Obama's opportunity in the Middle East

Monday, May 11, 2009

It is easy to find reasons to be depressed about the Middle East: Iran seems on the verge of developing nuclear weapons. Hezbollah will likely win June's parliamentary elections in Lebanon. The Taliban rises again in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And a permanent Arab-Israeli peace seems at first glance to be more distant today than at any time since the first Intifada of the late 1980s.

Indeed, it is hard not to believe that we might still be in the years before the first Gulf War: Moammar Gadhafi rules Libya, a religious caste of mullahs dominates Iran. Lebanon seems on the brink of civil war. An Assad reigns in Damascus. Oil states lavish cash on their problems. And a moderate and pro-Western Jordanian king attempts to survive in what may be the toughest neighborhood on the planet.

Still, there are reasons to believe that we may be on the cusp of some remarkable changes, which can be sped along if President Obama and his administration make the right moves in the Middle East.

Three potential developments -- the defeat of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran's presidential election, a restored partnership between Turkey and the United States and a revived Israeli diplomatic effort -- could significantly alter the political future of the region in a positive way, as well as improving the role and image of the United States. President Bush also set President Obama up for success in a number of areas that are likely to go unheralded.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems on his way to defeat in Iran's upcoming national election, scheduled for June. Battered by declining oil revenue, a collapsing economy, international condemnation and sanctions against his nuclear weapons programs and the embarrassment that has accompanied his infamous declarations about the Holocaust and Israel, he trails reformist Mir-Hossein Mousavi in all recent polls.

Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has made no secret of his unhappiness with Ahmadinejad, who now finds himself assailed from the democratic opposition as well as by allies of Khamenei. The defeat of Iran's president could lead to a revival of negotiations between Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Union to end Teheran's nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. should not rush too quickly into embracing these discussions, however. But if the Europeans can gain some initial success, U.S. participation and incentives for Iran might make the difference. While it still seems a more likely scenario that Israel will feel obliged to launch air and commando strikes to cripple Iran's nuclear program, there is a small window for a negotiated end to this program. Interestingly enough, Israeli strikes would likely be privately cheered throughout the Arab world, but giving the Iranians a chance to negotiate in good faith, and without Ahmedinijad, might be worth a few months' delay in military action after Iran's elections.

Another hopeful sign is the revival of ties with Turkey, at odds with the United States since the U.S. liberation of Iraq in 2003. Turkey's refusal to allow U.S. forces to invade northern Iraq from its territory, despite a multibillion-dollar aid package, soured relations between the two states.

The election of the moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party just prior to the Iraq war also led to concerns that the U.S. alliance, which dates from the late 1940s, might have frayed beyond repair. Tensions between Turkey and Israel, also a longtime ally, have accelerated as well over the recent conflict in the Gaza Strip. Turkey and Israel have appeared to reconcile, and Obama's recent trip to Turkey, received so favorably there, has improved the possibility for Ankara to assume a potential role as an honest broker in the region. Both Syria and Israel, for example, have admitted conducting indirect talks, mediated by Turkey, since 2007, with the goal of resolving the outstanding disputes between these two adversaries: the Golan Heights, establishing a military detente, Syrian support for Hamas and Hezbollah and Jewish settlements in the border region.

Strong U.S. advocacy for Turkish membership in the European Union, as well as our hard line against Kurdish PKK terrorists and the building relationship between President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Erdogan, have improved Turkish public opinion in regards to the U.S. over the last few months. One longstanding sore point between the U.S. and Turkey, Turkish reluctance to come to terms with its neighbor Armenia, including a full discussion of atrocities against Armenians committed by Ottoman Turks during World War I, now also seems to be on its way toward resolution.

The example and influence of Turkey, a multiparty democracy, aligned with the West but increasingly self-identifying as a Muslim state, has the potential to be a strongly positive anchor and model in the Middle East. The Obama administration must continue in the same direction it has begun: encouraging dialogue and cooperation between Turkey and Israel, Turkey and Armenia and Turkey with the Arab states. A strong Turkey is in the best interests of the United States, as are the continued modernization of the Turkish military, increased trade and cultural exchanges and diplomatic cooperation.

Finally, the most dramatic and positive potential for the Obama administration may be with Israel. The new government in Jerusalem, formed after Knesset elections this February, includes mostly conservative, religious and right-wing political parties. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of the Likud Party, has a reputation for being against the peace process, at least as practiced by his predecessors. Israeli's new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) Party, has stated in the past his rejection of a Palestinian state, as well as his desire to expel Israeli Arabs unwilling to pledge loyalty to the Jewish state.

At first glance, it might appear the region could be in for a period of increasing violence and failed peace efforts. However, Netanyahu and Lieberman may be just the leaders Israel and the region need right now. Despite the perception in the West, it has been Israeli hard-line leaders, from Likud or right-wing factions of other parties, that have made peace with the Arabs. Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon are the leaders who have made the most dramatic efforts for peace: signing a peace treaty with Egypt, recognizing the PLO and signing peace with Jordan and withdrawing from the Gaza Strip.

In this regard, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can help push the process along, especially if their initial efforts to bring Syria and Israel back into negotiations succeeds. Peace between Syria and Israel would strengthen the security of both nations, undermine Iran and enable Israel to take more risks in negotiations with the Palestinians. A "Syria First" strategy, encouraged and enabled by Turkey and the United States, might provide the initiative to resolve the more difficult problem of the two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians.

President George W. Bush deserves significant praise for setting the stage for Obama, primarily through a winning strategy in Iraq. With U.S. and Iraqi forces well on their way to defeating al-Qaida and other insurgent groups in Iraq, the new administration can focus elsewhere in the region and implement the phased withdrawal plan they inherited from President Bush. U.S. support for Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, as well as its quiet support for the Israeli-Syrian talks, also has created necessary prerequisites for that venue to continue.

The first few months of the Obama administration, for all their domestic stumbles, appear to be providing genuine possibilities for resolving some of the most long-standing and difficult challenges in the Middle East. Provided President Obama and his foreign policy team continue along the same lines -- providing gentle encouragement in public, strong-arming behind closed doors and building on the successes of President Bush -- there is every reason to be cautiously optimistic. While it may yet be many years before we see a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, we could be closed than anyone suspects to real breakthroughs on multiple fronts.

Dr. Wayne H. Bowen is professor and chair of the Department of History at Southeast Missouri State University.

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