Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama Must Bring Middle East to the Table

Obama's biggest mistake would be failing to bring the warring parties in the Middle East to the table. While the Arabs must also show their willingness to trust Obama, and be willing to allow him the time to settle down, they will also have to moderate their position if they want peace. On the Iraq front the conditions for a substantial U.S. withdrawal, even if incomplete, is more likely then ever before. Afghanistan will be a bigger challenge as confrontation has never worked in the long and checkered history of the country, and I am not sure that the Obama camp completely understands the complexities of that tribal land.

The Israeli government has given him the first real test of his foreign policy acumen. This adds to the Bush Blunder of Iraq and Afghanistan, where Obama has already made clear his position of disengagement, albeit with a slightly different approach. While in Iraq he would favor a quick withdrawal, in Afghanistan he would want to build up troop strength to overcome the resistance and 'bring peace' to the country. While policy action on both Iraq and Afghanistan are more within Obama's direct purview as the commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, the situation in Gaza is more a test of his diplomatic determination.

Political observers in the Arab world may be banking too much on the Obama administration, hoping it will immediately seek a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and an end to the hostilities. This might be more a result of military realities. But dealing with the political carnage and the lack of trust in the U.S. as an honest broker in the Middle East are the more pressing issues for the Obama team. The expectation of the Obama administration is not to take sides, but more to be fair and even-handed in its dealing with all parties. Whether the issue is Gaza, Iraq or Afghanistan, the world expects the U.S. to restore confidence and be willing to make hard policy choices to bring peace.

On a broader canvas of foreign policy initiatives, Barack Obama will have to re-engage in serious dialogue all of the world actors whom Bush has spent eight long years alienating. Bush created a world where it was assumed, for example, that all Muslims were hell bent on destroying the United States, one in which the onus was on every Muslim to prove he or she was a 'good Muslim.' This clearly is a distorted view of the Muslim world, and it is one of Obama's most serious challenges. It will not be an easy task and there will have to be serious effort on both sides to find trust to engage in a new social set of principles. The 'War on Terror' will have to be replaced with a 'War on Intolerance', anger will have to be replaced with understanding, force will have to be replaced with empathy and most importantly, all must understand that a disjointed world is not in the interest of humanity.

Barack Obama has won the presidency. In the next six months, he has to win the right to be called a world statesman.

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