Thursday, November 22, 2012

On Obama and the Middle East

The Ever So Inspiring Vexing Obama

How many times did we hear it said around the world, in 2008, that Barak Hussein Obama is the new president of the new America?

It isn’t just the fresh African-American heritage and its mix of Christian and Muslim blood that had the crowds rhapsodizing in ecstasy. It’s that he harks from the old colonies and yet inhabits Rome so comfortably; the education, the worldliness, the sophistication, the very sharpness of him and—here comes the whopper—that he’s so self-satisfied and superior. Unnerving as that made Obama to many Americans, it actually added that extra halo over him among his foreign admirers.

Once sold on the résumé, it was very easy for his partisans to make the leap from profile to policy. For them, the compelling logic went, Obama’s style of leadership and conduct were bound to be as transformational as his person.

It was thought, who better than this American president to refashion the purpose and use of power in a world that seems to be walking briskly towards a radically different era. It isn’t just that emerging centers of influence—all non-western—have been giving the old club a run for its ideas and money. Technology’s innovations also have been chipping away at the deep-set walls between center and periphery. Civil societies have been bypassing their governments, forging transnational links and making robust common cause. Even capitalism itself, already sullied by the IMF and its neoliberal agenda in the league of developing nations, was taking a battering in much of the West by 2008. To boot, the US was finally showing the serious strains of its military and financial excess.

It helped, of course, that, in the endless battles between imperium and its foreign dominions, indigenous grit, facing overwhelming military might, stood its ground and occasionally won. In this movie, Vietnam ran like a preview of things to come.  

And so came Obama on the heels, we must never forget, of a frighteningly insular man called Bush, with a frighteningly adventurous troop. Thus the hope, the clamor and the Nobel Prize. The expectations of many Americans (and otherwise) were that the change would be dramatic, loud enough for us to hear the crusts of international politics shift.

Truth be told, plenty were the skeptics, none more than President Obama himself, enumerating the constancies that belied the fast-moving trends. His very own Oslo speech, upon receiving the Nobel peace prize, waxed eloquent about the seductiveness of lofty ideals once tempered by the irresistible logic of power politics.

Amongst us Middle Easterners there’s always been fury—as there should be—at an atrocious US track record that could stretch as far back as President Woodrow Wilson’s failure to offer more than lip service to the constructs of democracy and self-determination that graced his famous 14 points. President Dwight Eisenhower’s warning to England, France and Israel to withdraw from the Sinai in 1956 is a very lonely moment when American interests coincided with Arab ones.

And yet, however deep our outrage, it’s not every day that we get to hear a politically savvy thinker, like Hamid Dabashi, bemoaning an American president thus: “Oh, how deeply did he betray that hope! He coulda been a contender!" We are very much in the habit of taking offense at American violations of our national integrity or disregard for our political yearnings, or, worst of all, its collusions that tear at the very fabric of our lives. Rarely do we criticize an American president for disappointing our hope in him, since we were conditioned a long time ago not to entertain such silly sentiments.

It took an Obama to rekindle the poetry. So, going back to Dabashi: Obama “coulda been a contender” for what exactly? 

Although he doesn’t quite say it, I suspect Dabashi was hoping that this American presidency might usher in an age of imperial enlightenment of a sort, watershed achievements like a juridical withdrawal from Afghanistan, a palatable peace treaty in Palestine, a more balanced policy towards Iran… Overall, a concerted effort to shorten the distance between the US’s high minded Jeffersonian principles and its hard-edged interests.

Just to be clear, as mindful as I am of the absurdity of pairing imperialism with enlightenment, my tongue was nowhere near my cheek when I was writing the above paragraph. The proposition that a retrenching US must reimagine itself in the region—to show more suppleness and farsightedness in pursuing its interests--is one that has been made by policy makers and critics alike. Leaving the very fundamental but elusive matter of justice aside, the rationale is that, notwithstanding blunders like Iraq, it might seem like the US has not done too badly over the past century, standing as it does now alone, with all its previous rivals nearly vanquished or snapping at its coattails. But the cumulative effect of its connivance with and/or indulgence of the Middle East’s most reactionary and predatory countries (Israel included) has been ruinous to the prospects for stability that the US needs most today as it retreats and pivots towards more pressing spheres.

Judging by the hyperbole in Dabashi’s lamentations, Obama’s record so far—at least for his betrayed fans--is more than disappointing. The kill lists, the soaring number of drone-strikes and other such like loathsome prerogatives of empire shock, while “servility” to Israel infuriates. Needless to say, the US’s reliance on multiple yardsticks in navigating the current Arab uprisings—quick uptake in Tunisia and Egypt, firepower in Libya, silence on Bahrain, studied reluctance on Syria…—have invited the usual cries of foul play.

But the truth is that Obama’s tactics point to tentative departures from old policies and new frictions with longstanding allies that have translated into openings for those of us playing on the opposite side of this perennially dirty game of geopolitics. He predictably gave way on Yemen and Bahrain, but rebuffed Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah on Egypt’s Husni Mubarak, moved swiftly on Tunisia and is still derailing Qatari and Saudi efforts to arm Syrian insurgents, quite a few of whom are extremely unattractive Islamists.

He has yielded to Israel, as any American president would, on Palestine, but he has stubbornly and effectively resisted it on Iran. One could argue that Israel’s unusually audacious efforts to manipulate great power interests on an issue much bigger than its size—even if it is such a “special” friend--were bound to fail. But the art of Obama’s diplomacy, which publically mined Israeli dissent as much as it capitalized on the US’s sheer heft is not lost on Netanyahu and his camp—it certainly shouldn’t be lost on the rest of us. And double standards do pervade the cocktail of sanctions against Iran, but I’d be interested to hear a serious counterargument on the better path of war from other than those whom history has already proven insane.

Clearly, Obama is not thinking of the good people of the Middle East when he insists on flexibility in this very uncertain climate. And he might well be embracing alliances with forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which might be as averse to a freer, more democratic politics as the old regimes. But precisely because of the fluidity of the times and the US’s dimming star, Obama has had to listen harder and watch carefully the swing of the pendulum. We should all remember that one of his more intriguing qualities is how well he manages to unsettle his supposed friends.

And since Dabashi himself describes the man as a mere opportunist, the hint for our opinion leaders to quit the outrage, take the opportunity, catch up with the grassroots and help make irreversible and resounding our newfound vibrancy.

In one of the more lucid takes on the “bewilderingly diverse and ferocious energies” recently unleashed in the Arab region, Pankaj Mishra, one of the more robust public intellectuals seguing between East and West, posits that the revolts are but the latest manifestations of a century-long struggle by the people of Asia to wrestle themselves free of Western domination. The US, no less than the colonial powers of old, has long resisted, at a huge cost in resources and lives, this trajectory. Even now

Republicans calling for President Obama to ‘grow’ a ‘big stick’ seem to think they live in the world of Teddy Roosevelt. Liberal internationalists arguing for even deeper American engagement with the Middle East inhabit a similar time warp; and both have an exaggerated idea of America’s financial clout after the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s.

 If the main question before us is whether the final push towards a “post-Western era…will be as protracted and violent as Europe’s mid-20th century retreat from a newly assertive Asia and Africa,” it is certainly arguable that an opportunist at the White House is all we need to manage the transition with the least damage possible. When we breathed a sigh of relief at the reelection of Obama, did we not phew with that in mind?