06 June 2008

Obama’s Middle East policy: more of the same?

What is it about American politics? No sooner has Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination, than he’s in front of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee promising to strengthen US-Israeli military ties; promising not to negotiate with Hamas or Hezbollah; and promising to keep the threat of military action against Iran ‘on the table’.

So is there any chance that Obama – who’s election campaign message is ‘a change you can believe in’ - can bring about any genuine shift in US foreign policy towards the Middle East?

Well, his position on Iraq is unquestionably favourable to that of his rival. McCain has promised to ‘stay a hundred years in Iraq’, whereas Obama has pledged to withdraw US troops from the country within 16 months of his election.

But look behind the headlines and Obama’s call is for a withdrawal only of ‘combat troops.’ This would still leave anywhere between 35 and 75,000 so-called counter-terrorism troops and trainers in Iraq, as well as all or most of the 180,000 mercenaries that the US pays to support its military. He has also said little about closing the 15 permanent military bases that the US has built in Iraq, including the one less than 2 miles from the Iranian border.

Obama’s policy towards Iran is also ambiguous, at best. Initially, he sought to distinguish himself from other candidates in the US Presidential race by urging the need for immediate negotiations with Iran ‘without preconditions.’ He talked of the potential for Iran to enter the World Trade Organisation, as well as of the need to offer some guarantees to Iran.

As he gets closer to the White House he appears to be distancing himself from this stand and taking a harder line. His latest remarks on the supposed threat of Iranian nuclear weapons are a case in point.

Don’t get me wrong – an Obama White House would be a different beast to a McCain one. And the fact that Obama grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia suggests that he might at least bring with him a more intuitive sense of the disastrous role of US militarism across the world.

The course of an Obama presidency is far from fixed, moreover. His support base amongst the many Americans who oppose current US foreign policy is a cause for hope, if they manage to use that position to pressure him to resist a ‘business as usual’ approach to the Middle East.

But while I’d like to believe in the change that an Obama presidency would bring, I’m not holding my breath. For those of us who don’t believe in the Great Men theory of history, the political conditions in which a leader operates are all important.

The salient question is not what Obama wants to achieve, so much as what it is possible for him to achieve. What openings can he find or engineer in a Washington that is wedded to an aggressive sense of its own national interest, and beset by powerful lobbies, from the arms industry and pro-Israel groups, as well as an oil industry looking to achieve ‘energy security’ at any cost?

The signs so far are that Obama is likely to prove unwilling and unable to redefine the US national interest in ways that would fundamentally break with the ideology of empire.

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