Perhaps the title isn’t fair. The storm that awaits Barack Obama at the UN is not entirely of his own creation.
He did not create half a century of US foreign policy based on support for authoritarianism and occupation in the Arab and larger Muslim worlds. It was not Obama, but his predecessors – going back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt – who cosied up to the Saudis and promised them unlimited protection in return for unlimited access to all that oil.
It was not Obama but Richard Nixon who put geostrategic considerations ahead of pushing for a robust and fair negotiating process to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, when there were only a few settlements and Israelis and Palestinians had not yet moved towards ideological extremism and terrorism as their chosen means of communication.
It was not Obama but Jimmy Carter who toasted the Shah’s health in 1977, as Iran was primed to explode in revolutionary fervour (Mr Carter’s introductory joke – “There’s one thing I can say about the Shah: He knows how to draw a crowd”, – did turn out to be prescient, but not in ways he imagined). Carter did set a very high bar with the Camp David Accords – more than half of which were devoted to the Palestinian issue – but he never pressed Israel to honour the spirit of the Accords once it became clear that Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin had no intention of doing so. This was a mistake that quite possibly cost Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat his life.
And it certainly wasn’t Obama who gave Taliban “freedom fighters” their first billions in cash and US weapons, or who smiled while Saddam Hussein launched a ruinous war on Iran and Israel entrenched its settlement enterprise. Ronald Reagan will have to take the blame for those, if anyone’s bothering to keep score anymore.
Obama didn’t launch the first Gulf War, or even the second.
He didn’t waste the 1990s shepherding a peace process that only the most incompetent of shepherds would have imagined would lead to the oasis of peace. He can’t be blamed for doing nothing to press US allies from Morocco to Pakistan to clean up their acts and move towards democracy as the post-Cold War era of globalisation, with all its promise, began to take shape. That was, of course, Bill Clinton’s affair.
The current president didn’t ask to inherit two wars and the world’s most powerful and profitable military-industrial complex that feeds off – and directs – these wars. How precisely do you take on a trillion-plus-dollar-a-year monster that has spent the better part of a century not just protecting but constantly expanding its turf, turning back any attempts by politicians to rein it in, regardless of their party or the rationality of their arguments?
The game is rigged, but so what?
In fact, perhaps Obama never had a chance. He might have dined with Palestinian professors back in Chicago, but there was no way he would have been allowed near the presidency if he actually internalised the historical narrative represented by Palestinian history and that of the Arab and larger developing worlds. Yes, he’s half African and grew up partly in Indonesia, and can give really nice speeches about the need for the peoples of the world to build a common future.
But more than anything, Obama is a product of the US political machine – from Harvard to Chicago to the White House. And you don’t go through that meat grinder and come out at the other end with many principles left intact.
Even if Obama can’t be blamed for the system – an-nitham, to use the entirely appropriate Arab connotation of the term – he must take responsibility for how many opportunities he has squandered and just how far US strategic designs have moved from the emerging realities in the Middle East and North Africa.
There are many arguments to be made for and against PA president Mahmoud Abbas bringing a statehood bid before the UN. Indeed, in a seemingly strange irony, one of the most eloquent arguments against the bid comes from Susan Rice, the US Ambassador to the UN, who explained that “there’s no shortcut, there’s no magic wand that can be waved in New York and make everything right … The reality is that nothing is going to change. There won’t be any more sovereignty, there won’t be any more food on the table.”
Instead, the reality is that the Obama administration, and the US foreign policy system it represents, are the ones who have badly miscalculated.But of course, the reason for US opposition to the statehood bid – namely, US policy that supports Israel’s ongoing entrenchment of its occupation in the West Bank against the wishes of the entire world – is left unstated. Indeed, Rice and the Obama Administration are being patronising in the extreme by arguing that the push for a vote represents a “miscalculation” and a “gap between expectation and reality [that] is in itself quite dangerous”.
Palestinians understand quite well that this vote is largely symbolic. But with nothing to lose and the US hopelessly titled towards Israel, if the Palestinians can extract a political price by increasing the amplitude of the wave of anger of the newly empowered “Arab street” (a term that after decades of mis-use finally has some analytical bona fides) in response to the planned US veto in the Security Council, Palestinians will for once have played their historically bad hand well.
