US President George W. Bush pledged that he would cooperate as much as possible with President-elect Barack Obama to ensure a smooth transition of power.
With the world’s eyes firmly on Barack Obama since his election victory, it is expected that his policies towards the Middle East will be more in line with the policies of former US President Bill Clinton. But Obama’s main issue, as everybody knows, will be the economy, and then Iraq, from which he promised to withdraw US troops within two years. Dealing with Iraq will then lead to the issue of Iran and after that he will turn his focus towards Afghanistan.
The appointment of Rahm Emanuel to the Chief of Staff post provoked a negative response in the Arab world. An American source explained to me that Obama has known Emanuel for years as both men are from Chicago, and that Emanuel is a democrat who knows how to deal with Congress since he has been a member for six years. Previous to this, Emanuel had worked with Clinton and the new democratic administration will bring together a so-called “Chicago Mafia.” The new Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is well known for being both stubborn and intrepid.
As for the Arab reaction, my source said “Emanuel is American and a member of Congress; he does not decide US policy. It is the president who decides with the help of the Secretaries of State, Defense, and the Treasury, the National Security Adviser and the CIA…so Arabs should stop responding negatively to Emanuel’s appointment.”
The priorities that the Obama administration must deal with are in some way tied to foreign policy. The current US economic situation means that Obama will have to pay special attention to America’s ties with China. There is an urgent need for US foreign policy to work closely with China that is playing a fundamental political role in recovering the US economy. There are no indications that China is exploiting US financial difficulties − on the contrary.
Due to these difficult circumstances, the most prominent of which is the financial crisis, there is no risk looming on the horizon of Obama’s administration launching a new war; rather it will work to eliminate Bush’s unilateral policies and this will help to ease tensions throughout the world.
The new president will not commit the same mistake as former US President Lyndon Johnson, who inherited the Vietnam War from his predecessor in office; he allowed the war to dominate his entire presidential term, which eventually destroyed his political career. Obama’s election to the presidential post has changed the course of history, and inevitably, this will be reflected in American society and the world at a later stage.
The US military command in Baghdad has received orders to step up its campaign against Al Qaeda and Shia insurgents as Pentagon officials want to ensure stability in Iraq before President Bush leaves office on 20 January, 2009. The American source said, “We want a strategic change in Iraq before Obama enters the White House; we want him to feel that he has inherited a stable Iraq therefore there is no need to rush to withdraw troops or decrease their number.”
A significant number of Obama’s plans for Iraq depend on US ties with Iran, as this will determine an American exit strategy from Iraq. According to reliable sources, there is ongoing secret communication between the US and Iran. Furthermore, it is noticeable that Iranian statements are not attacking President-elect Barack Obama directly, but US policy in the region.
There is an Iranian tendency to launch into attempts to establish a relationship with America that is if the Obama administration agrees to comprehensive negotiations and Washington is convinced of Iran’s regional influence. Steps may be taken quickly towards appeasement following the upcoming Iranian elections next June and American sources said that an American-interests section in Tehran would be opened over the next few weeks.
As for the war in Afghanistan, Obama is set to support head of the US Central Command General David Petraeus’ plan for a comprehensive campaign against the militants followed by “negotiations with the reconcilables among the Taliban.” The success of General Petraeus’ strategy will rely on Pakistani cooperation, and Russian and Iranian goodwill, just as it will also rely on Saudi Arabia exercising its influence on the Taliban (or the responsive elements within the group anticipating a settlement) and on the Pakistani political and military leadership.
Saudi Arabia has no problem in dealing with the Obama administration, but there are several global ties that the new American government must smooth so that it does not inherit a long war in Afghanistan. It must coordinate closely with its European allies, and convince India that its interests will not be harmed if Obama chooses to assure Russia that the USA does not threaten it.
This does not invalidate the importance of Obama recognizing Pakistani-security interests in Afghanistan, which means reducing the Indian presence there. There was assertion that Islamabad would not work with a Kabul-Delhi alliance against its own national security from within Afghan territory.
And so we come to the Middle East and the Palestinian issue. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert approved that Israel is committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state, even after announcing his resignation. Olmert had discussed a number of commitments with the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her last visit to Israel, the most important of which was the pledge to withdraw a large number of troops from the West Bank. The US Secretary of State also requested that he put forward proposals to withdraw from the Golan Heights.
Olmert, just like President Bush, showed a desire to further the peace process during his last months in office, in an attempt to salvage what is left of his reputation. Olmert is expected to meet with President Bush in Washington at the end of the month to discuss the establishment of a Palestinian state, negotiations with Syria, and the Iranian nuclear program. President-elect Obama is also expected to attend.
This summer, the Bush administration realized that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state would not be accomplished by the beginning of 2009; rather the issue is likely to remain stalled for months due to the upcoming Israeli elections, and the continuing deadlock between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
Obama’s group of advisors for the Middle East are encouraging dialogue with Syria, in spite of the recent US raid on Syrian territory close to the Iraqi border. The US-Syria rapprochement is expected at the beginning of next year and Syria indicated so by establishing ties with a number of European and Middle Eastern countries, primarily Turkey.
The Obama administration will call for Syria to make decisive commitments to respect the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon and that Syria establishes diplomatic relations with Lebanon for the first time since the independence of both countries. The American source said, “A new US receptiveness towards Syria may lead to more stability in Lebanon and encourage reconciliation between the March 14 Coalition and Damascus.”
The Obama administration will certainly also call for Syria to cease its support for Hezbollah but this request clashes with the strategic importance of Hezbollah as a key ally in the eyes of Damascus. Rather, Syria will propose that it act as a bridge for the next American administration to encourage Hezbollah to integrate into Lebanese politics, and convince it to abandon the conflict with Israel. This of course is also dependant on the development of Washington-Tehran ties.
On one hand, Lebanese optimists believe that Syrian-US rapprochement will result in rapprochement between the Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli, but this will not happen without some extremists resorting to carrying out terrorist operations in Lebanon.
The realists in Lebanon, on the other hand, say that the current state of calm in Lebanon will only last until the beginning of 2009, when politicians will begin to campaign for parliamentary elections. If the opposition is victorious in the elections, then the strategy of national defence will incorporate Hezbollah fighters in the regular military structure and at the same time, Hezbollah will have significant influence over foreign and defence policy. If the March 14 Coalition is successful in the elections then the government will adhere to UN Resolution 1559 that calls for all armed groups within Lebanon to disarm, applying pressure to Hezbollah, which will then insist on considering itself resistance and will not give up its weapons unless it gains fundamental political powers in return.
Therefore, unless there is a radical change in the region, Lebanon will remain captive to Hezbollah’s weapons. Until the time comes for the Obama administration to pay attention to the details of fundamental issues affecting the Middle East, Lebanon will remain a “playing card” in the hands of various parties because of its policies, and recognising the independence of [the Republics of] Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not rescue Lebanon unless these two countries inspire it to separate every group according to its region and to not leave itself open for Russia to come in and butt heads with America on Lebanese territory. Lebanon is a small country that could not afford to be part of [political] games between nations.