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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 10, February 21, 2009

Obama’s Middle East Policy: Beyond Special Envoys…

Monday 23 February 2009, by Seema Sridhar

The Middle East quandary is perhaps the most crucial legacy in foreign policy that Obama inherits as the 44th President of the United States. The mounting of tensions with the Israeli blockade of Gaza has effectively rendered the policy of ‘business as usual’, as followed by Bush, impossible for Obama. The region’s guarded optimism over Obama’s election has now given vent to severe resentment for his total silence on the continued Israeli violation of international law. This has left the world wondering what exactly constitutes a new policy towards the Middle Eastern crisis. A momentous opportunity to re-engage the Muslim world seems to have been lost by the complete failure on the part of the US to take a principled stand on the issue. The most recent elections in Israel has set the tone for future negotiations and there is yet another opportunity that presents itself to be seized upon for creating a platform to air voices of prudence, restraint and final resolution. Binyamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni are racing towards the Prime Minister’s Office, while analysts are still trying to make sense of the electoral verdict. Does it show an increasing leaning towards the Left or does it signify a shift in the Likud vote-bank to the extreme Right-winged Leiberman? Will the US embark upon a renewed strategy for the Middle East a on fresh note with a new Israeli Government? What would be the chief constituents of such a new strategy?

The Special Envoy

Obama’s vision for renewed US engagement of the region appears to be revolving around appointment of special envoys. The US diplomatic machinery, which has gravely fallen short of the ability and opportunity to defuse tensions, is now being reinvigorated with deft short-listing of seasoned diplomats as special envoys for various crisis situations needing special attention from the new US Administration. Special envoys have traditionally been trouble-shooters who look into the developments and facilitate negotiations; but many a time end up being symbolic gestures—at times even reflect the failure of leadership and policy toward an issue or region. Envoys play significant diplomatic roles in situations where there is an acute trust deficit among the parties to a conflict that efforts towards peaceful resolution become impossible. Envoys contribute to conflict prevention or mitigation by assessing circumstances, offering conciliation efforts, providing early warning for the outside community, and other such responsibilities. After floating several names as probable candidates—Bill Clinton, Daniel Kurtzer, Denis Ross to name a few—George J. Mitchell has been appointed as the special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell, who has significant experience in negotiations and helped facilitate the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, is now on a ‘listening’ tour into the region. A vigorous and sustained diplomatic initiative for the Middle East has supposedly been kick-started with the appointment of the special envoy. What are the key guidelines for the special envoy’s framework in addressing the conflict in the region? Moving beyond symbolism and drafting comprehensive measures addressed to various interwoven concerns can give Obama’s team any chance at regaining lost ground in the Muslim world.

Don’t Raise Expectations

As Europe was overwhelmed with enthusiasm at Obama’s election, the Middle East was far more guarded in its response and optimism for ‘change’. As long as the powerful and influential Jewish lobby continues to hold its sway over foreign policy matters in the US, most Palestinians see lasting peace in the Middle East as just another pipe-dream. What can be representative of what the conflict-ridden region expects from Obama? Some suggestions follow…

The Salzburg Global Seminar, convened in Austria to draft a set of policy recommenda-
tions for the new US Administration, called
for introduction of international troops as peacekeepers and for UN intervention or supervision as a caretaker. Dr Hanan Ashrawi, the renowned human rights activist and a Member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, feels that the previous envoys, teams and even the European role have been a failure. Changing and expanding the quartet is essential and a vacuum in the peace efforts cannot be afforded at this juncture as it would create spaces to be swooped in with extremism. There is a sense of urgency in reinvigorating the peace process; however, Ashrawi cautioned against a process for its own sake. “Don’t raise people’s expectations and dash hopes.” It is much worse to deal with consequences of despair and disappointment rather then knowing that one has to live with the ongoing conflict. It is indeed true that the people of the Middle East have been left in the lurch, time and again, without ever directly addressing their most pressing grievances —settlements, security, refugees, boundaries, permanent status and water. Putting the Palestinian issue on the backburner has rendered the Palestinian cause to be taken up by several state and non-state actors to justify their actions and to achieve their own ends; this, the US ought to have realised by now, is not in its best interests.

