Raghida Dergham
Dar Al-Hayat
April 8, 2011 - 12:00am

While the U.S. President Barack Obama may want to dedicate his time to domestic affairs, in order to secure a second term in the White House, he must prepare himself for foreign policy issues intruding into his reelection campaign, especially Middle Eastern issues. This is because the “Arab Spring” may soon be followed by summer, autumn and winter, before it becomes clear whether it will blossom in the manner envisaged by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.

Today, there are fears in Tunisia of possible economic shakedowns and political turmoil. In Egypt, meanwhile, there are significant signs, seen through electoral victories, of forthcoming gains for Islamists, as well as in terms of the strategic choices made by the Egyptian transitional government. This is exemplified, for instance, by current rapprochement with Iran and backtracking from the moderate camp, which had brought together Egypt and Saudi Arabia alongside the United States.

Nevertheless, these future challenges, in places where the revolutions of change took place without a prohibitive cost, seem nearly benign when compared to the challenges posed by Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, and also by the growing conflict between Iran and the GCC countries. Meanwhile, Iraq is a wellspring of challenges of a different kind, a kind that Lebanon promises to be a spawning ground for. Then there is the issue of Israel, in light of the changes to the Arab geopolitical map and the emerging new order in the region. While the Arabs today seem to be distracted away from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this issue will return, and will pose a multitude of challenges for the U.S. administration, should the latter not seize the current window of opportunity to alter its policies.

This will be no easy matter for Barack Obama, in the midst of his bid for reelection. Nonetheless, it is necessary for him to afford it attention, lest he be forced to reckon with events only after the fact. The policy of patching things up will inevitably only cause complete rupture at some point, while catching up with developments can be no alternative to proactively taking initiatives, which is direly necessary for the United States to do at this crucial time.

The Libyan case is at the forefront of concerns as regards the American media. However, this has started to falter and recede considerably. Meanwhile, there is talk behind the scenes of arrangements for the departure of Gaddafi’s family, and on the other hand, there is the letter sent by Muammar Gaddafi to Barack Obama, in which he describes the latter as “our son”, and wishes for him to accept a deal that would keep Gaddafi in power.

Clearly, there is also regression in terms of achievements on the battlefield by the revolutionary forces, who are now blaming NATO for some of their failures. But the revolutionaries are right: NATO’s promises were indeed exaggerated to the extent of being misleading. There is also the fact that the timing of suspending NATO’s military operations has helped Gaddafi’s forces make gains on the ground. Thus the outcome was at the expense of the Libyan people first, and at the expense of the opposition and the revolutionaries second.

This coincided with the defection of Gaddafi’s Foreign Minister and the regime’s “black box” for decades, Moussa Koussa, who was received by British, French and American intelligence services. He was thus showered with guarantees of immunity, to entice him to give up everything he knows about the history of the regime that has managed to collectively subjugate two generations of the Libyan people, in addition to looting the country’s wealth.

A deal of this kind has been struck at the international level, for the purpose of intelligence gathering. This is despite the fact that the deal has been promoted as an effort to encourage further defection. In truth, Britain gathered in the past all the information the Gaddafi regime had on the Irish republican Army (IRA), in exchange for deals to legitimize the regime. Deals on the Lockerbie affair were also struck, by means of oil-related arrangements that favored the United States and financial reparations, which also gave further legitimacy to the regime. It is thus no wonder for Gaddafi and the men who took part in those deals to indulge in their excesses, believing that there is still a way to strike similar deals today.

The greatest fear is that some may encourage them to do so, inadvertently or purposely, through public statements, or behind-the-scenes promises, or even through reduced enthusiasm for settling matters on the battlefield, for fear that this would implicate the leaders of NATO further in the Libyan quagmire.

Indeed, political analysts close to government leaders in Washington, London and Paris have begun to speak in a tone of triumphalism, in the sense of having stopped a massacre in Benghazi. All of a sudden, the focus shifted to Benghazi alone – not on Libya’s future – as though Benghazi had from the start been the end of the line.

Worst of all is that there nearly seems to be reassurance by the idea of partitioning Libya, and in fact there are those who have begun to promote it. The danger of partitioning Libya resides certainly in the impression that would accompany such a move, which is reinforcing the prevailing belief that the United States’ long-term strategic policy is to partition Arab countries, from Sudan to Libya, and from Iraq to GCC countries. In fact, the United States is being accused of having taken the decision to partition the Arab countries, with a war as in Iraq, a referendum as in Sudan, insufficient support for the revolutionaries as in Libya, and sectarian strife as in Gulf countries and in Lebanon, as well as sheer negligence as in Yemen. Thus, the talk prevailing in the United States about living with the partition of Libya is dangerous at many levels.

Moreover, the partition of Libya would disillusion those who dreamt of revolution for the sake of reform, and will pave the way for al-Qaeda, which has a high-level organization in Libya. Partitioning Libya may also keep the Gaddafi regime – even if not Gaddafi himself or his children – in power. And then a culture of revenge would emerge.

