The war in Gaza has provided a range of powers and personalities with a fresh opportunity to heighten their profile while hoping for appositive impact on what is a disastrous situation. France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, though no longer enjoying the presidency of the European Union, has embarked on an ambitious diplomatic mission that produced the modest but important three-hour ceasefire that enables Gaza to receive humanitarian aid. The United Nations’ Security Council has also been in action, issuing a new, almost unanimous, resolution.
Against that background, some commentators have wondered why it was that Barack Obama, the US president-elect, decided to make absolutely no comments on such a major explosion in a region of key importance to the American national interest.
Obama has explained his silence by reminding everyone that there could be only one president in Washington at a time. (Last summer, Obama came under criticism for trying to sabotage the Bush administration’s efforts to conclude an agreement with Iraq on continued American military presence there.)
There is no doubt that Obama would be more effective if he came out with a well-thought policy position rather than sound-bites to satisfy TV audiences.
The new US president will have a brief moment in which to present his agenda and seize the initiative. If that moment is lost, as was the case in the Carter presidency, the US will find itself forced to react to events rather than leading them. The first president Bush’s administration suffered a similar fate. It lost its initial opportunity to set the agenda and ended up reacting to events such as the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.
The starting point for the new administration must be a common analysis of the situation accepted by Obama and his key foreign policy aides. At present, however, no such common analysis could be detected. Judging by their past words and deeds, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Advisor-designate General James Jones have very different views with regard to the region.
Thus, Obama’s first task is to forge a common hymn sheet. The outgoing Bush administration suffered immensely from its internal divisions with regard to the Middle East. During Bush’s first term, Secretary of State Colin Powell and defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spent a good part of their respective energies undermining each other’s policies.
Ensuring the administration’s unity on this key area of policy would be a major achievement in itself.
Next, the new administration must realize, and acknowledge, that the US the US is at war against a variety of forces dedicated to challenging its global leadership in the hope of ultimately achieving its destruction. Wherever possible, every effort ought to be made to placate at least some of those forces through the traditional tools of diplomacy. Ultimately, however, the message must go out that the US will not run away, that it will stand and fight when and where necessary.
More than anywhere else in the world, in the Middle East weakness invites aggression.
The Middle East is no longer the geopolitical prize it used to be during the Cold War. Its importance in terms of meeting the needs of the global energy market is also likely to peak out in the coming years. However, it is assuming a new importance as the principal breeding ground of terrorism and the next scene of a dangerous arms race that would include nuclear weapons.
The core of the war waged against the US by religious radicalism in the Middle East is ideological. On the one side, there is what one might describe as the Western ideology of human rights, democracy and secularism. On the other, there is religious obscurantism symbolized by Khomeini and Osama bin Laden.
For the first time since the constitutional revolutions in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, in the 19th century, democracy is emerging as a live option in much of the greater Middle East. A small but growing democratic constituency is emerging in virtually every country in the region. Allied with other moderate, conservative, traditionalist but non-violent segments of society, this constituency could challenge and ultimately defeat the obscurantist forces in the political battlefield.
The showdown will come this year as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories hold presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. The forces of obscurantism have mobilized and brought in massive resources to win all those elections. The perception that the US has abandoned its democratic, conservative, and moderate allies could persuade the fence sitters to side with the party of darkness. The new administration could find itself with a new bloc of enemies stretching from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.
The new administration should leave no doubt as to America’s commitment to democratic forces in all the countries concerned.
For the US supporting democratization in the Middle East is no luxury, it is an absolute must of national security.
Although of symbolic importance, the Israel-Palestine issue must be seen as one of the region’s many problems and not “the most important issue in the world.” By offering a two-state formula, the US already has a strong position on that issue. However, it must be clear that the US cannot impose such a formula against the wishes of the two parties.