Obama’s Middle East Plan: Look at the Big Picture
There is no question that the Middle East is transforming in bold and unpredictable ways. As Laura Rozen cites throughout her blog, recent political events throughout the region may gradually give the Obama administration a certain amount of leverage when the times comes for an American-Iranian nuclear negotiation. Who would dispute this conclusion, especially when the Iranian democratic movement appears to be challenging the taken-for-granted principles of Tehran’s clerical establishment? The powerful theocratic elite that once kept reformist dissent to reasonable levels are now shaking in their boots, behind their Shia Islamic values. In fact, the ongoing protests and demonstrations throughout Iran’s major cities has all but forced Tehran’s mullahs to unleash a wave of violence aimed at diminishing the influence of moderates; a decision that contradicts the very doctrine that Iran’s leaders are supposed to uphold and represent.
When taking into consideration other noteworthy developments that may indeed strengthen Washington’s position- such as the defeat of Hezbollah in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections, the U.S. drawdown from Iraq’s major cities, and the sending of the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005- Rozen’s statements seem all the more compelling. How could Ayatollah Ali Khamenei continue his defying rhetoric against the international community- most publicly by bolstering the Islamic Republic’s nuclear capabilities- with these realities? With the security situation seemingly aiding pro-western forces, it appears that the days of an emboldened Iranian regional power ruled by rejectionist politicians is coming to an emphatic end.
Yet, while such sentiment is desirable within the media, academia, and policymaking circles, every so-called “American victory” does not necessarily translate into an Iranian defeat.
First off, President Obama’s desire to mend differences between Washington and Bashar al-Assad’s regime will not magically produce an American-led re-alignment within the broader Middle East. Contrary to what many pro-Obama sympathizers claim, a Syrian willingness to sit down (without preconditions) with the United States and Israel should not be seen as a willingness to establish a lasting peace between the west and the Arab community. I hate to be a pessimist when it comes to an Arab-Israeli peace plan, but history has proven that Damascus is (and may always be) a persistent spoiler when a potential deal is in the works. One only needs to look back at the year 2000, when the deceased Hafiz al-Assad rejected the reasonable offers of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. If an agreement failed between these two countries earlier in the decade, what analyst in their right mind would truly believe that the year 2009 holds the potential for a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough? Considering the fact that the Israeli Government seems opposed to sacrificing its Zionist vision for a “Greater Israel,” President Obama’s “visionary” strategy for the Middle East is all but doomed in the current circumstances.
Even if Jerusalem did agree to halt the construction of Jewish settlements in Palestinian lands, the irrational demands that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views as crucial to any Israel-Syria normalization compromises the process. As one may already know, these demands include a complete Syrian withdrawal of support from Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran: three allies that Assad needs if he wishes to expand Syrian influence in his immediate periphery. As long as the interests of Hezbollah and Hamas coincide with the interests of Syria, President Assad will not terminate this longstanding relationship.
Now on to the issues concerning Hezbollah. Sure, there is no doubt that the defeat of the Hezbollah-led coalition in Lebanon’s recent elections is a victory for Arab moderates and for westerns at large. One can only imagine what a Lebanese Government might look like if the U.S.-designated terrorist group took control of Beirut (an expansion of the Iranian-Syrian- Hezbollah-Hamas alliance comes to mind). However, with that being said, Hezbollah’s leadership remains extraordinarily influential throughout the small Arab country. Particularly in the south, where Hezbollah has always held sway over the population, locals routinely cite the Shiite militant group as the only legitimate political grouping serving the diverse interests of the people. In Southern Lebanon, the pro-western regime in Beirut is consistently viewed with disdain and outright hostility…particularly for the regime’s ineffectiveness at delivering much-needed humanitarian relief.
In fact, one can rightly argue that a victory for Lebanon’s moderates is a victory for Hezbollah militants: if those in power continue to manage a lackluster economy and fail to represent the average Lebanese citizen, the recruitment power of Hezbollah may increase dramatically in the coming months. In addition, Lebanon’s election results demonstrate to the world how volatile and divided its political environment is. Notice that the U.S.-backed coalition won with a slight margin against Hezbollah’s candidates. Perhaps if the tally was lopsided for Lebanese moderates, Rozen’s optimism may be accurate.
As far as I am concerned, President Obama has done nothing concrete for Middle East in his first 5 months in the White House. Besides attempting to convince Muslims throughout the world that the United States is a tolerant nation that will respect the interests of Arabs (an effort that is lackluster in the eyes of Middle Eastern leaders at best), his plans for the region have proven futile. Even Mr. Obama’s recurring pressure on Israel has not resulted in any significant changes in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s settlement policies. What successes does the Obama administration have to show to the world? With respect to the comments of Kenneth Katzman, has the “chessboard” really moved in the direction of the United States? Sadly, I think not.
-Daniel R. DePetris
-Information from The Israel Project contributed to this blog