It would be better for the Obama Administration to convey a clear message to Gaddafi and his family, one signifying that the achievements of his forces on the field are today his only window for a deal of safe departure. It is not at all logical for the Obama Administration to consider any other ideas, especially as the US President has stated that Muammar Gaddafi must leave. Meanwhile, it is unacceptable, logically, for deals of political inheritance to be struck for any of his sons, even during the transitional phase, because the crisis of political inheritance is what led to the revolution in Egypt, which resulted in toppling Hosni Mubarak’s family and keeping the regime’s military leaders.

Indeed, Egypt seems like a case study in US betrayal of its allies and friends, when the need for this arises. This is a historical process that has its effects and its drawbacks. What matters is that Egypt seems to be on the verge of a radical change in its regional strategy, perhaps towards protecting itself from any possible surprises. This means it may very well discount itself from the regional mass confronting Iran.

This is something the Obama Administration should pay heed to, especially at a time when the tension between Iran and the GCC states is growing ever more acute. The direct reason for this is Iran’s interference in Bahrain, as the Iraq war ceded tremendous influence for Iran in Iraq, and after international silence reigned as regards Iran’s de facto military base in Lebanon.

Iran, on the one hand, behaves today with even more overconfidence, because it feels that it is above being held to account through UN resolutions, which are not being enacted out of fear that this would increase the space of the clash with the Islamic Republic. And on the other, Iran is also behaving nervously, out of fear that the Arab popular faith in change might extend into its territories. Iran is taking a risk by feeding sectarian strife in GCC states, as it seeks to sow the seeds of division in some of these countries. It is doing all this while building its nuclear capabilities, ignoring the carrot and the stick offered to Iran by the major powers.

From the point of view of the GCC states, the battle is a fateful one. It is fateful not just because Iran now nearly controls Iraq in the wake of the American war there, but also because Iran’s tentacles stretch across Bahrain and Yemen – sometimes in coordination with Al-Qaeda – with the aim of besieging the remaining GCC states. It is a sectarian battle from one perspective, but it is a battle for survival at its core. The Barack Obama Administration must thus make a decision and choose a side in this battle, because the prevailing impression is that this administration abandons its friends and leaves them in the same bed with Iran.

Certainly, Iran still requires immediate and profound attention, no matter how much the world becomes preoccupied with Libya today or Yemen tomorrow. In fact, the coming preoccupation with Yemen certainly requires closely examining the role played by Iran there –in particular with al-Qaeda.

What the situation in Yemen requires is not for the international community – and in particular the United States – to come to terms with fast-developing events there after the fact. Instead, what is required is putting forward a road-map for everyone involved through a comprehensive, clearly stated strategy, in the face of confusion. The ticking time-bomb in Yemen would otherwise explode in the face of many players and bystanders, and its beneficiaries may well be the advocates of extremism, military solutions and suppression of reform and state-building ideals brought by the “Arab Spring”.

Yet it is not too late for cautious optimism. The overwhelming desire among the Arab youths is to speak in terms of jobs, social security and education, and of aspiring to a safe future. Some prefer not to use the terms “moderation” and “moderate” at this stage, but would rather call it the change of the “enlightened”. Regardless of terminology, the hopes of the new generation must not be done away with amidst narrow political considerations. And this is where the issue of Israel comes in.

Those who say that the Palestinian Cause is not at the forefront of Arab priorities at this juncture may be right, but this does not negate the fact that tomorrow may bring explosive feelings that are never in the interest of the coexistence sought-after. Indeed, the fire still burns under the embers and those who assume that the fire has been put out are only deceiving themselves.

It is therefore necessary for the Obama Administration to grant the utmost importance and support to the non-governmental Israeli initiative, which is the first comprehensive Israeli proposal on the issue of peace. In truth, the Arab Peace Initiative had remained on the shelf for years, essentially because it was not promoted at the Arab level and because the US, both in the government and in the media, refused to acknowledge and recognize it.

Today, there is an Israeli initiative for peace in the Middle East, announced by more than 40 major political, military and cultural figures in Israel, and which is tantamount to a positive response to the Arab Peace Initiative. Among those who have signed it are two former heads of the Shin Bet, the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army, the former head of Mossad, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s son, and the former chief of the Labor Party. What they are saying is that the Palestinian state must be established on the basis of Israel’s withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967, with land-swaps, and East Jerusalem as its capital while the situation of Palestinian refugees must be resolved with reparations or return to the state of Palestine, with the exception of a few cases who would be allowed to return to Israel. The details of the initiative are important, yet what is more important is that there is an Israeli proposal for the first time under the title of the Israel Peace Initiative. This deserves some encouragement and enthusiasm on the part of the Barack Obama Administration, instead of entrusting the peace process to the man who has made of the very process an end in itself, i.e. Dennis Ross, whom Obama appointed to be in charge of the Middle Eastern issue.

So before the events of the Middle East intrude into Barack Obama’s campaign for the White house, it would be useful for him, for the United States, and for the world to be well-prepared with a strategy of initiative that preempts possible infringement by these issues.


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