The greater middle east: Obama’s six problems

Fred Halliday
21 January 2009

The inauguration of a new United States president is a moment of unusually high hopes the world over as well in the homeland. This is understandable in view both of the legacy Barack Obama inherits and his own striking qualities. But there is also - as ever, but perhaps more in view of the tendency to excess in much media coverage - a need for some proportion.

Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the LSE, and visiting professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). His many books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris 2003), 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005), and The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world.

The recent articles on the middle east include:

"Sunni, Shi'a and the "Trotskyists of Islam" (9 February 2007)

"Al-Jazeera: the matchbox that roared" (25 March 2007)

"Palestinians and Israelis: a political impasse" (4 June 2007)

"Lebanon, Gaza, and Iraq: three crises" (22 June 2007)

"Yemen: murder in Arabia Felix" (13 July 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008Nowhere is this more evident than in the middle east - even though, and despite Israel's assault on Gaza, the affairs of this region will be far from the only priority of the new president on his first days in the White House. For there are many others: the domestic economic crisis: dealing with Russia and China (and perhaps even a recalcitrant Congress); the war in Afghanistan and relations with Pakistan; the diplomacy of global warming.

The very range and scale of these suggests that the post-inauguration glow may soon fade - and that when the pressing agenda does start to crowd in, the middle east may indeed force itself to become an unavoidable focus for President Obama. The Israeli operation in Gaza - and its wider strategic implications, including for Iran - could be a harbinger here, as well as a tragedy that compels serious attention in its own right.

Among the advice Obama has received on the middle east is that the US should treat it as interconnected, while avoiding the mirage of a single or "comprehensive" solution to what is in reality a mosaic of interlocking crises and interests. In that spirit, and before "events" (unexpected or not) have had a chance to spoil the luxury of a fresh canvas, here are six states in the broad region of "greater west Asia" that the new president must keep in mind.

Iraq, Iran, Palestine

The first state is Iraq. Barack Obama comes to office with the advantage that in its last weeks the George W Bush administration was able at last to sign a status-of-forces agreement (Sofa) with Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad. It is probable - for all the talk of "stay-behind" units, and combat-troops rebranded as "training" entities - that in effect all US forces will leave by the end of 2011. The Sofa agreement has commanded surprisingly wide support (for the moment) across the Iraqi political spectrum; and even the Iranians, who played such a vital role behind the scenes in advising the Iraqi government, have been reasonably welcoming.

However, the overall situation in Iraq gives little cause for comfort. The security situation remains severely unsettled, including in Baghdad itself; and the US military "surge'" much-touted success is illusory or fragile (in part because it is the enforced reallocation of people from mixed areas in the capital to solely Shi'a or solely Sunni ones has been completed and thus opportunities for communal violence removed, in part because it is the Mahdi army's ceasefire that is responsible for the easing).

Moreover all factions, including the Kurds, are preparing arms for a major intra-Iraqi conflict - in effect a "real" civil war - as the Americans prepare to exit and if current political arrangements collapse. The vaunted "awakening" (Sahwa) movement, America's attempt to win Sunnis back to political engagement, has in some areas helped to arm former members of the ruling Ba'ath party; they are becoming ready to reassert themselves as bloodily out of power as they did when controlling the country in the Saddam Hussein era.

The coming months in Iraq are, then, full of dangers. The political uncertainties include provincial elections at the end of January 2009, with parliamentary elections to follow which will likely produce a new prime minister and president (since al-Maliki may not survive these tests, and Jalal Talabani is seriously ill and his own Kurdish region riven by factionalism and corruption).

The second state is Iran. The Iranian revolution is thirty years old in January 2009 - and, like other great modern revolutions (France, Russia, China, Cuba) - it has far from run its course after three decades. Indeed the very fact that some reformists in Iran do want to moderate policies at home, and seek accommodation abroad, has led others to reassert revolutionary ideals and rhetoric; this pattern too is evident in these other cases.

In such conditions, talk of a "grand bargain" between Washington and Tehran is hollow; as is the speculation about enticing Syria to end its collaboration with Iran. The Islamic Republic remains as it has been since 1979 pivotal in the region's conflicts - from Gaza and the Beka'a valley to Damascus, Baghdad and Kabul. This makes a significant reduction of tension with the United States (involving too regularisation of diplomatic contact) highly desirable.

It is also possible, though the nuclear issue and the Israel factor will be key parts of the calculations on both sides. Much will depend on the outcome of the Iranian presidential elections in June 2009: and here, even the election of one of the pragmatic-reformist former incumbents (Hashemi Rafsanjani or Mohammad Khatami) is no guarantee of progress, given that the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameneí will continue to play a decisive role.

openDemocracy authors consider Barack Obama's policy options:

John C Hulsman, "Memo to Obama: the middle east needs you" (11 November 2008)

A Wess Mitchell, "Memo to Obama: a Europe policy 3.0" (11 November 2008)

Anita Inder Singh, "Obama's Afghan challenge" (12 November 2008)

Zaid Al-Ali, "What Obama means for Iraq" (13 November 2008)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela...and Obama" (24 November 2008)

Godfrey Hodgson, "Change?" (2 December 2008)

openDemocracy, "Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (20 January 2009)

Pervez Hoodbhoy, "Barack Obama's triple test" (21 January 2009)The third country - not yet, and far from being, a state - is Palestine. It is improbable that the latest Israeli attack on Gaza will make a settlement any more likely. The political and electoral timing of the operation is part of a wider Israeli scepticism towards the new US president, reflected in some anticipatory scorn of his supposed idealism. This is unwarranted if only because Obama's partisan campaign position on the Arab-Israeli dispute was the one major piece of unprincipled and opportunistic posturing in his election campaign. Whether this will endure is another matter.

But even were Obama to change his approach and to make the resolution of the Palestine question on an equitable and stable two-state basis his priority - which in any case few in Washington would thank him for - this would not be enough. For there are serious limits to what the US - or any other external mediator, be it the European Union or Saudi Arabia - can achieve over Palestine. The principal reason is that serious and dangerous divisions lie within as well as between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the result that it will be difficult for any leadership on either side to sign, let alone sustain, a compromise settlement.

Afghanistan, Turkey, Yemen

The fourth state that should command the attention of the new president is Afghanistan. Barack Obama has taken the easy line of making a commitment to a long-term and increased deployment of troops - all the easier because of the plans to leave Iraq. But it is plain that there can be no military solution in Afghanistan; that the victory of late 2001 was shallow (if it was a victory at all); and that a political settlement that includes the notionally moderate "elements" of the Taliban and leads to a new leadership in power in Kabul, is essential.

The fifth state is Turkey. A great cost of the Iraq invasion in 2003 was the alienation of Turkish opinion of all stripes - which occurred for a variety of reasons, of which the Turks' concern that the establishment of a Kurdish administration in northern Iraq could be a precedent for the dismemberment of their own country was foremost. It will be not be easy for Obama to repair relations, however - not least as he has accepted that the Ottoman-era massacres of the Armenian population of the empire constituted genocide, and (as senator) called on the modern Turkish government to accept its responsibilities as a result.

The sixth state is one often pushed nervously to the periphery of vision, namely Yemen. The economic and political situation of a people that composes half of the whole population of the Arabian peninsula - and who are proud to call themselves al ‘arab al asliin (the "original" or "true" Arabs) - is deterioriating. The grip of their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is weakening as oil revenues diminish and violence and discontent spread across the land.

Barack Obama - and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton - may at present think that they have no reason to think about Yemen. But it has held surprises before: for its Arab neighbours, for America, and for the world. It may well do again.

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