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Barack Obama & the Middle East!
Barack Obama achieved what some analysts had doubted until the very last moment: he was elected 44th president of the United States of America after a brilliant campaign that outclassed, outgunned and outmanoeuvred his not-so-maverick rival.

14 November   |   2008   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

There is little doubt that America’s new president-elect, known in some circles as No-Drama Obama, will take office at the White House on 20 January 2009 on a huge tide of goodwill. So much goodwill in fact that one thousand liberal activists distributed 1.2 million copies of a spoof of the New York Times newspaper earlier this week carrying a fictitious - but significant - date of 4 July 2009 and heralding the headlines that President Obama had ended the war in Iraq and closed the Guantánamo Bay detention centre, and that ex-president Bush had been indicted on a charge of high treason.

Yet, this young and rather inexperienced senator from Chicago inherits a frightful mess! After all, the global markets have crashed, climate change is casting its spectre on the world and two bungled wars - Iraq and Afghanistan - have plunged America into record debt, bruised its military and sapped its moral leadership. Eight years of unilateralism, ideology and coercion have wrought havoc with the world, and Obama now has to exercise soft power to correct Bush-friendly excesses.

But would he manage to pull off this truly gargantuan challenge, and what will happen with the Middle East?

As the political strategist Michael Byers lucidly reminded his readers last week, the priorities of the Middle East will focus first on Iraq, followed closely by Afghanistan and Iran, and only later will the larger Arab-Israeli issues housing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at its epicentre come up. In fact, and with urgent domestic issues notwithstanding, Iraq and Afghanistan alone could easily harness much of his efforts and those of his Secretary of State during the first four-year term. The more regional issues that include Lebanon and Palestine will in my opinion not receive too much hands-on attention in this first term and could end up being relegated to a possible second term after 2012. Besides, the appointments that fill the slots of his future Administration - the likes of Rahm Emmanuel for instance as chief of staff - could also provide us with indices about the orientations of the man as he sets about trying to repair the battering that America has sustained over eight years.

Throughout his short political life, Obama has repeatedly stated that he disapproved the invasion of Iraq and wished to see US troops pulled out or reduced within sixteen to twenty four months. In fact, the relative stability of Iraq in recent months, which has resulted much more from a myriad deals concluded with Sunni tribal leaders constituting the Sahwa or Awakening Councils rather than from the so-called ‘surge’, creates a possible window of opportunity to use the improved security situation as a justification for a notable de-escalation of US military presence in Iraq. In fact, the knots are being unravelled already, with the Iraqi institutions endorsing the revised and improved status-of-forces agreement (Sofa)).

Parallel to American considerations, Obama’s election would also free PM Gordon Brown from the dubious moral commitment undertaken by his predecessor Tony Blair to stand ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with President George Bush in his invasion of Iraq. As such, I would also expect an accelerated drawdown from Basra too, with our troops being perhaps stationed in Afghanistan where at least a real war is being waged against al-Qa’eda to secure future world peace.

However, Obama had promised to send two more combat brigades to Afghanistan and strike within Pakistan if necessary. But with election ague over, I question if he would persist with the NATO-led war. It is not inconceivable that he might re-read the recent Afghan history that repulsed numerous foreign forces and opt instead for a major strategic review that could provide the political cover for a diplomatic and negotiations-led approach with tribal leaders - including the Taliban.

I have often criticised the misjudgements of the current US Administration. Like the majority of Europeans, I too was counting the days until the Bush Administration walked out of the White House. However, I also feel an underpinning of concern at the election of this man since the challenges that confront him are so Herculean he is bound to trip somewhere. This is normal, but I fear his failure would not only translate into a massive letdown of popular expectations, it would also become a severe disappointment for African Americans who have celebrated as president one of their own.

Today, though, I wish to remain optimistic, not yield to niggling concerns or untimely quibbles. So I shall celebrate for now the election of a man who has truly overturned the tables against a stenosed Republican Party let alone against a formidable Hillary Clinton who was a definitive shoo-in for the highest post had Obama not thought big - and thought out of the box.

So what is the future of Barack Obama with the Middle East? Well, just pray with me!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2008   |   14 November


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