Wednesday 31 October 2012

The jury is still out

Obama and the Middle-East: The End of America’s Moment?, by Fawaz Gerges (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)

Barack Obama came into office having promised to distance America from the neoconservative philosophy of George W Bush’s presidency. As a senator he had opposed the Iraq war, and during presidential campaigning he vowed to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as extend an open hand to the Iranian regime. But as his first term draws to a close, Professor Fawaz Gerges, director of the London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre argues Obama has been timid when it comes to the region, and thus as a consequence his policies have been disastrous.

Following George Bush’s ‘war on terror’, the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Turkey’s growing dominance, as well as Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq, America’s hard-power domination in the region, is according to Gerges - coming to an end. While the decline of American hegemony is an interesting discussion, it does, however, feel at times superfluous to Gerges’ central argument, and seems to contradict the subtitle of the book, as he shows America’s relationship with the Middle East certainly amounts to more than just a ‘moment’, and as the Arab Spring continues – America’s involvement is unlikely to cease.

George Bush’s foreign policy is dismissed as a ‘faith based agenda’, and throughout, Gerges has unnecessary outbursts regarding the former President. In particular; Gerges fumes about Iraq, the ‘war on terror’, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He bizarrely blames Bush for the election of Hamas in Gaza - seemingly failing to comprehend it was the Palestinians themselves who democratically elected such a government. And he conveniently neglects the fact Bush was the first American President to call for the recognition of a Palestinian state.

Regarding Bush’s foreign policy advisers, Gerges dismisses their philosophy concerning humanitarian intervention as ‘imperialism’ in the interests of Israel, describing them as the ‘fierce Israel-first school’; individuals who ‘displayed a curious inability to view the Middle East through anything but Israeli-made glasses’. This is an accusation later made at Obama’s staff, many of whom are old faces from the Clinton era. Indeed, the apparent braggadocio figure, Dennis Ross, who has a ‘long history of representing Israel-first special-interest groups within and beyond the US administrations’, is the target of much of Gerges’ ire.

During his Presidential campaign in 2006, Obama stressed his foreign policy philosophy as something ‘based on a realistic assessment of the sobering facts on the ground and our interests in the region’. Early on in his Presidency, he extended his hand to the Muslim world, declaring in Cairo, June 2009 that he was seeking ‘a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect’.

In the speech Obama discussed the Israel-Palestine conflict. It is worth quoting him at length:

For more than 60 years they’ve (Palestinians) endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, and neighbouring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure daily humiliations – large and small-that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

Gerges claims Obama has not acted upon this rhetoric for fear of upsetting ‘the pro-Israel lobby’, which is ‘politically costly at home’. This is an example of the ‘wide gap between Obama’s words and actions’. Two years later in September 2010, Obama’s peace summit met a fate not dissimilar to Bush’s efforts at Annapolis in 2007. And he later dismissed the Palestinians bid for self-determination at the UN because he was unable to defeat ‘the baleful Israel first school’.

Gerges contends this has been a ‘striking policy failure’, which will be remembered as Obama’s ‘missed opportunity’. Indeed, in the end, he could not even curtail the hawkish Netanyahu’s desire for settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Despite claiming in Cairo that he would not turn his back on ‘the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own’ - the Palestinians were nonetheless conveniently dropped. In his discussion on the Israel-Palestine conflict, however, Gerges accepts contentious statements from Abdel Bari Atwan and Khaled Meshaal at face value. Yet both men have been known to make contradictory statements to placate different audiences (1). Professor Gerges is somewhat tendentious in his handling of such sources.

This is also the case regarding his discussion on Iran’s nuclear program. He narrates the work of controversial columnist Seymour Hersh, who ‘has been reporting on Iran and the bomb for The New Yorker for the past decade’, and has ‘concluded that there is no new incriminating evidence in the report (IAEA’s)’. This deduction is based ‘on several interviews with top nuclear engineers and arms control specialists and former US intelligence officials who have spent years researching the Iranian nuclear program’. Indeed, ‘Hersh asserts that the recent charges against Iran are politically motivated and that the new director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano…is acting at the behest of US wishes’.

While it is known Hersh is not the most reliable of sources (2), and much of his reporting his somewhat dubious, Gerges does not seem to pass judgement on his source (in what is otherwise a heavily polemical and opinionated piece of work). Yet, in the conclusion, Gerges seems to drop the incertitude he creates surrounding Iran’s nuclear ambitions, claiming ‘the Iranians have recently doubled their efforts to amass more low-enriched uranium and begun enrichment at a facility deep underground’. It would thus appear his use of Mr Hersh’s work is simply an exercise in obscurantism.

