Barack Obama on the Middle East

The strong showings by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois in the early contests for the Democratic presidential nomination don’t just mark a repudiation of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy and “war on terrorism.” They also indicate a rejection of the Democratic Party establishment, much of which supported the invasion of Iraq and other tragic elements of the administration’s foreign policy.

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that voters found Senator Obama’s opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, in contrast to the strong support for the invasion by his principal rivals for the Democratic Party nomination, a major factor contributing to his surprisingly strong challenge to Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) in the race for the White House. Indeed, while his current position on Iraq is not significantly different than that of Clinton or the other major challenger, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Obama’s good judgment not to support the war five years ago has led millions of Democratic and independent voters to find him more trustworthy as a potential commander-in-chief.

At the same time, while he certainly takes more progressive positions on Middle East issues than Senator Clinton or the serious Republican presidential contenders, he backs other aspects of U.S. policies toward Iraq, Iran, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that have raised some troubling questions. This is one factor that has tempered support for the trailblazing African-American candidate among liberal and progressive voters.

Iraq in the Illinois State Senate

In October 2002, while Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were in Washington leading Congressional efforts to authorize President George W. Bush to invade that oil-rich country at the time and circumstances of his choosing, Obama–then an Illinois state senator who had no obligation to take a stand either way–took the initiative to speak at a major anti-war rally in Chicago. While Clinton and Edwards were making false and alarmist statements that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was still a danger to the Middle East and U.S. national security, Obama had a far more realistic understanding of the situation, stating: “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors.”

Recognizing that there were alternatives to using military force, Obama called on the United States to “allow UN inspectors to do their work.” He noted “that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.”

Furthermore, unlike the the Iraq War’s initial supporters, Obama recognized that “even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.” Understanding the dangerous consequences to regional stability resulting from war, Obama accurately warned that “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda.”

Iraq in the U.S. Senate

Once elected to the U.S. Senate, however, his anti-war voice became muted. Obama supported unconditional funding for the Iraq War in both 2005 and 2006. And–despite her false testimonies before Congress and her mismanagement of Iraq policy before, during, and after the U.S. invasion in her role as National Security Advisor–Obama broke with most of his liberal colleagues in the Senate by voting to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state during his first weeks in office.

Obama didn’t even make a floor speech on the war until a full year after his election. In it, he called for a reduction in the number of U.S. troops but no timetable for their withdrawal. In June 2006, he voted against an amendment by Senators Russ Feingold and John Kerry for such a timetable.

In addition, during the 2006 Democratic congressional primaries, he campaigned for pro-war incumbents–including Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman against his eventually victorious primary challenger Ned Lamont–and other conservative Democrats fighting back more progressive anti-war challengers.

Iraq as a Presidential Candidate

It was only after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, called for setting a date to withdraw U.S. combat troops, and only after Obama formed his presidential exploratory committee, that he introduced legislation setting a date for troop withdrawal. And it was only this past spring that he began voting against unconditional funding for the war.

In a speech before the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in November 2006, Obama appeared to buy into the Bush administration’s claims that its goal in Iraq was not about oil or empire, but to advance freedom, by criticizing the Bush administration for invading Iraq for unrealistic “dreams of democracy and hopes for a perfect government.” Instead of calling for an end to the increasingly bloody U.S.-led military effort, he instead called for “a pragmatic solution to the real war we’re facing in Iraq,” with repeated references to the need to defeat the insurgency.

Despite polls showing a majority of Americans desiring a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, he acknowledged that U.S. troops may need to stay in that occupied country for an “extended period of time,” and that “the U.S. may have no choice but to slog it out in Iraq.” Specifically, he called for U.S. forces to maintain a “reduced but active presence,” to “protect logistical supply points” and “American enclaves like the Green Zone” as well as “act as rapid reaction forces to respond to emergencies and go after terrorists.”