Security in the region needs to be addressed within a new framework, that which includes instruments of monitoring and verification of implementation of agreed rules, arbitration and accountability for violators, assurances and guarantees for this—perhaps under a UN protectorate. The Managing Global Insecurity (MGI) Project has proposed expanding the current Group of Eight (G-8) to G-16 to make it more representative of the developing world by including India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, China, Turkey, Indonesia and Egypt or Nigeria. Arab and Muslim majority members of the Friends Group could help in dialoguing with the Hamas. The MGI, a joint project of the Brookings Institution, Washington D.C., Stanford University and New York University, further recommends creating a Friends Group for Israel-Palestine that broadens the existing Quartet to include the G-16, including Turkey. This Group could subsequently serve as the foundation for a future regional security mechanism for the Middle East, providing a venue to encourage cooperation, reinforce borders, manage crisis and international threats and eventually promote regional norms on political reform and development. A UN envoy or regional diplomatic office could provide institutional support for this framework and the Gulf countries, Japan and the European Union pitch in the necessary economic incentives.

The Democracy Conundrum

The memorandum crafted by the Salzburg Seminar Fellows that was presented to the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in Washington D.C. also suggested engaging those parties with which the US currently has no direct dialogue, such as Hamas for instance. This could breathe fresh air into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It was the failure of the peace process that undermined the moderates and led to the election of radicals in the first instance. A peaceful, stable Palestine would not have elected Hamas, says Ashrawi. Peace camps on both sides have deteriorated with the procrastination of the mediators and prolongation of uncertainty and violence. The myth of the American export of democratic revolution was exposed in Palestine: when in free and fair elections the wrong party got elected, democracy ceased to be good anymore. Demonstration of trust and solidarity with any organisation that is unacceptable to the US, cannot be de facto be categorised as undemocratic. The people of Palestine have been punished for electing their leaders in free and fair elections and these are mistakes that need to be amended. Ashrawi eloquently points out- “The question is not whether to talk to Hamas; the question is how to repair an active and vibrant democracy in Palestine.” How would the US repair the Palestinian political process in such a way that Hamas is part of a pluralistic system is the challenge. A positive engagement is the need of the hour rather than addressing the issue of regimes and their desirability.

Extended Neighbourhood:
Shaping Perceptions

The Israel-Palestine issue is the most emotive and unifying issue in the region, characterised by a very intricate diversity. While an impartial political solution is inevitable to change public perceptions in the region, several other steps could be taken to reach out to the people. Shaping appropriate policies to set in motion the peace process also needs to be supplemented with adequate measures to remedy the way in which the US is perceived in the Middle East. There has been a vacuous dearth of measures at the official level in the realm of public relations to address public opinion amongst Muslim populations. A vigorous public diplomacy drive to engage the youth in populations that are prone to be swayed by radical Islamic ideology is imperative.

The demographic composition of the region is undergoing a major change, we are witnessing the evolution of a huge force—the youth. Sixtyfive per cent of the population in the region is below thirty years of age and unemployment is a serious problem plaguing this section. Dearth of jobs for youngsters has severe sociological impacts in terms of delaying taking on family responsibilities. Unemployment among the youth is threatening their socio-cultural fabric and needs to be addressed instantly. The predicament can be seen as a window of opportunity for the US to transform its image among the younger Muslim population by providing them with employment opportunities through international organisations. Engaging with organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to promote income generating projects in the region would tap this vast human resource potential in a productive way and would aid the transformation of their perception of the US to a great extent. Capacity building amongst a large educated middle class could lay the foundations for democratic values and this would certainly be better than a top-down approach of exporting democracy.

Avoiding any sort of military adventurism and improving relations with Iran, Lebanon, Syria is critical to effectively dealing with anti-Americanism in the broader Middle East. Obama’s success in stabilising Iraq, restoring security in Afghanistan, the process of institution-building in both these countries with effective cooperation from Muslim states, showing greater respect for human rights would all matter in shedding America’s image as anti-Islamic. A change in the campaign against terrorism by doing away with “Us versus Them” attitude and “Axis of Evil” terminology, that has alienated the majority Muslim population, is essential in this new campaign to extend goodwill to a region that has been aggrieved by violence or threats of violence. The renewed US engagement of the Middle East must be dealt with both on the level of framing policies and shaping perceptions. The challenge is to tackle each of the intertwined issues in the region in isolation as well as in consonance with other related issues. Managing the ripple effects of these interwoven concerns goes beyond appointing special envoys. It calls for a well equipped army of diplomats shaping and implementing an array of policies with a multifaceted approach, and a confluence of all the above factors.

The author is a Salzburg Seminar Fellow.

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