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Wednesday, June 1, 2016
- President Barack Obama may have lost interest in the Middle East, to paraphrase Soviet leader Leon Trotsky’s famous epigram about war, but the Middle East is interested in him.
That was certainly the lesson of the past week, during which the newly re-elected president had hoped that his four-day tour of Southeast Asia might help dramatise what he believes is the necessity for the U.S. and its public to “pivot” their attention away from the Greater Middle East to the economic promise and daunting strategic challenges of the Asia-Pacific, especially Washington’s future relationship with China.
Alas, those hopes were not realised, as the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of crises dating back at least to Sep. 11, 2001 – the intense, week-long exchange of rocket and missiles between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza – exploded on the eve of his departure for Thailand with the targeted killing of Hamas’s military commander.
Betwixt back-to-back meetings with Asian leaders gathered for two summits in Phnom Penh, not to mention an unprecedented visit by a sitting U.S. president to Burma, Obama found himself on the phone not only to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, the preferred mediator with Hamas (which Washington considers a “terrorist” organisation), but just about every other regional leader reassuring them of his deep concern about the course of events and urging all concerned to use their influence to “de-escalate” the crisis as quickly as possible.
In the end, Obama felt obliged to send his clearly exhausted secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to the region to personally provide the various parties with enough guarantees – guarantees that can only further entangle the U.S. in the region’s oldest and most intractable conflict – to give them the confidence to sign on to a ceasefire agreement announced in the late Wednesday afternoon by Egyptian Foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, with Clinton at his side.
Whether the ceasefire holds – and whether, in Clinton’s words, it can be consolidated in a way that will “improve conditions for the people of Gaza and provide security for the people of Israel” or might even perhaps lead to the resumption of a long-dormant U.S.-led “peace process” – remains to be seen, although few experts here are holding their breath.
What seems clear, however, is that, despite Obama’s clear desire to lighten Washington’s “footprint” in the Greater Middle East and devote substantially more attention to the increasingly complex and high-stakes geo-economics and -politics of Asia, he will be hard put to do so.
“(E)very time the Obama administration tries to turn toward Asia,” noted Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution in Wednesday’s Washington Post, “the Middle East drags it back – literally, in the case of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”
“As unsatisfying and unpromising as active engagement in the Middle East may seem, a U.S. president cannot turn away from it,” Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Middle East analyst, told IPS.
“U.S. interests are heavily engaged there whether we like it or not, and inaction only helps to sustain certain negative perceptions of U.S. intentions and priorities, and those perceptions ultimately harm U.S. interests,” according to Pillar, currently at Georgetown University.
Indeed, as Kagan, an influential neo-conservative thinker, has long propounded, U.S. interests in the region remain enormous, beginning with its status as the world’s most important source of oil and gas reserves.
Maintaining military dominance of the region – to both ensure the free flow of energy resources to the rest of the world and preserve Washington’s ability to deny potential rivals access to those resources in a crisis – has been a top U.S. priority dating back to the origins of the Cold War.
It was made manifest more recently by the 1991 Gulf War, as well as the disastrous 2003 Iraq invasion, the very deep hole dug by his predecessor out of which Obama has been trying to climb for the past four years.
Wars, internal unrest, or insurgencies that that may adversely affect both Washington’s dominance and the flow of those resources are inevitably seen here as threats to U.S. vital interests – one reason why the so-called “Arab Spring” in which several reliable Arab autocrats, including Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, have been overthrown and others remain at risk has created so much anxiety here.
Israel’s security, a major preoccupation of Kagan and his fellow-neo-conservatives, has also been regarded as a leading – if not exactly vital – reason for Washington to remain deeply involved in the Middle East, for reasons more of domestic politics than national security.
Although a growing number of observers believe its political power has weakened as successive Israeli governments have moved ever rightward, the Israel lobby, which includes most Christian evangelicals, as well as the leadership of major national Jewish institutions, is still perceived as Washington’s most potent and feared foreign policy interest group by far.
Unanimous approval by both houses of Congress of resolutions expressing “unwavering commitment to the welfare, security, and survival of the State of Israel” without any allusion to concern about civilian casualties or the desirability of a ceasefire during the conflict with Hamas this past week demonstrated the hold the lobby continues to enjoy over the legislative branch in particular.
Add to this the post-9/11 popular – albeit somewhat diminished – fear of Al-Qaeda-type terrorists plotting to attack the U.S. from any safe haven in Pakistan or Yemen or northern Mali, any U.S. president, no matter his own sense of foreign policy priorities, would have a hard time “pivoting” away from the region.
Thus, even if the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire holds and the latest crisis is successfully defused – a mighty big “if” – and even if U.S. forces successfully withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 as they did last year from Iraq, Obama appears fated to remain captive to the region’s many outstanding conflicts for the remainder of his tenure.
If it’s not Gaza, it could be the much-weakened but pro-U.S. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid to gain non-member state status at the United Nations at the end of the month that may trigger the next crisis.
Or the growing external pressure on the U.S. to provide more direct support to the fractious Syrian opposition in its increasingly bloody war against President Bashar Al-Assad.
Not to mention the growing polarisation and violence in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet; the spreading popular protests that could threaten King Abdullah of Jordan, the only other Arab country besides Egypt with a peace treaty with Israel; and the backlash against the controversial U.S. counter-terrorist campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan.
And then there are Israel’s threats to attack Iran if intensified U.S.-led diplomatic efforts – to play out over the next few months at least – do not result in curbing Tehran’s nuclear programme.
If Obama’s brief jaunt across the Pacific was a nice four-o’clock tea, the all-you-can-eat buffet – from Palestine to Persia – remains full to overflowing.
*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.