Obama has committed to withdraw regular combat troops within 16 months and launch diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives to address some of the underlying issues driving the ongoing conflicts. He has also pledged to launch “a comprehensive regional and international diplomatic initiative to help broker and end of the civil war in Iraq, prevent its spread, and limit the suffering of the Iraqi people.”

If elected, as president Obama would almost certainly withdraw the vast majority of U.S. forces from Iraq. Yet thousands of American troops would likely remain to perform such duties as he has described as necessary. Indeed, he has explicitly ruled out any guarantee for a total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by the end of his first term in 2013. At the same time, he has recognized the need to “make clear that we seek no permanent bases in Iraq” and has increasingly emphasized that most U.S. troops that remain in the area should be “over the horizon,” such as in Kuwait, rather than in Iraq itself.

Iran: Mixed Messages

Obama has criticized the Bush administration for its belligerent policy toward Iran and has warned against precipitous military action. In addition, though being out on the campaign trail when the vote was taken made it impossible to formally go on record, Obama has harshly criticized Senator Clinton for supporting the bellicose Kyl-Lieberman amendment targeting Iran, which many saw as paving the way for the Bush administration to launch military action against that country.

Despite this, Senator Obama has appeared to buy into some of the more alarmist and exaggerated views of Iran’s potential threat. For example, he has referred to Iran–a mid-level power on the far side of the globe that currently does not have a nuclear weapons program and is nearly a decade away from having the capability to produce nuclear weapons–as a “genuine threat.”

In remarks Obama prepared for a speech to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Forum in March of last year, he said: Iranian nuclear weapons would destabilize the region and could set off a new arms race. Some nations in the region, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, could fall away from restraint and rush into a nuclear contest.” He has not been able to explain why–given that Israel itself has had nuclear weapons for at least 35 years and no other Middle Eastern country has yet gone nuclear–Iran obtaining nuclear weapons would suddenly lead other countries in the region to immediately follow suit.

Because of this alleged threat, Obama insisted that “we should take no option, including military action, off the table.” One option he has not endorsed, however, is the proposed establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone for the Middle East, similar to initiatives already undertaken in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. Rather than embrace such a comprehensive approach to non-proliferation in the Middle East, he apparently accepts the Bush administration’s contention that the United States gets to decide which Middle Eastern countries can have nuclear weapons and which ones cannot.

To his credit, Obama has distinguished himself from both the Bush administration and Senator Clinton in supporting direct negotiations with Iran, arguing in his speech at the AIPAC policy forum that “sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.” At the same time, this raises the question as to why he has he not also called for aggressive diplomacy and tough sanctions against Israel, India, and Pakistan for their already-existing nuclear arsenals, especially since these three countries–no less than Iran–are also in violation of UN Security Council resolutions regarding their nuclear programs.

Israel: Shifting Positions

Earlier in his career, Obama took a relatively balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, aligning himself with positions embraced by the Israeli peace camp and its American supporters. For example, during his unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2000, Obama criticized the Clinton administration for its unconditional support for the occupation and other Israeli policies and called for an even-handed approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He referred to the “cycle of violence” between Israelis and Palestinians, while most Democrats were referring to “Palestinian violence and the Israeli response.” He also made statements supporting a peace settlement along the lines of the Geneva Initiative and similar efforts by Israeli and Palestinian moderates.

During the past two years, however, Obama has largely taken positions in support of the hard-line Israeli government, making statements virtually indistinguishable from that of the Bush administration. Indeed, his primary criticism of Bush’s policy toward the conflict has been that the administration has not been engaged enough in the peace process, not that it has backed the right-wing Israeligovernment on virtually every outstanding issue.

Rejecting calls by Israeli moderates for the United States to use its considerable leverage to push the Israeli government to end its illegal and destabilizing colonization of the West Bank and agree to withdraw from the occupied territories in return for security guarantees, Obama has insisted “we should never seek to dictate what is best for the Israelis and their security interests” and that no Israeli prime minister should ever feel “dragged” to the negotiating table.

