Hope? Change? Yes! Hope Obama Changes!
Barack Obama has been to the Middle East. He said he supported Israel and wanted peace.
So I guess everything's ok, right? Well, if he's elected president and follows through on these words that'll be just fine.
But concern about an Obama presidency is hardly dispelled, except in the media systematically ignoring the real issues. Without getting into the debate over Iraq strategy, here are the serious problems:
- Obama claims there is a "window of opportunity" for successful Israel-Palestinian negotiations. That's nonsense. But won't Obama pretend progress and "prove" he's right: by demanding unilateral Israeli concessions? Equally, Palestinian intransigence won't prompt him to admit they're responsible for failure. This isn't a window of opportunity but a doorway to disaster. Consider this simple question: If Israel withdrew from all the West Bank would anything really change? Would the Palestinians reciprocate, alter their line, stop terrorism, and accept the conflict's end? No.
- In this context, Obama's emerging campaign theme is especially worrisome. He criticizes Bush for not jumping into a peace process from his term's start. The reason, of course, was President Bill Clinton's discovery that Palestinian leaders weren't interested in peace. Obama doesn't understand why the 1990s' process failed or that you don't commit the president's prestige unless there's a real chance for progress.
- Obama thinks it "pro-Israel" to argue that Israel desperately needs peace with the Palestinians above all and that he'd do Israel a favor by pressuring it into concessions. But Israel only benefits from an agreement producing stability, the conflict's end, no cross-border terrorism, and a moderate Palestinian state. Obama's approach seems likely to turn into a peace-at-any-price scenario on the pretext of saving Israel in spite of itself. Obama thinks he knows best about Israel's security needs.
- Obama remarked that Israel's government is weak and "the Palestinians are divided between Fatah and Hamas. And so it's difficult for either side to make the bold move needed" for peace. He believes there's no problem with Fatah being eager for peace whereas its own radicalism--not divisions--is the roadblock. Even if one believes his thesis, since Obama can't solve Palestinian or Israeli political divisions, which he equates as the equal barriers to progress, how's he possibly going to advance peace?
Meanwhile, he totally misstates--and presumably misunderstands--Israeli politics. If the Palestinians were willing, Israel's government could easily move ahead. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's alleged corruption is a big issue but the coalition agrees on peace steps. Far from shrinking back, Olmert and his government see making progress as the key to popularity and survival. In contrast, the PA knows that the actions needed to make a deal would be its downfall. That's the critical difference.
- Does Obama really understand that the region's central issue is a war with radical forces who seek to overthrow every regime and seize control of the area? He emphasizes al-Qaida as the threat thus neglecting Iran, Syria, Hamas, Hizballah, and the Muslim Brothers? Are they potential allies if only treated nicely?
- His new gimmick--I'm for fighting harder in Afghanistan and less in Iraq--is foolish. Whatever one thinks of Iraq, Afghanistan is far harder. U.S. policy has a chance to help create a stable regime in Iraq but not in Afghanistan. And does Obama really intend to be a hawk on the Afghan front or is this a cheap trick to show him as being tough? I'll bet on the latter explanation.
- There's no indication Obama understands the need to defend Lebanon against a takeover by Hizballah, Iran, and Syria. Obama's last statement on Lebanon actually endorsed Hizballah's position, due either to ignorance or his philosophy of avoiding confrontation at all costs.
- If Obama wants to make the United States and the West more independent of Middle East instability or radical blackmail, at least in the long term, he'd favor extensive oil drilling on U.S. territory, which he doesn't.
- The real issue is not that he wants to talk to Iran and Syria but what he'll offer them and what he'll conclude when they reject or sabotage his efforts? Obama says his "willingness to negotiate" would expose Tehran by stripping "away whatever excuses they may have, [and] whatever rationales may exist in the international community for not ratcheting up sanctions and taking serious action." Isn't that what the Bush administration did last week and Europeans have been doing for years? Do we really believe Obama just wants to have talks as a trap so he then can get tough?
- Obama says the right things on Iran nuclear but can he actually be counted on to stop Tehran? Asked about an Israel attack he replies, "My goal is to avoid being confronted with that hypothetical."? Yet his more likely avoidance strategy would be to block the attack, not force Iran to back down. He claims U.S. policy failed because it didn't "follow through with the kinds of both carrots and sticks that might change the calculus of the Iranian regime." Clearly, he's not familiar with the history which contradicts that assertion.
- Won't radicals conclude he's so weak (or even sympathetic) that they can walk all over him and get away with it? Do we think they're wrong? Does he really understand the use of force, deterrence, the stick as well as the carrot? That doesn't fit his record and ideology.
It comes down to this: Do you really believe Obama has the understanding, toughness, and worldview needed to deal with the extremists or that they will eat his poor allies for lunch and him for dinner?
There are thus two options:
- Option A: Obama becomes president and hope he does a good job, perhaps after a three-year, possibly costly, learning process.
- Option B: We won't have to find out whether the previous sentence will come true.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History?of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin,?(Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.
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