Can Obama fulfil the hype around his eastern promise?
Barack Obama's first name derives from the Arabic for ‘blessing', but would a President Obama be good news for the Middle East?
Barack Obama's name and his supposed secret Muslim faith have been used by his opponents to smear him. Of course, whether or not Obama is or was a Muslim is, in theory, irrelevant and contravenes the values of the American constitution.
With such fear-mongering, the Democrats have shown real courage and conviction in putting forward a presidential candidate who, in terms of his background, is so atypical. But Obama's “new kid on the block” profile does pose some intriguing questions, given the massive influence the United States exerts in the Middle East.
If he were to become president, would he manage to transform America's role in the region and repair the damage wrought by the disastrous Bush years? And is his approach to the region better or worse than that of his defeated Democrat rival, Hillary Clinton?
Arabs, generally disillusioned with US intervention in the Middle East, have taken unusual notice of the primaries – and this interest has been sparked by Obama. However, opinion is crucially divided on the issue.
The Illinois senator has gained quite an Arab fan club. “Given a chance, the Arabs and Muslims would vote for candidate Obama. He is the best guy around for the job – not only for the president of the United States but also for the President of the Middle East!” Aijaz Zaka Syed wrote in the Dubai-based Khaleej Times.
He has even attracted support from some unusual quarters. Despite the USA's instrumental role in engineering their daily misery, a group of Gazans have used their limited resources to make the case for Obama with American voters. How many voters they will sway is, of course, questionable.
Others are more sceptical. “We, as Palestinians, are not concerned about the elections, we know the US administration's policy on the Middle East has totally neglected the Palestinian cause for many years,” another Gaza resident said on an al-Jazeera forum.
“I believe that the foreign policy of a superpower is fixed in strategy,” one Baghdad resident opined. “Therefore, I believe that the elections results will change nothing regarding the Iraq issue.”
One blogger, the Angry Arab, went so far as to predict: “If Obama is elected president, I am sure that he would order the bombing of some Arab or Muslim country in the first year of his presidency to … prove that he really is not a Muslim after all.”
In Israel, Obama's campaign has, until recently, generally stirred up opposition, particularly in rightwing circles. The popular daily Maariv even ran an offensive cartoon of Obama painting the White House black.
Nevertheless, progressive Israelis see in the Democratic candidate an opportunity for change. “Any US president who would push us, either politically or by using the aid package as a bribe, to end the conflict in a peaceful and just way would be good for Israel,” one Israeli commented on the same al-Jazeera forum.
So, given this divided opinion, how does Obama's declared Middle Eastern policy actually fare? Well, his positions on Iraq, Iran and the so-called “War on Terror” seem to be more enlightened than George W Bush's and less Hawkish than Hillary Clinton's.
An opponent of the Iraq war from the start, he has expressed his belief that “there is no military solution” to the conflict and released plans in September 2007 to end the American presence there. However, he has not made clear what he intends to do about the legal licence to plunder given to American corporations in Iraq, such as Executive Order 13303. He also favours opening dialogue with Iran, opposes war and supports “tough sanctions” against Tehran.
Ridiculing Bush's “War on Terror”, he proposed the alternative of focusing attention on the more sensible alternative of empowering the “forces of moderation” by boosting “access to education and healthcare, trade and investment”.
Despite Obama's past sympathy with the Palestinians, since the announcement of his candidacy he has been at pains to appear to be as pro-Israel as Clinton. “Obama will soon make the case that he'll be as strong on Israel as anyone,” Haaretz's US correspondent Shmuel Rosner accurately forecast back in February 2007.
The following month, Obama expressed his “clear and strong commitment to the security of Israel” and “the isolation of Hamas” to AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby group. This strikes me as inconsistent with the importance he attaches to dialogue, as expressed in his position towards Iran and Syria.
Obama went even further in his first speech after claiming victory against Clinton. He declared, again to AIPAC, that: “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,” eliciting dismayed reactions from across the Palestinian political spectrum.
Although Israel deserves to live in peace and security, it is this kind of one-sided attitude that has hampered the prospects for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and has long discredited America's claims of being an honest broker.
Although a President Obama is bound to be an improvement on his predecessor, his position on Israel and his support of American military intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan mean it would be naïve to believe that he would revolutionise American foreign policy. At best, he is likely to make it more multilateral and less militaristic.
In theory, the American president is the most powerful man in the world, but this does not give him a carte blanche to exploit the full potential of his office, especially if he is an outside candidate. His foreign policy is constrained by public attitudes and opinion shapers, and is beholden to the special interest groups, especially as oil supplies become tighter.
There is a danger that his supporters, both inside and outside America, will expect Obama to turn American foreign policy around. But they are likely to be disappointed, as they were with the unfulfilled potential of John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 6 June 2008.