Can The US be Impartial?

Oleh: Prof. Dr. Dewi Fortuna Anwar
Deputy Chairman for Social Sciences and Humanities
Indonesian Institute of Sciences
(IPSK-LIPI)

Barack Obama’s election as the 44th President of the United States replacing George W. Bush was greeted with almost universal joy by people around the world. In his campaign Barack Obama promised to be the antithesis of Bush, particularly with regard to foreign policy. Obama declared that if elected he would make the U.S a good international citizen once again by adhering to international laws as well as emphasizing diplomacy and multilateral approaches over unilateral military action. Specifically, Obama in his campaign announced that he would immediately withdraw American troops from Iraq, a war which he had opposed from the very beginning. He also stated the need to engage in dialogues rather than confrontation with American enemies, including pursuing direct talks with Iran without pre-conditions.

Now Barack Obama is the President of the United States and it remains to be seen whether he will be able to deliver on his campaign promises, or whether the realities on the ground will make it very difficult for him to change the course of American foreign policy too radically from the Bush period. While some of the more general initiatives, such as eschewing unilateralism in favour of multilateralism, and always consulting friends and allies to seek international consensus before making major international decisions will probably be realized, more specific problems will likely defy easy answers. The Middle East with its never ending crises and conflicts will continue to dominate most of the new administration’s foreign policy agenda, and how Obama deals with the Middle East will continue to colour Washington’s relations with the wider Muslim World.

Given the more urgent need of dealing with America’s slumping economy, it may be that President Obama will not have much time to devote himself to international affairs, allowing his Secretary of State a freer hand. The choice of Senator Hilary Clinton as Secretary of State, if confirmed, is certainly interesting and intriguing. Hilary, the high profile former first lady and Obama’s bitter rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, will clearly not simply be a messenger for Obama. It should be noted that unlike Obama, Hilary originally supported Bush’s policy of toppling Saddam Hussein, though she later criticized the disastrous American occupation of Iraq. It should also be noted that Hilary disagreed with Obama on the issue of immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq and ridiculed Obama as naïve for his willingness to talk with American enemies, notably Iran, without pre-conditions.

The conflict in Iraq, which had been the main issue that brought down the Bush government, while unlikely to be resolved anytime soon would no longer be the focus of international condemnation against Washington. The need to fulfill the campaign promise of bringing the American soldiers home within the shortest possible time will be tempered by the real needs of providing security on the ground and ensuring American long term strategic interest in Iraq and the region as a whole. Judging by the size of the new American Embassy in Baghdad it is clear that the U.S. is envisaging a permanently large presence in Iraq, probably making the country a U.S. “protectorate”, hosting permanent U.S. military bases for years to come. Notwithstanding his opposition to the war, Obama is unlikely to give up the strategic gains made by the U.S in Iraq and therefore he is likely to defer to the military leadership on the best course forward.

Many US analysts have argued that Iran will be the top security agenda for the U.S.. The issue of Iran’s nuclear ambition and the threat it presents to US ally Israel continues to preoccupy many security elements in Washington, despite continuing Iranian protestations about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. Different from President Bush, the Obama government will likely initiate direct talks with Tehran but probably not without pre-conditions. Besides persuading Iran to cease its nuclear enrichment program Washington will also want Tehran to stop supporting radical groups, notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The problem is Tehran for the moment seems to have more leverage and adding sanctions or pressures will not achieve the U.S. objectives with Iran. To achieve any breakthrough with Tehran the Obama administration must be willing to offer some carrots, but this move will be strongly opposed by both the security conservatives and liberals at home. Obama’s own Democratic supporters will likely demand that any engagements with the Ahmadinejad government be accompanied by strong pressures on Tehran to improve its human rights practices.

The biggest challenge for Obama is undoubtedly the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly with the unfolding crisis in Gaza. The US has always been biased in favour of Israel, a historical position that has put it at odd with the Muslim world supportive of the Palestinian claim. For the U.S. to be effective in brokering a lasting peace between the conflicting parties it must be able and willing to adopt a more even handed position and be as critical towards Israeli excesses as towards Hamas and the Palestinians as a whole. Obama’s pre-election promise to Israel that Jerusalem, a key contested territory, should remain an undivided part of Israel would clearly be untenable if any serious negotiations towards a two-state solution were to be revived. Continuing to shun Hamas, the dominant political power in Gaza, is also politically unrealistic.

The question is whether Obama is willing to alienate his Democratic supporters back home, all of whom are uncritically and unstintingly pro-Israel and anti-Hamas, by forcing Israel to accept some unpalatable conditions for peace with its neighbours. How Obama handles the Gaza crisis and the Palestinian question as a whole will be closely watched by the international community, particularly the Muslim world, to see whether he is really going to be a different president from his predecessors. Given the strong international opposition to Israel’s attacks on Gaza which have caused massive civilian casualties, failure on Obama’s part to rein in Israel will effectively end his honeymoon with the international community even before it begins.*****

Published in AsiaViews. Vol. II No.9 January-February 2009, pp.20-21

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