Letting both the US and Israel know that the continuation of the status quo will no longer be painless is better than most other alternatives. It also begins to create a narrative of fairness and equality for Palestinians vis-a-vis Israel, since according to Obama’s own words, Palestinians deserve no less than Israelis a sovereign state of their own.
If the coming intifada can follow the best practices of the Arab democracy revolts and remain largely non-violent in the face of the various forms of violence Israel will likely deploy against Palestinians, this new narrative will play an important role in beginning to level the diplomatic playing field between the two sides, weakening the US position in the process.
Even the weak smell blood
Of course, a change in narrative is unlikely to threaten decades-long US policy imperatives on its own, but it can make them much more difficult to protect. In the process it would weaken Obama’s standing at home and abroad, something people around the region, and in the US, are beginning to sense more clearly as summer turns to autumn.
Aside from the Palestinian issue, the other major element of the perfect storm Obama is facing at the UN concerns US opposition to the pro-democracy movements across the region. Most Arabs remember quite well how Obama refused to the use the “D-word” – democracy – during the heat of the uprisings in Tunisia and especially Egypt. Particularly in Egypt, the utter silence of the US administration while the military junta continues with serious violations of the rights of Egyptian democracy advocates has further tarnished Obama’s image in the bellwether country of the Arab Spring.
US unwillingness to press fully for the removal of Syrian President Assad or Yemeni President Saleh, and its even starker silence in Bahrain – never mind Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and other monarchies that have managed to repress their fledgling democracy movements – only further alienates the US (and Europe as well) from the historic momentum of the region-wide protest movement.
These policies ensure that the US will be in a far weaker position when this struggle plays itself out than it was at the start, when the US could have stood firmly on the side of the young protesters. Supporting the overthrow of Gaddafi won’t score Obama or the US more broadly many points, because everyone understand that Gaddafi was never a friend, but merely a useful client who, like Saddam Hussein before him, could easily be sacrificed if doing so served broader interests.
Indeed, the protesters know how deeply implicated the US has been in the existing authoritarian order in the Arab world. If a few hundred Egyptians almost tore apart the Israeli embassy, think what thousands might do next time, especially if there is something resembling a real transition to democracy after the upcoming elections and the government has to respect their sentiments.
The protesters understand full well that the three core US goals in the Middle East – protecting key oil-producing allies and their clients, ensuring the stability of the Israeli and Egyptian military complexes, and maintaining the power of the larger US “weapondollar-petrodollar” complex – are inimical to the interests of real democracy. As these protesters become empowered, Obama, who began his presidency with such eloquent words about a new age of cooperation and common purpose, will be left even more isolated in the region.
A system in retreat?
And as Obama looks weaker, the system will search for alternatives that can shore itself up, even if it means further militarising the country, against the needs of the vast majority of Americans. And with a weakened and even more dangerous United States careening towards its own slow Armageddon, we might well witness the “clash of civilisations” that neocons have long prayed for.
It might not be fair for history to let Barack Obama take the fall for such an outcome. But history doesn’t care who’s right or wrong. It only cares who’s smart or strong. And on both counts, it looks today like the US under Obama’s leadership is getting weaker and dumber, while its adversaries – from the Arab street to the Chinese State Council – grow more adept at frustrating its wishes with each passing year.Only the civilisations in question won’t be drawn from religion, tribe, or nation. They’ll be separated by money, power and utterly opposed visions of the future: a global Arab Spring led by third world youth and their Western peers (including, one might dare to hope, millions of unemployed working-class Americans who will no longer sit and support their own impoverishment), versus the dynamic of repression, expropriation, intolerance, and violence of a “nitham” that has linked the world’s elite – from Washington to Tehran to Beijing – in a bloody embrace for decades.
Barack Obama has very little time or manouevering room to change this dynamic, but a bit of honesty at the UN would be a good place to start.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He also is the author of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam and the soon-to-be-published An Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989.