Obama: the Man, the Phenomena & the Expectations


 It think it is obvious that he is a man who came from almost nowhere. Very few people in the United States knew who he was before started running for president. A junior senator from Illinois  a one term senator, not a lot of experience in administration, not a lot of experience in American foreign policy and not a lot of experience as a legislator.
He took the country by storm perhaps in part because he seemed to offer something new. People made a comparison of Obama as being in the tradition of the Kennedy legacy. I am not sure that is fair but perhaps there is something in it. I think personally that one of the principal reasons he swept to success was that the country was fed up with George W Bush and almost anyone made a good change.
McCain seemed to a lot of people to be more of the same. I think  he has got more  personality  than Bush but he is a bit of a loose canon so it is probably a good thing that  he didn’t get elected.
Of course the other factor that  really built into Obama’s victory was the economy. That hurt the administration and it hurt McCain by association and propelled Obama into the lead shortly after the primaries.
Some people say that the got his start, his  push towards the primaries, because he was opposing Hilary Clinton who  was much better known, a much smoother politician in many ways but also a woman. The fact that he defeated her is amazing in many respects. He is the first American president. Race was not an issue in this campaign and one hopes it is not an issue in the future.
What can we expect from him? Putting aside domestic issues internationally he portrayed himself as being not only more liberal than his  opponents but also being more open to co-operation in international affairs. This will translate, at least in part to something more manageable.
I look back in part to 12th September 2001 and Le Monde put out its issue with the famous headline: We are all Americans now. It only took seven years for the Bush administration to completely destroy all of that good will, by a program of belligerence, a program of doing things by itself. Not really bothering to secure the support of allies. Afghanistan was perhaps easier because the threat seemed much clearer. Britain of course  was the only principal ally in the American invasion of Iraq.
I think it is fair to say that Obama would not have gone along with that invasion. He would not have been led by the neo-cons and of course he made a big deal that he voted against authorizations in the senate.
But that was then, and now is now and even though both he and Hilary made the point that they would withdraw American troops from Iraq as soon as possible, I don’t think you are going to see that in the immediate future. It will be a longer term process and it will have to be linked to more stable fundamental reconstruction in Iraq. Of course the question about the Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq is a hot potato both for Iraqi politicians in general and particularly Nouri Al Maliki and that will also translate into a need for some sophistication on the part of the Obama administration in dealing with that.
I am not a member of the United States government and I don’t know whether there is any real attempt to have any permanent bases. Certainly these bases were built with a degree of hardness but that was due mostly to the threat they faced. I don’t know if there is any strategic interest for the United States to have bases in Iraq as well as anywhere else in the developing world. There are many others  to pursue foreign policy, particularly an aggressive foreign policy.
Obama will make changes but I think there have been too many expectations that he will make radical changes. Certainly he is going to make a difference in the Bush administrations foreign policy but he is not going to do 180 degree turns. One of the factors that  propelled him to victory was American dissatisfaction with Bush on many levels but in particular with Iraq. Most Americans want to get out of Iraq. They see it as  a trap must as serious as Vietnam. They don’t see any end to it. They are concerned with the numbers of American casualties. Even though Americans in general would like to see American troops withdrawn as soon as possible  there is also a very strong spirit of support the troops and that leads many Americans to believe that those soldiers who died in Iraq should not have died in vain. There should have been something accomplished.  As time goes on with the new administration I think that is going to come to the for.
There are two countervailing tendencies. One is to get out because nothing can be accomplished. The other is that we can’t leave until we have accomplished something and balancing that is going to come to the fore.
The other thing I think that should be kept in mind is that American foreign policy, like the foreign policy of most countries is determined  by many different factors. National interests are defined in different ways, a sort of core set of national interests that is generally agreed upon.  President Obama cannot stray from these core interests very far.
For whatever reason the USA is still traumatized by what happened on 9/11 and national security is something that no one will ever challenge, at least not in the foreseeable future and the whole  idea of preemptive strategy which was really signaled under the Clinton administration  and certainly became very prominent with this administration is not going to disappear – not entirely at least.
We have to keep in mind that there will be continuities. Obama portrays himself as being liberal  more open to multilateralism. This was part of the campaign when he said he would talk to the leaders like Ahmedinjad and others that Bush would never talk without preconditions.  This is probably the wisest move on his part.
That does not mean that he will change policy. He will be more open to things, you need to have two people to speak and you need to speak in terms of openness and a willingness to compromise. I am not sure that is going to happen.
Another thing as far as the Middle East is concerned, is that they have just had an election in the United States. But there are a number of elections that are coming up in the Middle East which are going to affect the equation  almost as much as this past one.
The election for president in Iran. Will Ahmedinjad win again or will Rafsanjani  and what impact will that have on Iranian policy? Israel. If the election were held today Netanyahu would be swept in and if that happens what are the chances of any kind of Palestinian – Israeli negotiations. Lithni has said that the reason she may not win the election is because she has not caved in the religious right and cannot build a coalition in the Knesset.
There were four elections:  Iran, Israel, Afghanistan (Karzai is not the most effective or the most popular leader but what are the alternatives?) and Egypt. I don’t think we have to worry about the Egyptian election changing policy.
My point is that there are elections in the Middle East that are likely to change the face of those countries policies and that the Obama administration is going to have to take that into account. Looking at matters as they are both elections in Iran and Israel are not going to be conducive to a better negotiating climate. Obama is not going to be able to change those basic facts on the ground.
I am not really an expert on Obama and I think it would be better if we opened up for discussion.
