The appearance of change: US foreign policy on the Middle East

24 May 2011

In a big foreign policy speech, US President Barack Obama pledged a shift in relations with the Middle East. In reality, Washington will find its influence limited and that it is increasingly at odds with regional powers

US president Barack Obama sent out a warning to established dictators in the region that they cannot bank on US support in the name of stability, at the expense of values such as democracy and freedom.

“There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity,” Obama declared on 19 May in a speech outlining US policy towards the Middle East.

“Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the [Middle East] region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.”

Direct warnings to Syria

Obama directly called on Syria’s President Al-Assad to stop brutally crushing protests and either embrace democratic reform or “get out of the way”. Yemen’s President Saleh was instructed to follow through on a power transfer agreement negotiated by the GCC, and Bahrain’s government was told to stop mass arrests and the use of brute force to quell protests. He also urged both the government and opposition to embrace the opportunity for dialogue.

The Gulf Arab view will remain that the president is naive and lacks an understanding of the threat of Iran

Simon Henderson, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Perhaps most significantly, Obama outlined the basis of a proposed Israel-Palestine settlement. Borders would be based on the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps – long part of US policy – with security and territory issues tackled first, leaving refugees and Jerusalem to be discussed in later stages.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already dismissed this suggestion, as he nervously watches the political upheaval in the rest of the region and weighs up what impact this will have on Israel’s security. The Palestinians are also ignoring Obama’s advice that they do not pursue a unilateral declaration of statehood at the forthcoming UN General Assembly meeting in September.

Obama’s prospects of delivering a peace deal are limited. “Israel sees the borders and other issues as on the same side of the coin as security. The speech will certainly have upset them,” says Simon Henderson from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Even making progress on his more modest aims of supporting reform in the region could be difficult in practice. “Obama is overestimating the capacity of the US to determine what happens in the Arab world,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, research fellow at the London School of Economics and a Middle East specialist. “What we are seeing at the moment is a clash between the state and society, and that is ultimately being led by the people of the Middle East, not the US.”

The ability of Washington to play a part in that clash is perhaps not as significant as Obama hopes. Ulrichsen says the main way it can promote democracy is getting behind transitions after the uprisings have taken place and through initiatives such as those Obama announced for Egypt, a set of economic measures to forgive debt, provide new loans and support the development of democratic institutions. “The US can embrace change after the event, and maybe try and guide domestic events, but there is little it can really do otherwise,” says Ulrichsen.

The US faces an additional challenge in trying to drive change in the region from an increasingly assertive counter-revolutionary policy mainly coming from the GCC, which worries that uprisings open the door for Iranian meddling.

“The Gulf Arab view will remain that the president is naive and lacks an understanding of the threat of Iran,” says Henderson.

Ultimately, a dramatic new vision for US policy in the region will continue to be hampered by the reality of viewing the Middle East through the prism of trade and oil, and attempts to contain Iran. That will bring the US back face-to-face with the realities that have always plagued the complex set of judgements involved in foreign policy.

US policy changes

To his credit, Obama has tried to acknowledge the double-standards that have been evident in US policy towards the region, and move beyond them. In practice, it will be difficult to adopt a consistent approach.

“Failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people [in the Middle East] will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the US pursues our own interests at their expense,” said Obama. Yet tellingly, while embattled leaders in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Libya were chastised or told to embrace reform, the wealthiest and most strategic of US allies in the region went unmentioned, despite them also cracking down on civil liberties, arresting opposition activists and supporting the repression of reform in other countries. Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia were mentioned in the speech by the US president.

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