The celebrations in large parts of the US and most of the rest of the world following the election of Barack Obama as next president of the USA were perhaps understandable, even though there was very little chance of his failing to be elected, given the totality of the failure of the neo-cons under George W. Bush over the previous eight years. Such is the US system of government, however, that Obama will not take office until late January, so it will be some time before the change of leadership is seen in the US’s actual policies around the world. Meanwhile we have the twilight of the “transition” period, during which the out-going and in-coming administrations supposedly work together to ensure a smooth transfer of power, but which tends to be characterized more by last-minute legacy building on the part of the out-going administration than anything else; something Obama’s camp is well-positioned to understand, considering how many former senior members of the Clinton administration he is promoting in his own administration-in-waiting, which hardly suggests the change from the established ways of doing things in Washngton that he had promised.
For most Muslims in the world – American Muslims being the obvious exception – the main concern, as they watch the Obama administration taking shape now, and coming into office in a few weeks’ time, will be in what changes, if any, he will make in US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East. That there will be changes is inevitable – the political hollowness of Obama’s call for “change” notwithstanding – because it has been in this area that the Bush administration’s failure has been the greatest. The idea that the US can act as the sole superpower, using pure military might to intimidate the rest of the world into submission, needing to take no notice of what anyone else thinks, has been so discredited that even Sarah Palin refused to acknowledge it on the campaign trail. Indeed, the first results of the change in Washington have probably already been seen in this area: the Iraqi cabinet’s approval of the draft US-Iraqi treaty in mid-November probably owed much to the knowledge that it would be dealing with a new administration in Washington within a few weeks of the treaty coming into effect.
Iraq has come to both embody and symbolize the neo-con era’s greatest failure. The Bush administration’s claim that invading Iraq was part of its “war on terror” was discredited long before it became apparent that there were no weapons of mass destruction, and that Saddam Hussein had no links with al-Qa’ida and nothing to do with 9/11, although such is the power of propaganda than many in America still believe both claims. In truth, Iraq was supposed to demonstrate America’s ability to redraw the map of the Middle East on its own terms, installing rulers of its own choosing wherever it pleased, instituting policies that would best serve the short-term interests of US corporations and the long-term interests of the US economy. All this was presented, of course, in terms of the US’s duty to democratize the Muslim world in order to counter the anti-American extremism that resulted in the attacks of 9/11. Instead Iraq has become a symbol of both America’s brutality and its weakness, with the result that virtually all Obama had to do in order to guarantee his election to the White House was to promise to withdraw US troops from there; such was the US public’s determination to disengage from the fiasco of Iraq that all else was detail. In recent months, some voices have warned that the US will continue to try to have as much influence in Iraq as possible, even after the US-Iraqi treaty is finalized; and that the timetable for troop withdrawal in the treaty will not necessarily be met. That. of course. is true; the Obama administration will immediately be under pressure to use its credibility to salvage as much of the US’s interests in Iraq as possible. But the fact is that Iraq is not the island of pro-Western stability, which would render the US alliance with the Saudis irrelevant, that the neo-cons promised. The US has suffered a massive defeat, has failed utterly, and can never fully recover from it, whatever may happen in the future.
That is, however, not a sentence you will hear many Americans saying, because few in America acknowledge what has happened in Iraq as a defeat for America. In the allocation of blame, this has been a particularly easy case: George W. Bush and the neo-con clique around him have been made scapegoats, which is why, in the eyes of most Americans, the passing of the Bush era will mark a fresh start, with Obama granted a clean slate on which to start building the US’s record anew. And to prove that the failure of the neo-cons has not been a failure of America itself, one need only look to Washington’s other great foreign policy adventure, in Afghanistan, which Obama himself described on the campaign trail as “a good war”, disregarding the fact that in real terms it is every bit as disastrous as Iraq. Listening to the rhetoric of the Obama campaign, one might believe that Afghanistan has been everything that Iraq has not: just, successful and worthwhile. Why this contrast? Because it saves him from accusations of disloyalty and unpatriotism. In this version of history, it is not America that has failed disastrously in Iraq, and so been humiliated and discredited, it is only the Bush clique; in effect, he promised: ‘get the neo-cons out, and we will end the Bush disaster in Iraq as quickly as possible, while proving our true quality in Afghanistan.’
The problem for Obama is that in fact Afghanistan has been as great a disaster as Iraq, except that Americans have been less aware of it because Iraq has taken all the headlines. If Obama really is determined to pursue the Afghan war, Afghanistan might become as great a millstone around his neck as Iraq has been around Bush’s. Afghanistan is a huge and rugged country whose tribes have defied central control throughout its history, from both foreign occupiers and local state builders. Hamid Karzai may be the internationally recognized president of the country, but in reality he controls little more than the municipality of Kabul, and even that only by daylight. He knows that the US is fighting a war they cannot win, which is why he favors some sort of settlement with the Taliban; such uneasy balances of power between different political factions, usually in the forms of tribes rather than ideological groups, is the only way Afghanistan has ever been ruled. This has thus far been an anathema to the Americans; whether the Obama administration will be more open to the idea remains to be seen. What can be said with certainty, however, is that Afghanistan’s ordinary people, and those of neighboring Pakistan, where the Afghan war is increasingly being fought by proxy, will continue to suffer whatever political strategies may be ordained from Washington. One thing that can be said with absolute confidence is that, in the callousness shown towards innocent lives anywhere, the Obama presidency is unlikely to be any different from the long line of US administrations before it.
The other two issues in the Middle East that are going to demand the attention of Obama’s foreign policy team will be Israel/Palestine, where a new approach is desperately needed because the approach of the last 18 years has finally ground to a halt; and Iran, where again the neo-con approach has failed to have any impact on the Islamic republic’s independence or defiance of the West. Much has been made of the fact that Obama has appointed Rahm Emanuel, an Israeli citizen and former soldier, as his White House chief of staff. Some optimists have suggested that this will make it easier for Obama to impose the US’s will on Tel Aviv, but there is precious little history of the US ever having a will independent of Tel Aviv, and the Israeli line that Emanuel represents “our man in the White House” is more likely to be proven accurate. In any case, the elections in Israel in February will have far greater impact on the situation there than the occupancy of the White House, and the campaigning for those elections, with all the candidates striving to be more aggressively anti-Palestinian than their rivals, suggests that little will change there. But something must change; the West’s failure to destroy Hamas after years of trying, or even to dent its support base among Palestinians, has led some at least to recognize that it must be dealt with as a legitimate representative of the Palestinians, rather than marginalized in favor of dealing with less difficult Palestinian leaders. Considering that Hamas is not going anywhere, this is likely to be a lesson that the Obama White House faces up to sooner or later.
Of all the foreign policy issues to confront Obama, Iran is the one which will probably benefit most from the change in Washington. Aiming to limit Iran’s freedom of action, and moving closer to ending its defiance, was a major factor behind the US thinking on Iraq, Afghanistan and other regional policies; the US’s failure on those fronts has made effective action against Iran much more difficult. Having faced down Bush’s war-mongering over the nuclear issue, and with Obama now having to deal with the fall-out of the economic crisis in America, Iran will feel confident that it faces no significant external threat for the time being. It will also know, however, that Israel will continue to lobby for action against it, and that the US’s fear of its independence and its example as a modern Islamic state remains undiminished.
Foreign affairs are unlikely to be a major priority for Obama in the first years of his presidency; he has more urgent fish to fry closer to home for the time being. But the policies he will pursue, both now and when he has more time for them, are unlikely to be as different from those of the defeated and discredited neo-cons as some might hope and expect.