At Cairo University on 4 June, US President Barack Obama delivered an enthusiastically-received speech that promised radical change in the US’ approach to the Middle East. There were no specifics but the tone was unmistakeably different to anything his predecessors managed.
“I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” Obama declared, “one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.”
What this means in practice will become clearer at the end of this month in a meeting Obama plans to have with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. It is likely to be an anti-climax. Events since June haven’t gone the way the White House hoped.
Domestic affairs, particularly opposition to Obama’s healthcare reform plans, have diverted energy from diplomacy. But Obama’s Cairo vision has been dealt the heaviest blows in the Middle East itself. Nine days after Obama’s Cairo speech, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner of Iran’s presidential elections. It dashed Obama’s hopes that a new leader would emerge who was willing to engage with the US about regional affairs and Iran’s nuclear plans.
Continuing violence and flawed elections are undermining Obama’s strategy in Afghanistan. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki has accused Syria of harbouring terrorists responsible for car bomb attacks in Baghdad last month. Bringing Damascus in from the cold has been one of the Obama administration’s Middle East priorities. A row between Iraq and Syria will make this harder.
Obama is also grappling with Israel’s capacity to obstruct his Middle East peace agenda. Despite being told to stop building in the Occupied Territories at his White House meeting with Obama on 18 May, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says work on 2,500 homes will continue and he has approved the construction of several hundred new ones in the West Bank. He says there will be a suspension of further settlements, but not a freeze, the condition for Palestinian participation in talks. There’s no confidence that Netanyahu will ever offer concessions about existing settlements. Only an Israeli government prepared to compromise that is overwhelmingly backed by Israeli voters can do that. Nothing in Israeli electoral history suggests this is a realistic early prospect.
The upshot is that Obama will unveil later this month history’s most feeble Middle East peace initiative. Israel will indicate that it might stop building in the West Bank for a bit. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas will promise an end to attacks on Israel despite the fact he can’t contain Hamas and doesn’t control the Gaza Strip. There will be further warnings directed at Iran that Tehran will ignore.
Obama, like his predecessors, is a prisoner of Middle East history, Israeli intransigence and US voting patterns. His arrival in the White House has also coincided with the greatest setback in the US economy since 1929. Obama’s good intentions are seen by the US’ rivals as evidence of its weakness. Russia, enjoying the fruits of oil prices back at $70 a barrel, is seeking once more to be a player in the Middle East. Reports from Moscow in early September said a contract to supply fighters to Syria that was believed to have lapsed is still in place.
The Middle East seems to be reverting to the condition it was in before the collapse of communism and the Kuwait crisis that ushered in an era of US predominance. This has been in decline since the fall of Baghdad on 9 April 2003 when anything seemed to be within Washington’s grasp. And there is not much that Obama can do about it.
The Middle East has always been a heterogeneous region where attempts to impose a single order have always failed. Its diversity is its strength. Accepting that fact is, perhaps, Obama’s greatest challenge.