Why President Obama will have a hard time changing U.S. Middle East Policy

There were many reasons to cheer Barack Obama’s election victory on Nov. 4. The first is that it ended an eight-year nightmare in which the Bush administration waged war in four Muslim countries, including Pakistan and Somalia; subverted the Constitution; and brought on a worldwide financial crisis. An administration allied with Israel’s far right wing also left behind a moribund Middle East peace process and a more firmly entrenched Israeli occupation of Palestine.

It is not yet clear how Obama intends to change these policies, or to what extent he will be able do so. A major cause of anti-U.S. hostility in the Middle East has been Washington’s unconditional support for Israel–support that has included endorsing Israel’s West Bank settlement blocs, approving Israel’s lockdown and deliberate starvation of Gaza, and refusing to condemn the system of checkpoints and roadblocks that has strangled the Palestinian economy. Obama has given mixed signals as to how he will deal with these issues.

He criticized the Bush administration for not being sufficiently involved in the peace process, but also said, "We should never seek to decide what is best for the Israelis and their security interests." Obama’s proposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, "Two states living side by side in peace and security," is almost identical to Bush’s. He routinely condemned Arab attacks on Israeli civilians but failed to protest Israel’s killing of more than a thousand Lebanese civilians in the 2006 war.

So why give even a modest cheer for Obama’s election? A major reason is that he is less frightening than Sen. John McCain, whose uncritical support for Israel, impetuousness, and readiness to go to war made a dangerous combination. As far back as 1999 McCain advocated the use of strong sanctions to roll back "rogue states" like Iraq and North Korea, and said, "We must be prepared to back up these measures with American military force if necessary." Ivo Dalder of the Brookings Institution called McCain "the true neocon," and said, "If you thought George W. Bush was bad when it comes to the use of military force, wait till you see John McCain."

In an article entitled "The Wars of John McCain" that appeared in the October issue of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote: "Senator Obama, though certainly no pacifist, envisions a world of cooperation and diplomacy; McCain sees a world of organic conflict and zero-sum competition…McCain endorses the cause of pre-emption."

McCain’s combative stance was illustrated in an op-ed that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 4, 2001, in which he called for the "complete destruction of international terrorism and the regimes that sponsor it…not reduce it, not temporarily reduce its operations. Vanquish it." Such views are especially alarming today in light of the Pentagon’s recent sale to Israel of 1,000 GBU-30 "bunker buster" bombs, which undoubtedly are intended for possible use against Iran. When a TV interviewer asked McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, "What if Israel believed itself threatened and decided to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities?" Palin answered: "I don’t think we should second-guess the measures Israel has to take to defend themselves."

McCain’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was best revealed in his choice of advisers, pro-Israel neocons such as William Kristol, James Woolsey, Max Boot, and Randy Scheunemann, former head of the pre-war Committee for the Liberation of Iraq and a lobbyist for the Republic of Georgia. One of McCain’s closest allies is Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who is often referred to as Israel’s voice in the Senate.

Another ardent McCain supporter was multimillionaire Sheldon Adelson, who according to New Yorker writer Connie Bruck is a major contributor to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and to One Jerusalem, an organization that opposes any Israeli concessions on Jerusalem. Sig Rogich, who co-hosted a fund-raiser for McCain in Las Vegas with Adelson, told Bruck that McCain has a "passion…for the issues that are so important to Sheldon Adelson–”first and foremost Israel."

Obama’s position on Israel is harder to categorize. McCain charged late in the campaign that in 2003 Obama spoke at a dinner honoring Rashid Khalidi, a distinguished Arab-American professor of Middle East studies at Columbia. The charge was true. Obama and Khalidi became friends while Khalidi was teaching at the University of Chicago and Obama was working as a community organizer. Yet at AIPAC’s national convention this year Obama told the audience that all of Jerusalem must remain part of Israel, and one of his top foreign policy advisers is Dennis Ross, a former Clinton administration envoy to the Middle East who now works at the distinctly Zionist Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and Middle East editor of Foreign Policy in Focus, points out that Obama was critical of Clinton’s unconditional support for Israel’s occupation and called for an even-handed approach to peace negotiations. Obama has also acknowledged that "Israel must make difficult concessions for the peace effort to start," and as recently as last March said, "Nobody is suffering more than the Palestinians." Zunes concludes that "As president [Obama] may well be better than his more recent Senate votes and public statements would indicate."

But even if Obama hopes to change U.S. Middle East policy, there is no guarantee he can do so, given such political realities as the financing of congressional elections by special interest groups and the power of the Israel lobby. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently provided an illuminating example of how political necessity constrains a leader’s policy decisions. In an interview on Sept. 8, the formerly hard-line Israeli declared that if Israel wants peace it must withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. He dismissed as "megalomania" the idea of an Israeli attack on Iran.

In a blistering reference to Israeli defense strategists, Olmert said, "With them it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and this hilltop and that hilltop. All these things are worthless." He went on to admit that he had been wrong for 35 years, and said, "I was unwilling to look at reality…We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself."

A year ago Olmert’s words would have caused Palestinians and many Israelis to celebrate. Instead, his change of heart was a sad reminder of Israel’s dysfunctional electoral system. Olmert could say what he did only because he has resigned and will not run for re-election. Several years ago former president Gerald Ford also spoke out in favor of a two-state solution and an end to Israel’s occupation. When a reporter asked him why he had not done so while he was president, Ford answered, "Because I was president."

A New–or Recycled?–Israeli Leader

Obama is likely to find himself similarly hobbled by a lobby composed of right-wing Jews and Christians, and a powerful defense industry. He faces the additional problem of taking office just when Israel is also in the process of choosing a new leader. Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni replaced Olmert as head of the Kadima party last September, but proved unable to put together a majority coalition in the Knesset. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which had been part of Olmert’s coalition, refused to join with Livni unless she agreed to take Jerusalem off the negotiating table. Since this would have ended the possibility of peace talks, she refused.

