In the Middle East, all eyes on Barack Hussein Obama

In the Arab world, the Obama presidency is being met with a mix of excitement and skepticism. Will the new President be like his predecessor, or will he bring some of that much-needed change to the Middle East as well?
Demonstrators burn posters of Barack Obama during a demonstration in support of Gaza in front of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran on January 13. © REUTERS

BEIRUT, January 21, 2009 (MENASSAT) — From day one of his Presidency, Obama will be pulled into the Middle-East maelstrom. As he took the stage in Washington yesterday to deliver his inaugural address in front of two some 2-million people in the US capital, U.S. forces still occupied Iraq and Gaza lay in ruins after Israel halted one of its deadliest offensives ever against the Palestinian territories over the weekend.

"To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy," Obama said in his inaugural address, while Palestinian medical officials put the current Gaza death toll at 1,300 with the numbers rising as bodies continued to be pulled out from under the rubble.

More than 22,000 buildings were reportedly destroyed and 50,000 people left homeless from the violence.

During his inaugural address, Obama As Obama hinted that his administration’s doctrine in the Middle East would be decisively different than that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said, adding to his own assurances that diplomacy will likely dominate over the gun.

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

With or without Hamas?

Khuloud Dajani, a professor of social health at the university Al-Quds University in Jerusalem said that this is the perfect time for Obama to address the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The pictures, the massacres in Gaza, remind the whole world, even Mr Bush and definitely Mr Obama, about the Palestinian story which has been postponed for 60 years and it's time to address this problem," she said.

Meanwhille, Israel has been pulling its troops hastily out of Gaza, but had failed to pull its troops out before Obama’s inauguration.

And as Hamas has regained control of the war-torn strip, claiming “victory” over Israeli military might, hopes about Obama run high among Fatah supporters who see Obama as continuing U.S. policy of isolating the democratically elected Hamas government.

Saeb Erakat, who is part of the Israel-Fatah negotiating team, said, "We hope that president-elect Obama, from out of the rubble and the killing fields of Gaza, will dedicate himself from the beginning to solve this problem once and for all.”

“I met Mr Obama with (Palestinian) president (Mahmoud) Abbas and from what I heard from him, there was a genuine commitment to pursue peace from day one.”

But without Hamas, the peace process cannot go far. So the question is, will Obama work with Hamas? 

Obama hasn’t said anything clear about if he will work with the Islamic movement, but his new secretary of state Hillary Clinton, stated she refuses to hold talks with Hamas, who she says are committed to Israel’s destruction.

Of course the Obama administration will make “every effort” to bring peace between Israeli and Palestinian sides.

But in a veiled moment of saber rattling, Obama made it clear that he was defending American values that have often been at the root of a failed Middle-East policy.

"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense," he said. "And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

Troop movement

Building on this, three of Obama’s aides said the new President was planning an ambitious first week that would include a Wednesday meeting with military officials to map out a change to the US mission in Iraq and the appointment of an envoy to immediately deal with the Middle-East crisis.

Obama mentioned only two foreign countries during the course of his inaugural speech – Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said, “We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan.”

In the second war Obama will inherit from the Bush administration, the new President is expected to implement a troop increase in Afghanistan, which President Bush had previously promised.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan General David D. McKiernan,  has asked for 14,000 more combat troops and several thousand more support troops. But Pentagon officials stress that a quick increase in troops in Afghanistan will mean reducing the number of troops in Iraq.

Obama had previously said that his aim was to withdraw the majority of US combat troops from Iraq within 16-months of his inauguration.

But the Arab world has expressed doubt as to whether that would be possible given that the Bush administration signed an agreement late in 2008 with the Iraqi government requiring the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by June 2009, and the removal of all U.S. troops from the entire country by the end of 2011.

General David Petraeus, the former U.S. commander in Iraq who now has responsibility for the entire Middle East and Central Asia region, says he, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and the new U.S. Iraq commander, General Ray Odierno, think that the US should be careful removing troops from Iraq too quickly.

"The ambassador and General Odierno and I have reminded everyone, it is our view that the progress does remain fragile. It does remain reversible," he said.

Political recycling

The recycling of government workers from previous administrations also raises doubts whether Obama will be able to bring about some refreshing policies to the region.
We will again hear familiar names such as Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, and Daniel Kurtzer, critics point out, all of whom served in some capacity on Middle Eastern affairs during the 1990s, mainly in the peace process.

Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Peace Accord for Bosnia-Herzegovina, is another former Clinton official who might get the call to deal with broader regional matters He is being tipped as Obama's envoy to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So what "former boss" is Obama then most likely to imitate in the end?

Michael Young, on Now Lebanon, suggests Bush.
"Let me offer a hypothesis: The old boss that Obama will end up imitating most is not Bill Clinton, regardless of the fact that Mrs. Clinton will be Secretary of State, but George W. Bush.

"Even the idea that Bush was unique as a war-monger may have to be adjusted once Obama escalates American military intervention in Afghanistan, and once he discovers that talking to Iran 'without conditions' (his delusion, not mine) is unlikely to stop it from developing a nuclear weapons capacity," Young wrote.  
"The reason Barack Obama will resemble George W. Bush in the Middle East is that Bush hardly resembled himself during his second term; in fact, he resembled what Obama claims he will become: a president who worked with other states consensually; who made use of international law and institutions; who dealt with emerging threats through diplomacy; and, less openly, who ignored all the above when the US could do better for itself that way."