Dr Shehabi: Thank you very much John. I think it would have been appropriate to comment on US interests. What are they? And why should the US interests be tied to those of Israel as we have seen. President Bush, Clinton and now Obama must have realized that most of the problems facing the US as a challenge are due to their unequivocal support to Israel and Israeli policies in the occupied territories. The lack of progress in the peace process. Last year they had Annapolis and a year after there is nothing. As if it has completely died. So what is it that is pulling down the USA in the Middle East. Why is it hated, not as a country but as a system, an administration. Isn’t it time  for concerned Americans to enforce some real change that would convince the world that there has been a genuine transformation of the mentality, of the psyche, of justice, especially towards the Middle East. So what are your thoughts on this.
Dr Peterson: My first thought is that if you expected something to come out of Annapolis you were very much an optimist.
Dr Shehabi: So why did the US go that way by adopting policies that lead to nowhere? The only place they lead is more hostilities?
Dr Peterson: Lets break them down into various components because I don’t think you can reach  a judgment in general. American support for Israel has been there for many years is going to continue into the future. There is no question about that.
Dr Shehabi: My question is why?
Dr Peterson: There are many factors one of which is a belief that Israel is the only stable democratic country in the region.  There has  certainly been a belief in the time of the cold war that Israel is a strategic ally and asset against communist expansion. To a certain extent that continues because the USA co-operates militarily and in other ways with Israel and there is no problem with that.
In Saudi Arabia a few years ago they wanted American forces out for domestic reasons. There is, and a wouldn’t over play this, a certain amount of influence from the Jews and the Jewish community that  is not monolithic and it only has a marginal effect.
The USA congress votes almost solidly behind pro-Israeli resolutions and the history of arms sales to Arab countries has been very difficult to achieve and is with strings attached. If you sell something  to Saudi Arabia then you have to sell something to Saudi Arabia that is of higher quality to balance it off. This is not likely to change either.
Americans tend to be a very insular people. America is a very large country, the majority of Americans have never been outside the country, there is not a great interest in international affairs and not a lot of knowledge. People know about Israel, it has a positive image. Arabs and Muslims these days have a negative image.  If you ask people if America should support Israel or the Arabs, most people who know nothing about the region are going to say Israel.
The last time the US government actively sought to bring the parties (Arabs and Israelis) together in the region was Camp David with Clinton bringing Barak and Arafat together. And of course  in failed and Arafat was cast as the vilian when it failed for more  fundamental reasons.
The Bush administration stayed away from that issue. It felt that they could not achieve. It was a lower priority. It was more harmful to actively engage then simply to let it go.
Why did the USA decide to go in and depose Saddam Hussein? It is a difficult question to answer because there is no clear cut reason. A lot of people think it must have been oil. Oil doesn’t work that way. It is not that you need to directly control oil resources. You buy oil from whichever party is in. I don’t  see any reason why Saddam Hussein would have refused to sell oil to the USA any more than Colonel Qadhafi refused to sell oil to the USA. The USA refused to buy oil from him.
Personally I think there were two factors in that. One was that more generally Iraq was seen as a destabilizing influence in the Middle East.  In was in American interests to have a stable Middle East, a stable world, one that is congruent with American interests. Saddam had been threatening that for years. So there was a certain impatience to change that.
In conjunction post  9/11 there has been an  emphasis on pre-emptive action to counter threats to the USA and its allies.  In the cold war period the USA did not attack the Soviet Union first. It deterred. It  you are attacked, or it looks as if you are going to be attacked in a nuclear  war, you have to get in the first strike. That is pre-emptive. In the post 9/11 strategy the idea is that war or the major threat from the USA is not going to be from another power, another state because the USA has preponderance of military power. The threat is going to become from what is called asymmetric warfare from terrorism, from Al Qaeda and in order to fight them you really have to go out and be very aggressive, destroy the source of the threat. You cannot  wait for it to come to you.
And this was molded by the neocons into Iraq being one of these threats. And as you know the American position on Iraq was predicated on a number of false premises, allegations of ties between terrorists and elements in Saddam’s government, the search for WMD’s that did not exist. I don’t think anyone knew they did not exist but this was not a viable strategy.
It ties into the neo argument that if you want to change the Middle East to secure a more conductive environment for development and change and democracy – not just American but global interests which also means a state of peace between Israel and its  neighbours. The first step is to get rid of the destabilizing elements and  of course the most prominent of these was Saddam’s Iraq.
The neo cons in the administration were not listened to before 9/11. They were saying the same things. Books and articles were being written but no was taking them seriously even within the administration. After 9/11 it was a different world and their arguments began to be heard and accepted and won over the president. And the rest, unfortunately, is history.
Dr Shehabi: Do you want to comment on the future policy of Obama in the Gulf, will there be any change?
Dr Peterson: The USA has already begun to speak to Iran but very quietly and I think that will come more to the fore under Obama.  To me that is a wise strategy. You announce that you are willing to talk to Iran rather than freeze them out and institute sanctions. That puts the ball in Iran’s court. If they don’t co-operate you can say we tried our best. But the problem in that strategy is we don’t know who is going to be president of Iran after the next election. Ahmedinjad is a loose canon as well. We don’t know how he is going to react to any change in American policy.


* Dr. J.E. Peterson is a historian and political analyst specializing in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf.  He received his Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University SAIS and has worked at the Library of Congress and taught at Bowdoin College , the College of William and Mary, the University of Pennsylvania , and Portland State University , all in the United States .  He has been a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute ( Philadelphia ) and the Middle East Institute ( Washington , D.C. ), and an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies ( Washington , D.C. ).  Until 1999, he served as the Historian of the Sultan’s Armed Forces in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for Security and Defence in Muscat , Sultanate of Oman, and he spent 2000-2001 at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London .  He is affiliated with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona and served as the 2004 Sir William Luce Fellow at the University of Durham (UK).

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