In his “Cairo speech”, Barack Obama expounded a set of issues threatening the relations between the US and the Islamic world. Specifically to the Middle East, Obama singled out three crucial issues and made respective promises. Firstly, he addressed the issue of the Iraqi War expressing his disagreement with it and emphasising the need for diplomacy. He promised the withdrawal of all troops by 2012 and help in achieving a stable future. Secondly, he addressed the problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He made it clear that America would not deny Palestine’s right for statehood and explicitly denounced Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank underlying its role as a hindrance to peace. In other words, Obama promised a radical departure from the position the various US administrations had held before him. Thirdly, he addressed the issue of Iran’s aspirations to attain nuclear weapons. He expressed the fear that it would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and thus that his administration was ‘willing to move forward without preconditions’ towards a reconciliation.
Although the last US combat troops left Iraq in December, thus fulfilling Obama’s first half of the promise, they left behind a country on the brink of civil war. Sectarian strife looms large and the government seems ineffective in providing any kind of security to its citizens. In fact, slightly ironically, it is reported that governmental security forces are applying the same methods used by the Saddam Hussein regime on Iraqi citizens. Whilst the natural resources of the country are being exploited by international corporations and there have been many doubts about the fairness of the 2010 Iraqi elections, Obama, in his Fort Bragg speech, called the ‘stable’ progress in Iraq an ‘extraordinary achievement’. Although Iraq is one of the biggest recipients of US foreign aid, the Obama administration should have devised a more specific and committed plan of reconstruction. None of this seems in sight: the future of Iraq is more uncertain every day.
The Obama administration has not repeated the common position held by former administrations in taking Israel’s side unconditionally in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In actuality it has vehemently increased US support for the Jewish-majority state. In terms of settlement construction (illegal under international law), the Obama administration never really posed a threat to the Netanyahu government. The only concession it achieved was a ten month freeze (excluding East Jerusalem) in exchange for giving Israel nearly $3 billion worth of military aid on top of the annual $3 billion in grants (despite the financial turmoil of the US economy). Just to make it clear where the Obama administration stands on the issue, it promised to veto the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations. So much for his earlier promises.
At first sight, Obama’s only virtue seems to be the use of sanctions rather than force in dealing with Iran’s nuclear project. But if we consider the amount of military support the Obama administration gives Israel and the continued belligerent messages the Netanyahu government conveys to Iran, then we are justified in claiming US responsibility in any attack Israel might be planning against the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, if Obama is truly concerned about a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and if he is truly committed to stopping it through diplomacy, then perhaps he should show impartiality by beginning with Israel’s disarmament, the only country which actually possesses weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East (and which has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; Iran has). But the administration’s double standards are well known.
When Obama was delivering his speech in Cairo, few could have guessed that in just a year and a half’s time the Arab world would have experienced a wave of revolutions toppling dictator after dictator. The Obama administration’s reaction was carefully calculated. At first, especially in the case of Egypt, the administration did not express itself in favour of the protesters. Only once the public abuses became undeniable did the administration pronounce its opposition to Mubarak’s rule, hypocritically to say the least since Mubarak’s dictatorship had been supported by the US from its inception. Perhaps Obama’s best bet so far has been not to get too involved in Libya during the recent intervention, but the UK and France had already fulfilled that role. The opposition to Syria’s Assad regime is just but not for the right reasons. While the right reasons should be a genuine valuing of democracy and of human rights, the administration’s opposition to Syria is in part due to the latter’s financial and military support of Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia party-cum-militia which opposes Israel.
Although Obama has broken most of his promises it is imperative to hope that, in case of his re-election, something might change. Because the administration will not depend anymore on the pro-Israeli vote, and thus will not need the heavy support of the various pro-Israeli lobbies, perhaps it will place its own priorities first in dealing with the Middle East. The same can be said about the other lobbies’ influences. To be sure in its first three years the administration showed a lack of autonomy in its decision making.