George Hishmeh
Gulf News
July 24, 2008 - 4:30pm

All eyes have been on the Democratic Party's presumptive presidential nominee, Barack Obama, during his current Middle Eastern and European tour this week. However, should anyone expect new revelations from the popular American politician, he/she is bound to be disappointed. Obama is unlikely to take any risks and deviate much from his declared positions on most of the key foreign policy issues, especially the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, certainly this early in the presidential race.

To date, Obama is seen as having "a world view far from a typical liberal," according to Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, and "much closer to that of a traditionalist realist."

He writes, "Perhaps the most telling area where Obama has stuck to a focused conception of US national interests is Iraq," which he sees as "a distraction, and the sooner America can reduce its exposure there, the better".

But the senator admits rather cryptically that after his projected redeployment of US troops from Iraq in the summer of 2010 there would be "a residual force (there) that would perform limited missions". He also promised to "pursue a diplomatic offensive with every nation in the region on behalf of Iraq's stability, and (to) commit $2 billion to a new international effort to support Iraq's refugees", now stranded in neighbouring Syria and Jordan and a good portion of them inside Iraq.

Thereafter, he wants to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan "where the Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaida has a safe haven."

These were the views of the senator, popular at home and abroad, especially in Europe, on the eve of his week-long trip which has been abundantly covered by the US media. It was much unlike the treatment given to Senator John McCain, when he visited Iraq and Israel with a stopover in Jordan and only made a telephone call to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama sidestepped any discussion of other Middle East issues in his article titled "My Plan for Iraq" that appeared in The New York Times before he left on his overseas trip. His evasiveness was a clear indication that the other hot issue in the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is a political minefield that any new pronouncement may cost him dearly in the seemingly endless American election campaign.


Interestingly, Obama's views came only a few weeks after a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia complained, in highly critical remarks before the influential World Affairs Council in Washington, that the "principal focus of American foreign policy in recent years ... has most consistently shown a preference for bluster, boycott and bombs, and a concomitant disdain for diplomacy".

Chas. W. Freeman, Jr, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and president of the Middle East Policy Council, said that these US policies "have resulted in decisions by all concerned in the Middle East to work around the United States rather than with us or through us". He went on and remarked that Washington's "political marginalisation in the Middle East is a predictable result of such 'diplomacy-free' foreign policies".

In his view, echoed by some in the region, the Middle East that is emerging now "seems to be one in which the United States no longer has convening power, political credibility, or persuasiveness". More to the point, he continued, "We have not come up with a strategy to overcome the appeal of anti-American terrorism, turn its adherents against it, slash the numbers of its recruits, or even capture its most notorious spokesmen."

His punch line underlines the major American failing at present, namely, "our leaders at all levels and in all branches of government need to rediscover the art of listening."

Has Obama done any listening on this overseas trip? He did so when a CNN reporter reminded him of his one-sided views which he expressed at the recent American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference when he parroted the Israeli line regarding occupied Jerusalem remaining as the capital of Israel. He quickly backtracked and said that although he called for an undivided Holy City, he believes Palestinians and Israelis need to come to an agreement on this sensitive issue.

To his credit, Obama has also succeeded in compelling the Bush administration to reverse its position and agree to send a senior envoy to participate in talks on Iran's nuclear plans as well as support a "general time horizon" for withdrawing troops from Iraq. His position on Iraq was crowned by the Iraqi prime minister's endorsement.

At the time of writing on the day Obama was to begin his separate visits with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, it was announced that his original plan to visit the Arab populated Old City of occupied Jerusalem was cancelled due to security reasons, even before the incident outside the famed King David Hotel. His walking tour would have provided him with another opportunity for a first hand view of Palestinians.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017