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The Fire This Time?

September 21, 2009

Several months after Barack Obama made an historic June 4, 2009 speech in Cairo outlining a new US policy towards the Middle East, the whole package seems to be losing traction. Perhaps it never had that much. A pity. It had promise. No American president in recent memory had – in a speech anyway – suggested re-shaping US policy towards the region so fundamentally.

But less than four months later, his program appears to have already bogged down at every turn. Political forces at home and abroad are working overtime to undermine it, seemingly successfully. So much so that promise of peace has morphed into the growing danger of regional war. Immanuel Wallerstein, usually a careful – if critical – observer of US global policy put it dramatically:

“There is a firestorm ahead in the Middle East for which neither the U.S. government nor the U.S. public is prepared. They seem scarcely aware how close it is on the horizon or how ferocious it will be. The U.S. government (and therefore almost inevitably the U.S. public) is deluding itself massively about its capacity to handle the situation in terms of its stated objectives.”

US tensions with Iran remain pronounced. Obama’s call for dialogue – rather than confrontation – is increasingly weakening.

An alliance of Bush era neo-cons, AIPAC-ADL types and wacko Christian fundamentalists – that bizarre, but well-oiled combination of political forces – still push Obama hard to adopt a military solution towards Iran’s nuclear program – this despite the fact that yet another report by US intelligence agencies have once again insisted that there is no evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons – or has any intention of so doing.

The situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan continues to unravel.

Other than having an uncanny ability to drone-bomb large wedding parties, the US-led `coalition’ has accomplished little to date. Obama’s decision to send more troops (on which he appears to be hesitating on) has run into a buzz saw of opposition domestically both from Dems and some Republicans. The administration’s attempt to drag NATO into the fray – as a probable prelude to expanding its role far beyond Europe – also appears to be increasingly unstable.

Although General Petraeus was successful in getting Iraq off page 1 of US newspapers, there too, there is trouble brewing under the surface.

A national referendum on the Status of Forces Agreement has Washington nervous. If the agreement is not upheld, US troops – all US troops – could be pressured to withdraw from Iraq as early as next year. What seems to unite the diverse factions still vying for power in Iraq is a bond to end – permanently – the US occupation.’ US attempts to get Iraq to privatize its oil industry – one of the occupation’s main strategic goals – has run into strong nationalist resistance

And then there is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Obama’s attempt to pressure Israel to stop settlement building in the Occupied Territories -as a prelude to a US brokered overall settlement – comes from his understanding of broader regional US interests, protecting US control of oil and natural gas interests throughout the region. Recently, Israeli commentator Uri Avnery got to the heart of the matter: “President Obama understands that basic US interests demand an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is poisoning the entire region.”

But the current peace initiative is increasingly in jeopardy.

Netanyahu’s response to Obama has been rather clear cut – not to budge on the broader settlement issues, to maintain the siege of Gaza – a war crime in and of itself in which Egypt too is complicit.

As long as Israel does not show a willingness to freeze settlement building – as a first step to their complete dismantlement – the hands of Mahmoud Abbas are tied. Netanyahu’s approach is simple but effective: stonewall Obama’s special envoy Mitchell and as Washington’s pressure on Israel intensifies, use Israel’s extensive contacts and influence in the US Congress to blunt any serious steps Obama might have in mind to bring Netanyahu to the bargaining table.

Unfortunately, Obama’s `Cairo Speech’ – despite its promise – is fast resembling Bush’s Annapolis Initiative. If Obama’s rhetoric is less inflammatory than Bush’s blather and Condoleeza Rice’s empty promises of `a new Middle East’ – if anything, now, the situation in the region is more unstable today than it was two years past, or even four months ago

Either one prepares for firestorms…or faces the consequences.

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