Barack Obama on the Middle East
The strong showings by Senator Barack Obama of
There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that voters found Senator Obama’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in contrast to the strong support for the invasion by his principal rivals for the Democratic Party nomination, a major factor contributing to his surprisingly strong challenge to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in the race for the White House. Indeed, while his current position on Iraq is not significantly different than that of Clinton or the other major challenger, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Obama’s good judgment not to support the war five years ago has led millions of Democratic and independent voters to find him more trustworthy as a potential commander-in-chief.
At the same time, while he certainly takes more progressive positions on Middle East issues than Senator Clinton or the serious Republican presidential contenders, he backs other aspects of U.S. policies toward Iraq, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have raised some troubling questions. This is one factor that has tempered support for the trailblazing African-American candidate among liberal and progressive voters.
Iraq in the Illinois State Senate
In October 2002, while Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were in Washington leading Congressional efforts to authorize President George W. Bush to invade that oil-rich country at the time and circumstances of his choosing, Obama–then an Illinois state senator who had no obligation to take a stand either way–took the initiative to speak at a major anti-war rally in Chicago. While Clinton and Edwards were making false and alarmist statements that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was still a danger to the Middle East and U.S. national security, Obama had a far more realistic understanding of the situation, stating: “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors.”
Recognizing that there were alternatives to using military force, Obama called on the
Furthermore, unlike the the
Once elected to the
Obama didn’t even make a floor speech on the war until a full year after his election. In it, he called for a reduction in the number of
In addition, during the 2006 Democratic congressional primaries, he campaigned for pro-war incumbents–including Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman against his eventually victorious primary challenger Ned Lamont–and other conservative Democrats fighting back more progressive anti-war challengers.
It was only after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, called for setting a date to withdraw
In a speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in November 2006, Obama appeared to buy into the Bush administration’s claims that its goal in Iraq was not about oil or empire, but to advance freedom, by criticizing the Bush administration for invading Iraq for unrealistic “dreams of democracy and hopes for a perfect government.” Instead of calling for an end to the increasingly bloody U.S.-led military effort, he instead called for “a pragmatic solution to the real war we’re facing in
Despite polls showing a majority of Americans desiring a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, he acknowledged that U.S. troops may need to stay in that occupied country for an “extended period of time,” and that “the U.S. may have no choice but to slog it out in Iraq.” Specifically, he called for
Obama has committed to withdraw regular combat troops within 16 months and launch diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives to address some of the underlying issues driving the ongoing conflicts. He has also pledged to launch “a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative to help broker and end of the civil war in
If elected, as president Obama would almost certainly withdraw the vast majority of
Obama has criticized the Bush administration for its belligerent policy toward
Despite this, Senator Obama has appeared to buy into some of the more alarmist and exaggerated views of
In remarks Obama prepared for a speech to an American
Because of this alleged threat, Obama insisted that “we should take no option, including military action, off the table.” One option he has not endorsed, however, is the proposed establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone for the Middle East, similar to initiatives already undertaken in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia,
To his credit, Obama has distinguished himself from both the Bush administration and Senator Clinton in supporting direct negotiations with
Earlier in his career, Obama took a relatively balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aligning himself with positions embraced by the Israeli peace camp and its American supporters. For example, during his unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2000, Obama criticized the
During the past two years, however, Obama has largely taken positions in support of the hard-line Israeli government, making statements virtually indistinguishable from that of the Bush administration. Indeed, his primary criticism of Bush’s policy toward the conflict has been that the administration has not been engaged enough in the peace process, not that it has backed the right-wing Israeligovernment on virtually every outstanding issue.
Rejecting calls by Israeli moderates for the United States to use its considerable leverage to push the Israeli government to end its illegal and destabilizing colonization of the West Bank and agree to withdraw from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees, Obama has insisted “we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests” and that no Israeli prime minister should ever feel “dragged” to the negotiating table.