Another religious party, Yahadut Hatorah, also turned her down, so, with too few votes in parliament to be sure of a comfortable majority, Livni was forced to ask for new elections. According to current polls, Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu, an extreme rightist who opposes any concessions to the Palestinians, is likely to win.

Livni’s dilemma was the product of an electoral system that gives small religious parties disproportionate power in the government. Referring to Shas’ demands, her chief negotiator Tzachi Hanegbi said Livni had "decided enough blackmail." Shas not only exacts generous subsidies from the government for religious purposes, it is a powerful spokesman for ultra-Orthodox settlers.

According to the Foundation for Middle East Peace’s September-October Report on Israeli Settlement, Shas member Ariel Atias told Olmert last April that "unless you approve 286 new housing units in Beitar Ilit, all of our Knesset members will just get up and leave…when the next no-confidence vote comes." Two days later, Olmert approved the construction. The Report also noted that settlement construction has almost doubled in the past year, and the government recently approved a new settlement in the Jordan Valley.

A growing number of messianic settlers regard themselves as subject only to the will of God, who gave them the right to all of the land of Israel. Extremists continue to take over West Bank hilltops. If the army tries to evacuate them, they vandalize Palestinian property (part of a policy they call "price tag") and attack soldiers with stones and clubs. On Sept. 24 a pipe bomb went off outside the home of Ze’ev Stenhell, a Hebrew University professor and outspoken critic of West Bank settlements. Fliers were found on the scene offering $300,000 to anyone who killed a member of Peace Now.

Olmert charged the right-wing settlers with creating "An evil wind of extremism, of hatred, of malice, of violence, of running amok, of breaking the law, of contempt for the institutions of the state [that] threatens Israeli democracy." On Nov. 3 the departing prime minister said public funds no longer would be given to unauthorized outposts–”an admission that the government had been subsidizing them despite promises to the United States. Olmert would not have have dared to take such action if he intended to remain in office.

Iraq and Afghanistan

Obama will face daunting problems in attempting to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace. He may have more success, however, in getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, and finding an approach to the Taliban that does not rely on military force. Neither of these acts will be easy to accomplish, but he can count on Iraqi and Afghan support if he undertakes them.

Iraq and the U.S. drew up a draft security agreement in mid-October calling for United States forces to withdraw from Iraqi territory no later than Dec. 31, 2011, but allowing the Americans to stay beyond that date if the Iraqi government requested it. That agreement is now in limbo. On Oct. 18, some 50,000 Iraqis, including many Sunnis and Kurds, attended a rally in Baghdad organized by the Shi’i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to demand a total American withdrawal without conditions. The next day Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s own party along with several other major parties also turned down the agreement, saying many of its provisions infringed on Iraq’s sovereignty.

The Iraqis are now demanding that December 2011 be a fixed date for U.S. withdrawal, that the U.S. be forbidden to use bases in Iraq to attack other countries, and that Iraq have greater jurisdiction over American soldiers accused of crimes against Iraqi citizens. With elections scheduled to be held in early 2009, legislators are clearly worried that their approval of a security pact with the U.S. will alienate voters if it lacks these provisions.

Even apart from that issue, the election campaign is certain to be bitterly fought. Iraq’s ruling parties are reluctant to give up power, and in some cases potential challengers have been arrested and even assassinated. There is also deep animosity between the dominant Shi’i parties and the party of al-Sadr, a rift that deepened when a member of parliament from al-Sadr’s party was killed in an Oct. 9 roadside bombing.

The Baghdad government has also refused to absorb the Sunni Awakening Councils into the security forces, and has arrested many of their members. The Councils’ decision to change sides and accept salaries from the U.S. military is largely responsible for the reduction in violence credited to the surge. If the Iraqi government continues to harrass them, they may resume fighting.

Other potentially explosive problems are the struggles between Kurds and Iraqi Arabs for control of the multi-ethnic cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, competition among Shi’i factions in the south for control of oil deposits, and the continuing misery of the Iraqi people. Some 3 million Iraqis are still unable to return to their homes, and the government’s failure to restore essential services has caused a continuing severe shortage of electricity and clean water. Cholera is now prevalent in a country that once enjoyed one of the world’s most modern public health systems.

Iraq is a success story, however, compared with Afghanistan, where the Taliban and their allies continue to grow stronger. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen recently admitted that the situation is on a "downward spiral." Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote in a cable leaked to the media that the NATO military presence "is part of the problem, not part of the solution."

The Pakistanis are angry that the war has spread to their country. Islamabad has repeatedly complained that the thousands of Predator air strikes launched by the U.S. on Pakistan’s border areas are outraging the people of those areas and provoking deadly retaliation. The Foreign Ministry said the attacks "should be stopped immediately." High-level Pakistanis are calling for dialogue with the Taliban, and Saudi King Abdullah has quietly hosted discussions between Taliban and Afghan officials.

America’s involvement in what analysts see as an unwinnable war is not likely to diminish soon. The Bush administration has ignored Pakistan’s complaints and escalated the air attacks. Although the Soviets had 140,000 soldiers in Afghanistan before being driven out, the Pentagon has requested 20,000 more troops and Obama has said he favored sending them.

Hope for a more rational Middle East policy came this fall when a group of prominent Americans that included Muslim and Jewish leaders, members of Congress, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued a report entitled Changing Course: A New Direction for U.S. Relations with the Muslim World. The report calls for diplomatic engagement with Iran and other adversaries, and urges the next president to renounce torture and jump-start Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. These are minimal recommendations, but they belong at the top of President Obama’s agenda.