Friday, December 18, 2009

Obama end of year report: Must try harder

Obama's Nobel Prize: must try harder

From Ian Williams Middle East International Passionate Detachment column 18 December 2009

Barack Obama accepted his Nobel Prize on 10 December admitting that it was controversial. He clearly got it for his aspirations and for others’ expectations of him, both of which represent a global sigh of relief at the end of the previous presidential era.

The prize is more controversial at home than abroad because so many people internationally share his stated aspirations and can clearly see a reconnection to reality in the US after long years of faith-based solutions. Across the world he has been indicating a left turn: diplomacy, engagement, and – what really won over the Norwegian prize jury – a commitment to nuclear disarmament that goes beyond telling other people to give up their weaponry.

Domestically, Obama is caught between the right and a hard left that is still far from liberated itself from faith-based politics detached from reality. The conservatives in the US will never accept him as a legitimate president because they believe that he is a liberal and a socialist, and some of them even think that he is a foreign-born Muslim. And although they are too abashed to say it, others will never accept him because he is black. The much smaller left either had him pegged as a sell-out simply because he ran for office, or voted for him in the naïve belief that he was the second coming of socialism in the US.

The cries from both sides about Afghanistan are illustrative, with left and right united in thinking he has capitulated to the Bush-era strategy. Yet during his campaign he consistently complained that the Republicans had diverted forces from what he called a “war of necessity” in Afghanistan to a “war of choice” in Iraq. He has, as he told the Nobel audience, set a timetable for quitting Iraq and moved resources to Afghanistan precisely to meet the gaps left by his predecessor: “One of these wars is winding down. The other is a conflict that America did not seek; one in which we are joined by 42 other countries – including Norway – in an effort to defend ourselves and all nations from further attacks.”

Many Americans will not understand the power of a confession like this in his speech at the Nobel ceremony: “America – in fact, no nation – can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.” This was never admitted during eight years of calculated scorn for global governance under Bush, and a previous eight years of evasion and logic-chopping from Clinton.

One small but vociferous group has seen Obama as the enemy from the beginning. Many of the same eccentrics who believe he is betraying Israel are those who see him as a forger of birth certificates and a crypto-Muslim. One hopes that exposure to these deranged Likudnik types will help inoculate him against Binyamin Netanyahu.

For it is in the Middle East that we will see whether or not he really earns that peace prize, which has been devalued by having been handed out to so many who failed before. So far, he has an excuse, but it cannot hold much longer. With the economic crises, health care reform and financial regulation, he has a lot to occupy him, and it cannot have escaped his notice that some of those who are poised to stab him and the Democratic Party in the back, like Senator Joe Lieberman, are closely tied to Israel. He has to watch his back.

In fact, he has been doing just that. His embrace of J-Street and the relative lack of contumely from the organised ‘official’ pro-Israel lobby suggest that he is well aware of the domestic political aspects and is dealing with them. Obama’s Cairo speech and demand for a settlement freeze were major steps forward. Indeed, on the small mercy front, the declaration that the settlements are illegitimate, that Israel should hold an inquiry into Goldstone’s allegations and that the East Jerusalem evictions are illegal are all there to set against the silence over Gaza and Cast Lead, and the later equivocation over settlement expansion. Overall, they still represent a turn that would have had the Israel lobby frothing at the mouth under Clinton.

However, the Obama team has been careful to phrase its demands on Israel in terms that are difficult to shout about: asking Israel to abide by its own promises under the roadmap on settlements or international decisions on Gaza, is not something that anyone but the most purblind legislators can get too upset about.

But one hopes that he or his aides are keeping tally of every humiliation and slight that Netanyahu has heaped on the White House with the intent to pay him back in full measure. Obama has missed opportunities to apply pressure, but he will lose all credibility if next year, with the major domestic issues dealt with, he does not begin to marshal the financial and diplomatic penalties Israel can expect for defying him.

However we should not, of course, reduce everything to the Middle East, even though all global issues seem to be exercised there, from the rule of law to disarmament. In many cases, but not all, he has to face down his military as well as Republicans.

Only this week his administration baulked at inspections under the Biological Weapons convention. It may only be one year, but no indication has been given of preparations to sign and ratify the clutch of international instruments that would put some truth in his stated aspirations. These include the International Law of the Sea (which the Pentagon actually wants), the International Landmine Convention (which it doesn’t), and the Child Soldiers Convention (the only other non-signer: Somalia).

End-of-year report: Tries hard, must try harder.

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