Hope, Obama and a Baghdad kiss

09 March 2008
A Texas primary and a Baghdad kiss sent mixed signals in the first week of March about the direction of the Middle East after US presidential elections this November.

Senator Hillary Clinton stayed in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination with wins in primaries in Ohio, Rhode Island and, crucially, in Texas where she seemed likely to lose. It could prove to be the decisive 2008 moment in US politics.

In Baghdad, President Ahmadinejad kissed his counterpart on the second day of the month at the start of the first visit by an Iranian head of state. This, too, could be a turning point.

In America, defeats in three primaries on a single day could sink Senator Barack Obama’s campaign to become the first non-white presidential contender in US history. Even ignoring his ethnicity, there has never been a more unlikely candidate.

Son of an absent Muslim father, Obama lost his mother prematurely and spent his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia. There is nothing in his background familiar to America’s voters.

But peculiarities are probably an advantage in a divided nation. Obama is a politician with nothing to show and little substantial to say. In 2008, many Americans seem to prefer it that way.

In the Middle East, Obama is popular beyond the dreams of any US politician. Never before has a Democratic candidate won over the people of the region like the Illinois senator has done. Beyond his visible attractions and Arabic first name, he is the first serious presidential hopeful in more than 30 years who has not promised to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. His declarations of commitment to the Israeli cause are sincere but superficial.

The charge of anti-Semitism has already been made and found no traction. If Obama gets his party’s nomination, he could win the White House without New York - which Senator Clinton represents and which no successful Democratic presidential nominee has lost in an election year since 1948.

Dialogue, not war

The only obstacle to a White House free from Washington’s most powerful pressure group would then be John McCain, who aims to win in November by remembering Vietnam and promising more war on terror. Primary voting suggests plenty of Americans have had enough of both.

Barack is the Arabic word for blessing, and it seemed for a while that God’s hand was on his shoulders. By destiny or coincidence, Obama’s political ascent comes at the very moment the US needs a president whom Muslims like.

Nothing will do more to neutralise the anti-American extremists who revelled in President Bush’s Middle East failures. Nobody would more obviously express that the US has closed the book on 9/11 and wants dialogue, not war, with the region.

It is what America’s Middle Eastern friends want. As Clinton’s Texas comeback showed, America’s voters are probably not ready to make it happen.

More than 6,000 miles east of Texas, Ahmadinejad arrived in Baghdad and embraced Iraqi President Talabani. It may be the most important kiss of peace in modern Middle East history, signalling a final end of a war between Iraq and the Islamic republic - declared and undeclared - that has killed hundreds of thousands in the past 29 years.

But history’s reach is longer in the Middle East than anywhere else. There’s been more than 2,000 years of rivalry between the peoples east and west of the Tigris and Euphrates basin.

The act was symbolic and substantial. A year ago, Iraq looked like disintegrating into perpetual civil war. The US sent more troops, but secretly engineered initiatives that could bring lasting peace. Sunni tribes were conciliated, not attacked. Shiite militants were persuaded to stop killing. Turkey’s cross-border pursuit of PKK fighters showed that the cost of Kurdish independence would be unacceptably high.

Cynics and wreckers

Without Iranian assent, almost none of this would have happened. Ahmadinejad came to gather Iran’s reward: the public demonstration that its interest in Iraq is legitimate and welcome.

It is premature to say that peace has come to Iraq. But its divided leaders are certainly aware that, when oil trades at $100 a barrel, it is better to stop fighting and start pumping crude.

And once the Iraqi economy starts moving, which of them will want the blame for bringing it to a halt?

Cynics and wreckers consider peace in the Gulf to be a fantasy and a Muslim (by birth) in the White House to be a threat.

They are wrong about both, but are probably the American majority.

It’s their choice this autumn. But a kiss and a blessing gave us hope this spring.

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