The Obama Method
President Obama’s recent speech on his nation’s policy towards the middle-east, which you can see the video of above or watch a nice video summary of here, is a telling example of this president’s commitment to finding a better path in this deeply troubled but quickly evolving region. Thanks to it, and the many recent policy actions by the Obama White House, we’re starting to see the contours of a smarter, more pragmatic and more compassionate American foreign policy.
Obama has received a lot of flack for what could be described as a soft approach to the region. Obama’s cautious and quiet words on the Arab Spring and his refusal to take the lead militarily in Libya can be confusing when compared with his idealistic rhetoric. When compared with his ruthlessness and sovereignty-be-damned determination to kill Osama bin laden, it’s perhaps even more confusing.
But what this hides is a detailed and intelligent set of policies that are being carefully adapted to rapidly changing and, as this year has shown more than anything else, entirely unpredictable series of events. Resisting strong pressure from headline-focused US pundits and politicians, Obama refused to give into the temptation to talk loudly and offer overt support to the protesters of the Arab Spring. A clear example of his (sometimes too strong) focus on long-term outcomes over short-term domestic political gain. This caution allowed the movement to flourish organically and locally – and not be seen as democracy again imposed by the US. That the Arab world can ‘own’ democracy and establish it themselves is incredibly important to seeing freedom and civil rights bloom in the region.
Similarly, Libya required incredible diplomatic deftness and the quiet hand of the US. If it was led by anything but a regional coalition, it would have been seen as a new example of US imperialism and would have again cut short the still-bourgeoning democratic movement in the Arab world. This is where you can see Obama’s idealism laced with a dose of rational pragmatism. The immediate motivation of the no-fly zone was to prevent a massacre in Benghazi, which succeeded. This is Obama’s belief in the responsibility to protect. But from there the policy was cautious and more concerned with what can be achieved, not what should. We still don’t know if the course taken in Libya is the right one or whether it will lead to what should be the ultimate goal, regime-change, but what is evident is that it is the least worse response to the situation. For similar reasons we won’t be going into Syria anytime soon, as no good would come of it.
Solving the Unsolvable
This pragmatic idealism (a contradiction yes, but all politics is contradictory) offered by President Obama is about to be tested more than it ever has before. In his speech he outlined his support to the Arab Spring and the promise of billions of dollars in aid to the states that have been successful in overthrowing their dictators, Egypt and Tunisia. This new policy evokes probably the best piece of foreign policy in US history: the Marshall Plan. Through the injection of billions the Marshall Plan rebuilt Western Europe after WWII and banished the conditions of inequality that could have led to another huge European war; the money and debt relief for Egypt and Tunisia is a smaller gesture, but hopefully enough to have an impact. As well as this, Obama called for a peace-agreement between Israel and Palestine to begin with the borders that existed before the 1967 Six Day War. This is the first time a sitting US President has made this demand, and it is an important and necessary step for any lasting peace.
The biggest obstacle to progress at this point seems to be Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has rejected Obama’s call for pre-67 borders out of hand, along with his request for a freeze to the building of Israeli settlements. The continued building of settlements is, of course, both a threat to peace and to Israel’s existence in the future. Relations between Obama and Netanyahu, who leads a fragile and staunchly right-wing coalition, are toxic and marked by a complete lack of trust, an unusual situation for the usually steadfast allies. This is perhaps a reflection of a growing divide between the two nations’ interests on this issue. The Obama Administration sees solving the Israel-Palestine crisis as crucial to restoring American influence in the region, while the current Israeli government seems dangerously content with the status quo.
When Netanyahu first came to power, despite him coming from a party seemingly opposed to a peace-deal (or the conditions required for one), I saw it as having the potential for forging a final peace. Why? Because sometimes difficult reform is best achieved from someone who leads the party that most objects to it. This counter-intuitive idea is why President Clinton was able to enact welfare reform, Paul Keating was able to lead labour-market reform and why the audacious carbon-emissions targets in the UK are likely to stick: because they are being enacted by the Conservatives. They can bring along their side, and forge a consensus. In the case of Israeli domestic politics it doesn’t seem like much will happen without broad support, including at least some of the right-wing factions of Netanyahu’s coalition. A compromise forged from the right means there’s less likelihood a change of government in Israel might renege on the deal, which is why I retain a drop of optimism.
That said, what Netanyahu has been saying is extremely counter-productive, as he has immediately refused many of the conditions that are vital for any deal. But he may not have the luxury of such stubbornness for very long. In September the United Nations General Assembly seems almost certain to recognise Palestine as a member-nation for the first time, despite the increasingly isolated objections of the US and Israel. If Palestine does gain UN-recognition, it would turn Israel into the occupier of a sovereign, UN-recognised state. That would significantly alter the negotiating and international dynamic, and with a mild but important amount of pressure being applied by the US, Netanyahu may just be forced into serious negotiations (assuming his coalition doesn’t collapse).
The Obama Doctrine, if such a thing exists, is more about the style of engagement than the substance. It’s about multilateral negotiation and pursuing goals pragmatically. Those goals are a combination of idealistic, democratic and liberal values as well as traditional concerns of national interest and security. Obama has struck a better and more just balance of these competing and at times contradictory roles than any modern president; the question is whether they are up to the task of beginning to solve the most challenging and protracted problem of our time – finding homes for two peoples rejected throughout history, in the holiest of holy lands.
A Line of Ink is Max’s politics, ideas and art column. The name comes from a Ralf Steadman quote:
The world is lousy with wisdom. It was ever thus. Most of us complain, the optimists make a line of ink.