Obama and Middle East

2009-01-13 00:00

On January 20 there is to be the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. Presidential inaugurations are always significant events; one has to admire the Americans for the way in which they dramatise the ritual of their four-yearly political cycle. But few inaugurations in U.S. history have been as momentous as the one which approaches.

After eight years under George W. Bush, regarded by many as the worst president for many decades, American citizens and the world at large were hoping for something different and something better, and in Obama — passionate, calm, articulate, intelligent, empathetic, with a wonderfully multicultural background, and offering to bring about real change in U.S. and world politics — they seem to have got what they wanted, and more.

Expectations are very high, and high expectations are bound to be disappointed to some degree; that is one of the laws of life. And, as we all know, Obama faces a uniquely difficult set of situations: a global economic downturn, which is particularly intense in the U.S., where it mainly started, numerous domestic problems, especially in the social services sector, two ongoing wars and many knotty diplomatic problems, and now the crisis in the Middle East.

What will Obama do? What will he be able to do? Will he be able to live up to the sincere and inspiring rhetoric of many of his campaign speeches?

Only time will tell. But, at this crucial moment of anticipation, it is worth considering the position of the president of the U.S. He (it has so far always been a he) is indeed, as has so often been said, the most powerful person in the world, although the last decade has enabled us to foresee a time when that won’t necessarily be so. He gets voted into power on the strength of his personality and of the policies that he has set forth. It is then up to him and his team to carry these policies out.

But there are of course many constraints. Like all politicians assuming power for the first time, he discovers that previous political leaders have committed the country in ways that cannot easily or swiftly be changed. How fully did he know about all this beforehand? He discovers too that those who have backed him — politicians and people of influence — may not be happy about some of the measures he hopes to take. There are also the wise restraints imposed upon the president by the subtly modulated constitution.

We have to ask: is the president genuinely free to act? Most people would say: “Yes, within the obvious constraints.” But there is a radical school of thought, both in the U.S. and elsewhere (one of its representatives is John Pilger), which holds that the president is inevitably so caught up within the flawed U.S. political and economic system that, whatever his proclaimed policies, he is little more than a puppet, and that indeed U.S. democracy as a whole is controlled by the vested interests of powerful corporations. I don’t agree with this gloomy view of things, but I have to concede that it contains some very significant grains of truth.

What then is Obama likely to do? Let us focus particularly on the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Will we find that, for all his projects and protestations, he and his team are still so tied into the traditional U.S. bias in favour of Israel that he will be unable to offer any new or constructive proposals? Or will we find that he manages to do what in his campaign he said he would attempt to do? That would mean speaking to all relevant participants (including Syria and Iran), listening to all sides of the argument, and trying to get beneath the terms of the current tit-for-tat dispute — trying, in other words, to get to the root of the underlying problem. How would Israel react to such an approach? Are they so accustomed to U.S. favouritism that an attempt to be even-handed would be denounced by them and by those in the U.S. who back them, as a betrayal?

What is the underlying problem in Israel and Palestine? On the surface we have the often repeated to-and-fro arguments: Hamas and many others say that the Israeli attack has been scandalously cruel and disproportionate, and Israel replies that it cannot and will not tolerate the endless firing of rockets into its territory. The superficial response to this is to say: let there be a ceasefire and all will be well again. But of course it won’t.

Things will not be well, and have not been well for many decades, because the Palestinians have a permanent and valid grievance. Their firing of rockets is a largely symbolic gesture of resistance to what they understandably call the occupation.

That is the problem: the occupation. It encompasses the very setting-up of the state of Israel in 1948, which turned many of them and their families into refugees, living in permanent refugee camps. They are probably aware that the establishment of Israel is not now likely to be reversed, so their primary focus is on the territories taken by Israel during the 1967 war. Those are crucial. The

Palestinians are no more likely to give up their resistance to the present set-up than the South African liberation movements would have been prepared to settle for anything less than the abolition of apartheid.

What will happen? What will Obama do or be able to do? Will he have the confidence and the wisdom and the strength to tackle the deep underlying questions? We shall have to wait and see.

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