Sobhi Ghandour
Gulf News (Opinion)
September 30, 2009 - 12:00am

US President Barack Obama has been in office for eight months, but there have been no major changes in American foreign policy, apart from the decision to cancel the missile shield planned for Eastern Europe.

The absence of any other significant changes in US policy has been a great disappointment, especially in this region, which was pinning much hope on the new administration with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The US has failed to take a firm position against Israel, whose government refuses to respond to international demands that it stop building colonies in the Occupied Territories.

The changes that have taken place in the American political system amount to reform, rather than revolution. Arabs expected much more from the Obama administration. The president's election was a result of many factors, chief among them rejection of the previous administration's policies.

The problem Obama now faces is that the diverse groups who supported him during the presidential election do not necessarily support him anymore. Worse, the American left wants more from Obama, and is beginning to withdraw its support for him.

On the other side, Obama's opponents seem to be more organised and active than his supporters. This is a difficult situation for a president who wants to adopt health care, economic, social and educational policies that are not widely popular with Americans, or even within the Democratic Party itself.

In addition, multinational companies are exercising their influence and applying pressure within Congress to prevent Obama from implementing his reforms.

Obama has called for a moderate American society, as the country was governed by extremism since the September 11 attacks in 2001. It is also a society whose history is very violent, and even now there are many states that will not give up their armed militias.

Although Obama is at the pinnacle of the power pyramid in the US, this does not mean that he is all-powerful, because the foundations of this pyramid, rather than the top, are the cornerstone of the American political system.

This explains why the president has been slow to implement his domestic and foreign policies, and why he has had to back down on some decisions or appointments.

For example, the Israel Lobby and its supporters in Congress put pressure on Obama over the nomination of former ambassador Charles Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. In the end, Freeman declined his nomination.

Needless to say, Obama's wishes are not royal decrees. He can only draft resolutions that must pass through many channels before they take effect. Obviously, there is a big difference between those who have a wish, and those who have the power.

Undoubtedly, America is better off under the Obama administration than it was under the Bush administration. It is also better off than it would have been under any Republican administration, especially with the neoconservatives' agenda and the powers and corporations that support it. It is clear that the choice was not about who is better or worse, but between what is acceptable and unacceptable.

Though there is wide agreement on this point, countries have very different criteria for judging Obama's performance to date.

In terms of foreign policy, Europe is satisfied with Obama at both the official and public levels. Russia wanted missile defence to be abandoned, and this was done. However, Arabs expect progress in the Middle East peace process, and this has not been forthcoming. On this level, there has been no real change in US policy. In effect, it is very similar to how it was under former US president Bill Clinton.

The Clinton administration wanted to revive negotiations, but sought to do so by pressuring the Arabs to normalise relations with Israel prior to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state and the Israeli withdrawal from the lands occupied in 1967.

The Obama administration wants to play an influential role in solving the Arab-Israeli conflict without applying any pressure on Tel Aviv, because the US supplies Israel with weapons, money and political support.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is applying pressure on Arabs and setting conditions for the Palestinians, preventing them from uniting as one.

Obama's administration may be unwilling or unable to bring about actual change in its Middle Eastern policy, but what is the reason behind the unwillingness of Arabs and Palestinians to work together? Why would Arabs settle for a waiting game, continued suffering and division, which make means that they are incapable of pressurising Israel and Washington at the same time?

Before asking others to change their policies towards us, we must make changes ourselves. This is simply because our problems start with us, and changing ourselves for the better is the solution.


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