Obama and the other ceasefire
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
In his inaugural speech as the 44th president of the United States, Barack
Hussain Obama offered an olive branch toward the Muslim world by promising "a
new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect". At the same
time, Obama confirmed that America is still embroiled in a "war on terror" by
stating, "Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and
With conflicts still raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the entire Middle East
riveted by the seismic impact of the 22-day war in smoldering Gaza, Obama's
message of peace was exquisitely timed.
After eight years of "clashing civilizations" that defined the George W Bush
administration, whose green light to Israel's offensive on
Gaza must surely count as its final blunder, the world's expectation of
meaningful change in US foreign policy are quite high. These hopes were
bolstered by Obama's inaugural promise to set aside "worn-out dogmas" and to
begin a new era of global cooperation to tackle the burning issues that
confront the world today.
Promising that America "can lead again", Obama in his eloquent-yet-frank speech
admitted that "we are in the midst of a crisis". He also spoke of the need to
"forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan" and to "begin to responsibly leave
Iraq to its people".
Although he did not directly mention Gaza, Obama's singular message to the
Muslim world can be interpreted as an end to Washington's "business as usual"
with respect to the Israel-Palestinian problem that is the centerpiece of
current Middle Eastern politics.
With Israeli troops still in Gaza, and a fragile ceasefire likely to break down
in a few days, Obama faces a tough challenge ensuring a durable ceasefire
without applying heat on Israel. This process has been complicated by Israeli
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's recent statement that Israel is not prepared to
lift the blockade of Gaza.
Should Obama succeed in finding a mutually acceptable formula for peace in
Gaza, his victory will have enormous significance for the larger Middle East.
It could perhaps serve as the precursor for a ceasefire between the US and its
Muslim enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Compared with his previous speeches, in which Obama explicitly prioritized the
idea of a troop surge for Afghanistan, his inaugural speech's parameter of a
"hard-earned peace in Afghanistan" may be interpreted by the warring Taliban,
and even al-Qaeda, as a code word for an invitation to negotiations.
If Obama's speech is followed by a lull in anti-Taliban offensives in
Afghanistan and Pakistan, together with behind-the-scene diplomatic efforts,
then the anti-US forces operating in that part of the world may be willing to
give diplomacy with Obama's White House a fighting chance. Unlike Iraq, where
the security situation has been steadily improving, Afghanistan has been on a
downward spiral that is bound to sap more of the US's resources - unless Obama
can forge a new peace.
As to the threat of Middle East nuclear proliferation, Obama promised a
multilateral effort to confront this threat, without mentioning any specific
allies. This was a step backward compared to his nomination speech at the
Democratic National Convention in August 2008, when he stated, "I will also
renew the tough direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear
In a recent interview with ABC television, Obama identified Iran as his
toughest foreign policy challenge. This is a view shared by Obama's foreign
policy team, including Dennis Ross, the administration's appointed point man on
Iran. It is also shared by incoming secretary of state Hillary Clinton, whose
confirmation hearing by the US Senate has been delayed by senators' requests
for further questions. The additional grilling is reportedly about her husband,
former president Bill Clinton, and possible conflicts of interests regarding
large sums of money received by his foundation from rich Arab states.
Any new US policy toward the Middle East may be hampered by the emergence of a
"new chapter in Middle East affairs", to paraphrase Ali Larijani, the powerful
speaker of parliament (Majlis) in Iran, referring to the ramifications of the
Gaza war and what he called "Hamas' victory".
"My advice to Obama is to take into consideration the reality of an emerging
new Middle East," Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki has stated, adding
that Obama needs new experts on the region. This sentiment is echoed by such US
pundits as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who has pointed out that
nearly all of Obama's foreign advisors are of Jewish background with not a
single Muslim among them.
Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, has emphasized that he
does not want to "pre-judge" Obama and prefers a wait-and-see approach on
Obama's ability to bring about tangible changes to US foreign policy. Such
restraint comes even as Iran has become increasingly critical of Obama's
silence on the war in Gaza. Still, pro-Obama sentiment runs pretty high among
ordinary Iranians, and his hopeful message to the Muslim world must be
heartening to many.
