range of issues. This line of approach already appears to have made some small progress, if reports of the US releasing spares to fix two Syrian Airways Boeing 747s are anything to go by.

Any number of issues could derail the Syrian track: the Hariri tribunal, the peace policy of the new Israeli Government, events in Lebanon; but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Ankara showed that trying to revive the Turkish-mediated Syrian-Israeli peace talks presents a way for the Obama Administration to advance the peace process without becoming terminally committed.
In the case of Iran, there appears to be a coherent attempt to deal with the country using several lines of operation. The first entails engaging Iran on topics of mutual interest, illustrated by this week's invitation to a regional Afghanistan conference. The second is a continuation of the plan to further isolate Iran, evidenced by the US offer to link a dropping of the European-based US missile defence program with Russian assistance to stop Iran's uranium enrichment program (although there are some who doubt this is really viable).

The extent of Iran's nuclear capability is still not entirely known, as the US Administration has shown recently, and there will always be a risk that Iran's nationalist theocratic leadership engages in dialogue to buy. In the absence of a viable alternative, the Administration assumes that it is a risk worth taking.
The calculation in all of this appears to be that dialogue will progress the issues, the status quo has done nothing to advance US regional interests and a 'carrot and stick' approach is worth trying. The problem is that the carrots and sticks are limited, and as more attention gets paid to the Middle East, the situation in South Asia goes from bad to worse. 

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