From the outset of his Presidency, Obama repaired America’s relationship with Turkey following Bush’s ‘poor stewardship of the US-Turkey relationship’. Gerges claims Obama’s ‘greatest political achievement…. Lay in nourishing an exceptionally close strategic relationship with Turkey’. But such a claim contradicts his previous avowals about the Israel lobby. He does not explain how Obama was able to build such a close ties with Turkey, despite its decline in bilateral ties with Israel. Indeed, if the Jewish state really did wag America’s tail as Professor Gerges suggests - how was Obama able to forge this relationship?

According to Professor Gerges, ‘Al Qaeda no longer exists as an effective organisation’, and he contends fear of Al-Qaeda is the West’s imagination. Referencing an article by New York Times Correspondents David Sanger and Mark Mazzetti, Gerges argues that ‘there are roughly only 300 (now fewer than 100) surviving members of Al Qaeda, based mainly in Pakistan and Afghanistan’. In the same article, however, the authors quote several prominent American officials who claim ‘Al Qaeda has forged close ties with a number of affiliated militant groups’, and thus such statistics should not be taken seriously – something Professor Gerges fails to mention.
He also makes the creepy insinuation that ‘Al Qaeda and other similar factions might succeed in carrying out an attack in the not too distant future based on the escalation of conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan’. Yet, he fails to acknowledge Al Qaeda was operating in both countries a long time before the American intervention. Nor does he reference the inspiration behind why they continue to foment a civil war in Nigeria, and continue their demands for East Timor to be returned to Indonesia.

While Iraq may not be the beacon of democracy the neoconservatives had predicted, Obama has nonetheless managed to withdraw American troops. They are also continuing to leave Afghanistan (indeed a further 23,000 left this year), until complete withdrawal in 2014. Thus, Gerges’ criticisms regarding these two countries seem somewhat unfair. As does his criticisms regarding Obama’s handling of Egypt. Indeed, he may have been slow in dealing with Egypt’s revolution, having been taken by surprise. But when it became apparent Mubarak’s time was up, Obama rightly cut his former ally loose.

Acutely aware of America’s declining hegemony, Obama stated in the opening of the 2010 National Security Strategy, that he is ‘focused on renewing American leadership so that we can more effectively advance our interests in the 21st century’. While Professor Gerges claims Obama’s approach in the Middle East ‘reflects a vacuum in global leadership’, he fails to recognise that Islamic revolution across the region is not in anyone’s interest, least of all America’s, and thus Obama’s realist foreign policy which he was elected on, has seemingly not altered. So as the storms continue to gather in the Middle East; the jury remains, for now, still out on President Obama.


1) Gerges quotes him stating that many view Obama’s address in the United Nations and his opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood as a declaration of an ‘open war against all Arabs’. Mr Atwan has previously praised indiscriminate Palestinian targeting of Israeli civilians as something which is ‘justified’. Moreover, in June 2007, he stated ‘If the Iranian missiles strike Israel, by Allah, I will go to Trafalgar Square and dance with delight’. He has been heavily criticized by several fellow Arab and Muslim commentators. For example, Munir Al-Mawari, the Yemenite journalist and columnist for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat claims:

The Abd Al-Bari Atwan on CNN is completely different from the Abdel Bari Atwan on the Al-Jazeera network or in his Al-Quds Al-Arabi daily. On CNN, Atwan speaks solemnly and with total composure, presenting rational and balanced views. This is in complete contrast with his fuming appearances on Al-Jazeera and in Al-Quds Al-Arabi, in which he whips up the emotions of multitudes of viewers and readers.

Despite this, Professor Gerges quotes him insouciantly as the ‘editor of an influential pan-Arab newspaper’, and fails to properly evaluate his claims.

2) Indeed, Arthur Schlesinger, a former aide of Kennedy once referred to him as ‘the most gullible investigative reporter I’ve ever encountered’. And it would seem this anti-war journalist has other motives in dismissing the IAEA’s findings, particularly his dislike of the ‘Jewish lobby’, which he once claimed was the causal factor in Hillary Clinton’s Hawkish views on Iran. Hersh’s views on Iran would thus seem to be influenced by his view that it is only Jews who see ‘Iran as an existential threat’. Despite the fact the main initiative against Tehran’s nuclear development has come from the European Union and the IAEA, two organizations, to quote the late Christopher Hitchens - ‘where the voice of the Jewish lobby is, to say the least, distinctly muted’.


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