Lettre du Cermam


Obama's Middle East policy, one year on

November, 2008: to great acclaim, Barack Obama wins the US Presidential elections. From the previous administration he inherits two wars, namely in Iraq and Afghanistan, frayed international alliances and a series of challenges in the Middle East. One year on, little has been achieved, his critics say. But in October, 2009 the American President is controversially awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his undaunted commitment to multilateral diplomacy and a world free of nuclear weapons.
CERMAM asks Professor Roberto Aliboni (Vice-President of the Istituto Affari Internazionali -IAI- in Rome and expert on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean affairs) for an early assessment of Obama’s Middle East/Islamic world policies.

Interview realised by Chiara Sulmoni

1.C.S: A year after his election, how would you assess Obama’s Middle East/Islamic world policy?

R.A: President Obama’s Middle East strategy was met with greater-than-expected complications in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where US engagement in the fight against al-Qaeda and the area’s Islamist radicals continues; he did not achieve a constructive dialogue with Iran despite initiating talks whose outcome is hard to predict; he failed to steer the Arab-Israeli conflict towards a rapid solution. It is still early to draw any conclusions, but my first assessment can not be positive.

2.C.S: Has Obama’s strategy of engagement and dialogue won him concrete support in the Islamic world and particularly from Arab/Islamic leaders? In what way?

R.A: The Muslim world was certainly seduced by the Cairo speech (4th June, 2009) and by the commitment to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. In particular, the uncompromising request that Israel halt all settlement activities was greatly appreciated, and taken as evidence of a finally unbiased American approach. Support started to wane when Obama requested the freeze be compensated with confidence-building measures, to then turn into bitter disappointment once the American administration, who had started discussions with the Israeli government on the formalities of the settlements’ freeze, failed to insist on it as a necessary precondition.

3.C.S: What is the thorniest issue for Obama to tackle in the region and on what front, on the other hand, is the US administration most likely to succeed in the near future?

R.A: The thorniest issue must be the redefinition of the American AFPAK policy; should this policy be well outlined, then it is in this area that the administration will secure its greatest success. However, it is now far too early to make an assessment; Obama’s task seems at present particularly arduous and subject to a number of unpredictable implications. A more in-depht appreciation of the situation could be made in a year’s time, once all policies and their respective consequences will have been fathomed. The policy of openness towards Russia, for instance, could have positive repercussions on the Middle East.

4.C.S: Have the US and EU’s Middle Eastern/Islamic world policies grown any closer over the past year and if so, to what future prospects?

R.A: As a matter of fact, while public opinion remained strongly opposed to President Bush, governments never fell short of lending their support or at best idly accepting his policies. Obama has moved notably closer to European public opinion, and European governments have been happy to endorse a policy which their respective public opinions approve of. Such assessment is undoubtedly accurate as far as the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned, where -however- Obama’s policies have led to disappointment, and where European response will consist in either a further period of idle support, or in a greater and more independent engagement within the frame of the newly ratified Lisbon Treaty. As for the rest, for instance as far as disengement in Iraq and dialogue with Iran are concerned, European governments can now endorse a transatlantic policy which is more palatable and aligned with European sensitivities.

5.C.S: How far have US-NATO relations changed over the past year, and how does this translate into concrete Afghan policies?

R.A: Relations have improved, and the current NATO Secretary is certainly better than his predecessor. However, this does not seem to be directly and immediately impacting the political agreements required for an improvement in the mission’s overall performance and on NATO’s cohesion. The debate on Afghanistan’s options remains essentially American.

6.C.S: To what extent have Obama’s new measures with respect to the war on terror made the States safer?

R.A: I do not believe anti-terrorism measures and terrorist acts to be directly related. Some measures can contain terrorism but do not lead to its permanent elimination. For this reason, we need to defeat terrorism on political and cultural terms (but as we are seeing in Italy, this can be a lenghty process). A more specific problem consists in the emulative effect triggered by al-Qaeda-generated terrorism. This too is linked to the insight of US foreign policy, but is more complicated to thwart. Obama’s measures are good, I believe, but the success of his Middle East policy remains a key element.

7.C.S: Are US public opinion and the world at large effectively ready to accept the consequences of a multi-lateral America?

R.A: The global leadership’s most difficult task probably consists in avoiding that multipolar trends translate into a more conflictual and unstable environment than today’s. To avert such danger, multilateral institutions should be empowered and fresh forces channelled into them. Within this context, the US need to switch from their super- to a great-power identity. Obama certainly understands this point. His openness to dialogue attests to it. His Russian policy is a telling example. It won’t be as easy with China nor with some other emerging powers, more willing to assert their strenght than convey it into multilateral institutions. As long as it can be reassured of its leadership’s effectiveness, I consider US public opinion ready for such a change.

8. C.S: How do you evaluate the choice to award Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize?

R.A: In a negative way, and I also believe that the President should have declined. A prize is given -or awarded- for achievements and not for intentions. If kids were educated along these lines, it would be a disaster. The same goes for adults.

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  • Origin CERMAM
  • http://www.cermam.org/en/logs/analysis/cermam_questions_to_prof_rober/
  • Publié le 19 November 2009