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Barak Obama on the Middle East

Barak Obama has a big-picture foreign policy piece in this month's Foreign Affairs, building on his Chicago Council on Global Affairs speech of April 23.  When it comes to the Middle East Obama has an encouraging message, especially for those of us who dwell on the region.  It is still shortObama on detail, but he is thoughtfully staking out a position that is beginning to build a sound intellectual edifice that confronts the Neocons.  And he is overcoming some of the timidity that has characterized Democrat Middle East musings since 9/11.

The thrust of the Obama Weltenschaung is a healthy internationalism that not only rejects the temptation to go isolationist after the Iraq debacle, but also seeks to seize anew a foundation for American leadership that is diplomatic and moral rather than exclusively military.  On Iraq, in addition to the mandatory call for troop withdrawal, candidate Obama speaks the language of the Iraq Study Group report in endorsing a diplomatic surge.

We must launch a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative to help broker an end to the civil war in Iraq, prevent its spread, and limit the suffering of the Iraqi people.

The piece was undoubtedly written before all the recent Pentagon/White House talk of the South Korean model, whereby the US would maintain a permanent military presence in Iraq (link to Gates, snow, on Iraq, post).  In that respect, when Obama writes, "We must make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq," it becomes a kind of pre-rebuttal that merits constant repetition.  (For the attention of Secretary Gates, Recommendation 22 of the Iraq Study Group report says the following: "the President should state that the United States does not seek permanent military bases in Iraq."  Iraq is not South Korea.) 

Obama's criticism of the Bush Administration's neglect of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is refreshing.  It demonstrates that he apparently appreciates the broader implications of that neglect for US interests and for regional security.  He calls on the US 

... to focus our attention and influence on resolving the festering conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians -- a task that the Bush administration neglected for years.

For more than three decades, Israelis, Palestinians, Arab leaders, and the rest of the world have looked to America to lead the effort to build the road to a lasting peace. In recent years, they have all too often looked in vain.

Again, Obama is long on commitment while short on specifics.  However, in articulating such a position, he may be stating the obvious when it comes to the real world, but he is doing something that is considered rather counter-intuitive in the world of US presidential election campaigns.

In yesterday's Washington Post, Fred Hiatt suggested that the foreign policy outlooks of Obama and Mitt Romney (who has his own manifesto in the same magazine) were strikingly similar to each other, and to that of the Bush Administration.  Well I didn't see no Romney call for American leadership in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr. Hiatt, and I sure ain't seen no such thing from the Bushies. 

It is not yet time to be dusting off medals of courage and bravery for candidate Obama, but his call on the Israeli-Palestinian issue for "sustained American leadership for peace and security," and him making this a "personal commitment for the President of the United States" should be music to the ears, not just of sensible folk in the region, but also of Americans who understand the way the region fits together, and who should be sick and tired of being told that there ain't much American diplomacy can do to fix the situation.  Obama goes on to call for "tough-minded diplomacy" with Iran and Syria, and a counterterrorism that "draws on the full range of American power, not just our military might."

In the Islamic world and beyond, combating the terrorists' prophets of fear will require more than lectures on democracy. We need to deepen our knowledge of the circumstances and beliefs that underpin extremism.

I hope that candidate Obama expands on some of these ideas, and that these basic themes become standard Democratic discourse; in fact, Governor Richardson has also been forthcoming on the peace process, stating that:

A stable two-state solution is right for Israel, right for the Palestinians, and right for America, because the suffering of the Palestinians is the most useful propaganda weapon the Jihadists have.

You can't beat the Neocons without reframing the war on terror.  And you can't reframe the war on terror without addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Are the Dems belatedly waking up to this, and speaking out? 


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Comments (4)

RB Renfro:

Well, I read both his policy speeches.

All Obama's promises and "visions" make me think of is that old anti-drug ad on TV showing an egg frying in a pan....with a voice over saying .."this is your brain on drugs".


I must say that I'm disappointed none of the top-tier candidates on either side have taken the opportunity to post their position regarding this critical issue. After all, the internet represents not just the future medium for candidates to communicate with the voters, but the present.
I wonder what the strategic reasoning is behind keeping this issue out of the spotlight. I think it maybe that the candidates are unsure of how to handle such a complex issue, which has the potential to escalate dramatically. Any definite position taken by a candidate will be held over their heads throughout the remainder of the campaign.


Though I am not inclined to take Obama's "manifesto" as a binding promise of action, I am optimistic because I think that a new face for the American President, whether it's Clinton or Obama, could finally provide an opportunity to bring this disaster to an end.

Elytis Greco:

I also read Mr. Obama's and Mr. Romney's respective pieces in Foreign Affairs. Like Mr. Levy I tend to think that Obama's strategy is more insightful and encouraging that is Romney's. That said, I think we must also realize that what is said in these articles likely does not represent what will actually occur once an elected president is in office. Rather, they offer a glimpse of what might occur; of how the candidates (or their staffers) are thinking about these issues. In his piece Mr. Obama comes across as a president who be dedicated to peace, but also unafraid of using force. He is neither a pacifist, nor a warmonger; he is a pragmatist.

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