Obama and the impact of the Gaza war
Having inherited the Gaza crisis, the Obama administration has no choice but to
prioritize the Arab-Israeli conflict. This move will come despite Ross, and
others on the foreign policy team, having stated a preference for focusing on
Iran. Obama's reaction to the crisis has been to reiterate his determination to
tackle the now-dormant Middle East peace process. This is, however, an
increasingly tough task considering the growth of Jewish settlements in the
West Bank which have jeopardized the viability of a two-state solution.
This is not to mention the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza that the visiting
UN secretary general has described as "heartbreaking" and "shocking". The
Middle Eastern press have reported an alleged Israeli "scorched earth" policy
that has led to the destruction of some 5,000 homes and damage to more than
20,000 buildings. Therefore, any US commitment to help rebuild Gaza would
bolster Hillary Clinton's confirmation speech last week that promised US
assistance to the Palestinian economy.
Another timely gesture would be a US pledge to care for some of Gaza's hundreds
of wounded women and children. Closer US coordination with UN efforts would
also be an apt move, given the UN's insistence that Israel should end its Gaza
blockade and allow the unfettered movement of goods.
On the political front, Obama's toughest challenge is what to do with Hamas.
Regardless of a global consensus that Israel is partly responsible for the Gaza
crisis, the pro-Israel lobby continues to paint Hamas as forming the "biggest
obstacle to peace", to paraphrase a recent article in Newsweek.
But the "game-changing" Israeli offensive in Gaza has boomeranged, culminating
in a new legitimacy for Hamas. Now, even by the admission of some Israeli
pundits, it is futile for Western governments to bypass Hamas and conduct peace
diplomacy with other Palestinian factions and leaders, as they did in Cairo
over the weekend. The reality on the ground is that Gaza "is still controlled
by Hamas", according to a Jerusalem Post article. Incremental steps to remedy
the situation have already been taken in the Middle East. Qatar, for example,
invited exiled Hamas leaders to an emergency meeting of the Arab League two
The bottom line is that the US and Europe, if they are sincere about peace in
the Middle East, must negotiate with the right parties. This means Hamas, which
has now earned a place at the negotiation table.
Israel may also have no alternative, after failing to topple Hamas after three
weeks of war. One direct and unintended consequence of Israel's failure to
reach its military objective in Gaza has been the emergence of Arab and,
indeed, Muslim, unity.
A new Middle East
At this week's Arab economic summit in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah
urged an "end to recent period of quarrels" and declared that he was "opening
the door of unity". Pledging a Saudi donation of US$1 billion to rebuild Gaza,
the Saudi leader's call for Arab unity has been echoed by all other Arab
Over the past three weeks, a mini-resurgence of Arab politics is unmistakable.
Regardless of the internal fissures and divisions in the Arab bloc, the
combined Arab efforts, particularly at the UN where Arab representatives formed
a unified front to exert pressure to address the Gaza crisis, reflects a new
assertion of Arab unity. This is a direct result of Arabs' perceived aggression
and arrogance by Israel.
At the same time, the Arabs' invitations to Iran to their summits and the Gaza
crisis' windfall in terms of generating a new level of Islamist solidarity -
one that traverses the traditional Shi'ite-Sunni divide - have been
illustrative of yet another seismic shift in Middle Eastern affairs. This is
much to the chagrin of both Israel and US policy-makers who had pinned their
hopes on orienting the Arab bloc against the "Iran threat".
Thanks to Israel's actions in Gaza, the wall of distrust between Shi'ites and
Sunnis in the Middle East has come down. This is evident from the growing signs
of solidarity between, among others, the Shi'ite Hezbollah in Lebanon and Sunni
Hamas in Gaza.
Consequently, the Obama administration's ability to form a regional alliance
against Iran and its Shi'ite allies in the Middle East will be hampered by the
Gaza-tinged dawn of a new level of pan-Islamist unity that is formed around
common enmity toward Israel.
The "Iran-backed" Hamas will also represent a huge challenge with respect to
the anti-Iran politics likely to be forged by pro-Israel politicians in the
Obama administration, such as Hillary Clinton, who has a proven record of being
a staunch supporter of Israel.
The big question is whether or not Clinton will forego her past endorsement of
Israel's policies in favor of a "new way forward" as promised to the Muslim
world by Obama.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.