February 24, 2013
M. Serajul Islam
In the State of the Union address early in the month, President Barak Obama did not leave anyone in doubt that his second administration would focus primarily on domestic issues of deficit management, job creation, healthcare and immigration. Although he spared some 15 paragraphs of his address on foreign affairs, he made it more than abundantly clear that in his second term, he would make America more insular than before and withdraw from involvements overseas like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan under his predecessor George Bush.
His main focus in foreign affairs was upon bringing the combat troops back home from Afghanistan by end of next year. Before this address, the US goals in Afghanistan were, first, to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat” Al Qaeda; second, to roll back Al Qaeda’s Afghan patron, the Taliban; and finally, to ensure that the Afghan government after the withdrawal of US combat troops would be capable enough to govern and well as ensure the country’s security. The President through his address narrowed down the goals to just one, namely, “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating” Al Qaeda that the US has completed successfully and has abandoned the second and the third goals to bring the troops back home to appease a domestic constituency that has had too much of Afghanistan and not ready to let American soldiers be lost there anymore.
The President said that instead of direct involvement in overseas wars, the US would henceforth be engaged in dealing with threats to the country from terrorists by working with allies in places such as Yemen, Libya and Somalia and as it has recently done successfully in Mali. In that context, the President said that drones would play a major role in substituting the need to place US service personnel in direct line of conflict in foreign soil. In view of the controversy that has surrounded the use of drones particularly in Pakistan; the President stressed the need of transparency in the use of this tactical weapon.
The possibility of attacking Iran was a real one towards the end of the tenure of President Bush. In President Obama’s first term, he was under pressure from Israel for direct intervention in Iran to take out its nuclear capabilities. The President ruled out such a possibility for his second term. He said in his address that he would deal with the nuclear threat from Iran and North Korea through diplomacy. The President also placed the issues of more nuclear cuts; cyber security and a trade agreement with Europe as the other foreign policy issues for his second term.
Middle East, once the major foreign policy focus of all recent US administrations including President Obama’s first was mentioned towards the end of the 15 paragraphs that the President devoted to foreign affairs in his State of the Union address. He spoke of USA’s determination to stand as an ally of all struggles for freedom in all corners of the world and in that context mentioned that his new administration would also stand for freedom in Egypt and in the Middle East. He of course did not fail to mention that in the region, it is Israel that will be his administration’s unflinching ally. He did not mention a world on the need to carry forward the Palestine peace process that has remained stalled for more than two years when the US efforts to jumpstart the peace talks were derailed over Israel’s insistence to continue to illegally build settlements on Palestine land. Nevertheless, the President mentioned that he would visit the region next month to underscore his second administration’s interest in the region.
Clearly, the President’s second administration would not spend too much time on the Middle East Peace Process going by what he happened to have said in his State of the Union address. This is indeed sad as all previous Democrat Presidents had made the resolution of the Palestinian problem with a two state solution as the main focus of their foreign policy. In fact, President Clinton who went the closest to resolving the ME Peace issue during his term visited the region many times to settle o the problem. President Bush was criticized during his two terms because he did not pay adequate interest in the ME peace issue and instead took USA to war first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, a point for which President Obama also criticized him. President Obama made a well publicized trip to Cairo in 2009 to give the Muslim world the message that USA wanted to reverse the impression given during the Bush terms that USA was in war against the Muslim world and in that context, reasserted the importance that the Clinton administration had attached to the ME peace process.
If the Palestinians are worried at President Obama’s lack of commitment for their cause; they are more concerned with what former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liebermann said recently on reviving peace talks. Avigdor Liebermann’s ultranationalist party Beiteinu allied with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likhud and won only 31 seats in the 120 seat parliament yet won the nod to form the minority government because of the strange dynamics of party system in Israel said recently that it will be “impossible” to solve the conflict and that the parties concerned should instead concentrate to “manage the conflict…to negotiate on a long term interim agreement.” The former Foreign Minister who is now under investigation for corruption and hence unable to join the Netanyahu cabinet made it clear that the events in the region that have resulted from the Arab Spring have strengthened the hands of the forces hostile to Israel. He therefore strongly opposed re-starting the peace process. In fact he did not give it any chance. Instead he supported the actions of the Netanyahu Government to continue with new settlements illegally in West Bank, on territories that have been forcibly claimed by Israel after the 1967 war.
Avigdor Liebermann’s extremist statement poured cold water on the prospects of positive developments coming out of the visit the US President is expected to take to the region next month. The White House on its parts also made no statements either downplaying Avigdor Liebermann’s statement or any of its own to cause any sense of optimism in Palestine. The little hope strangely came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who said that Avigdor Liebermann’s views were his own and not of the Israeli Government. A spokesman of the Israeli Prime Minister said that the Netanyahu government will “pursue secure, stable, realistic peace with our neighbors.” The Israeli Prime Minister has committed his government to a two state solution to the Palestine problem although he has been cagey on its borders and dismantling the illegal settlements.
The Palestinians who last year moved and got de facto UN recognition by becoming a “non-member state” that annoyed the United States and Israel now find themselves in a limbo. With the US lukewarm to move the peace process forward and with Avigdor Liebermann in the coalition of the Israeli Prime Minister whose personal equation with the US President is a bad one, the Palestinians will not have much to look forward to in the second administration of President Barak Obama. The US President who in this term would be looking for his place in history would be belying the promises he had made in Cairo in 2009 if he takes shield under his administration’s insular policies to leave the Palestinians in the grasp of Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Liebermann. One must wait and see what happens in his trip to the region to conclude whether the US President would utterly disappoint the Palestinian cause that has unequivocal support of the Muslim world as well as from most of the other countries of the world. If the US President disappoints, his place in history would receive a major dent undoubtedly.
The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, the Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, CFAS