Despite Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s refusal to freeze the construction of additional illegal settlements, end the seizure of Palestinian population centers, release Palestinian political prisoners, or enact other confidence-building measures–much less agree to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state–Obama claimed in his AIPAC policy forum speech that Olmert is “more than willing to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will result in two states living side by side in peace and security.” And though, as recently as last March, Obama acknowledged the reality that that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” as a result of the stalled peace process he has since placed the blame for the impasse not on the Israeli occupation but on the Palestinians themselves.
In addition, rejecting calls by peace and human rights activists that
Backing Israeli Militarism
In the face of widespread international condemnation over
(When I contacted Obama’s press spokesperson in his Senate office to provide me with evidence supporting Obama’s claim that, despite the findings of these reputable human rights groups, that Hezbollah had indeed used “human shields,” he sent me the link to a poorly-documented report from a hawkish Israeli research institute headed by the former chief of the Mossad–the Israeli intelligence service that itself has engaged in numerous violations of international humanitarian law.
The senator’s press spokesman did not respond to my subsequent requests for more credible sources. This raises concerns that an Obama administration, like the current administration, may be prone to taking the word of ideologically driven right-wing think tanks above those of empirical research or principled human rights groups and other nonpartisan NGOs.) Indeed, Obama’s rhetoric as a senator has betrayed what some might view as a degree of anti-Arab racism. He has routinely condemned attacks against Israeli civilians by Arabs but has never condemned attacks against Arab civilians by Israelis.
Unlike any other major contenders for president this year or the past four election cycles, Obama at least has demonstrated in the recent past an appreciation of a more moderate and balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As president, he may well be better than his more recent Senate votes and public statements would indicate. Though the power of the “Israel Lobby” is often greatly exaggerated (see my articles The Israel Lobby Revisited and The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is It Really?), it’s quite reasonable to suspect that pressure from well-funded right-wing American Zionist constituencies has influenced what Obama believes he can and cannot say. As an African-American whose father came from a Muslim family, he is under even more pressure than most candidates to avoid being labeled as “anti-Israel.” Ironically, a strong case can be made that the right-wing militaristic policies he may feel forced to defend actually harm
Still, Obama has indicated greater interest in promoting a comprehensive peace settlement, acknowledging that the “Israeli government must make difficult concessions for the peace process to restart.” And, unlike the Bush administration, which successfully pressured Israel not to resume peace negotiations with Syria, Obama has pledged never to block an Israeli prime minister from the negotiation table. (See my article: Divide and Rule: U.S. Blocks Israel-Syria Talks.)
As a result, several prominent Americans allied with the current Israeli government have expressed deep concern about the prospects of Obama’s election while Democrats aligned with more progressive Israeli perspectives have expressed some cautious optimism regarding Obama becoming president.
How Much Change?
Despite building his campaign around the theme of “change you can believe in,” there are serious questions regarding how much real change there would be under an Obama presidency regarding the
However, many are holding out hope that, as president, Obama would be more progressive than he is letting on and that he would take bolder initiatives to shift U.S. policy in the region further away from its current militaristic orientation than he may feel comfortable advocating as a candidate. Indeed, given how even the hawkish John Kerry was savaged by the right-wing over his positions on Middle East security issues during his bid for the presidency, the threat of such attacks could be enough to have given Senator Obama pause in making more direct challenges to the status quo during the campaign. In other words, he could be open to more rational and creative approaches to the
The Illinois Senator’s intelligence and independent-mindedness, combined with what’s at stake, offers some hope that at least for pragmatic reasons–if not moral and legal ones–a future President Obama would have the sense to recognize that the more the United States has militarized the Middle East, the less secure we have become. He would perhaps also recognize that arms control and nonproliferation efforts are more likely to succeed if they are based on universal, law-based principles rather than unilateral demands and threats based upon specific countries’ relationship with the
Most importantly, given that the strength of the anti-war movement brought Obama to his position as a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, just such a popular outpouring can also prevent him from further backsliding in the face of powerful interests that wish to see U.S. policy continue its dangerous course. Those who support peace and human rights in the Middle East and beyond must be willing to challenge him–as both a candidate and as a possible future president–for advocating immoral or illegal policies that compromise the security and human rights of people in the region and here in the
Stephen Zunes, the Foreign Policy In Focus Middle East editor, is a professor of politics at the