Despite Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s refusal to freeze the construction of additional illegal settlements, end the seizure of Palestinian population centers, release Palestinian political prisoners, or enact other confidence-building measures–much less agree to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state–Obama claimed in his AIPAC policy forum speech that Olmert is “more than willing to negotiate an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will result in two states living side by side in peace and security.” And though, as recently as last March, Obama acknowledged the reality that that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people,” as a result of the stalled peace process he has since placed the blame for the impasse not on the Israeli occupation but on the Palestinians themselves.

In addition, rejecting calls by peace and human rights activists that U.S. military aid to Israel, like all countries, should be contingent on the government’s adherence to international humanitarian law, Obama has called for “fully funding military assistance.”

Backing Israeli Militarism

In the face of widespread international condemnation over Israel’s massive attacks against Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure during the summer of 2006, Obama rushed to Israel’s defense, co-sponsoring a Senate resolution defending the operation. Rather than assign any responsibility to Israel for the deaths of over 800 Lebanese civilians, Obama claimed that Hezbollah was actually responsible for having used “innocent people as shields.” This assertion came despite the fact that Amnesty International found no conclusive evidence of such practices and Human Rights Watch, in a well-documented study, had found “no cases in which Hezbollah deliberately used civilians as shields to protect them from retaliatory IDF attack,” an analysis confirmed by subsequent scholarly research.

(When I contacted Obama’s press spokesperson in his Senate office to provide me with evidence supporting Obama’s claim that, despite the findings of these reputable human rights groups, that Hezbollah had indeed used “human shields,” he sent me the link to a poorly-documented report from a hawkish Israeli research institute headed by the former chief of the Mossad–the Israeli intelligence service that itself has engaged in numerous violations of international humanitarian law. The senator’s press spokesman did not respond to my subsequent requests for more credible sources. This raises concerns that an Obama administration, like the current administration, may be prone to taking the word of ideologically driven right-wing think tanks above those of empirical research or principled human rights groups and other nonpartisan NGOs.)

Indeed, Obama’s rhetoric as a senator has betrayed what some might view as a degree of anti-Arab racism. He has routinely condemned attacks against Israeli civilians by Arabs but has never condemned attacks against Arab civilians by Israelis.

Closet Moderate?

Unlike any other major contenders for president this year or the past four election cycles, Obama at least has demonstrated in the recent past an appreciation of a more moderate and balanced perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As president, he may well be better than his more recent Senate votes and public statements would indicate. Though the power of the “Israel Lobby” is often greatly exaggerated (see my articles The Israel Lobby Revisited and The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is It Really?), it’s quite reasonable to suspect that pressure from well-funded right-wing American Zionist constituencies has influenced what Obama believes he can and cannot say. As an African-American whose father came from a Muslim family, he is under even more pressure than most candidates to avoid being labeled as “anti-Israel.” Ironically, a strong case can be made that the right-wing militaristic policies he may feel forced to defend actually harm Israel’s legitimate long-term security interests.

Still, Obama has indicated greater interest in promoting a comprehensive peace settlement, acknowledging that the “Israeli government must make difficult concessions for the peace process to restart.” And, unlike the Bush administration, which successfully pressured Israel not to resume peace negotiations with Syria, Obama has pledged never to block an Israeli prime minister from the negotiation table. (See my article: Divide and Rule: U.S. Blocks Israel-Syria Talks.)

As a result, several prominent Americans allied with the current Israeli government have expressed deep concern about the prospects of Obama’s election while Democrats aligned with more progressive Israeli perspectives have expressed some cautious optimism regarding Obama becoming president.

How Much Change?

Despite building his campaign around the theme of “change you can believe in,” there are serious questions regarding how much real change there would be under an Obama presidency regarding the U.S. role in the Middle East. Whilean Obama administration would certainly be an improvement over the current one, he may well turn out to be quite sincere in taking some of the more hard-line positions he has advocated regarding Iran, Israel, and Iraq.

However, many are holding out hope that, as president, Obama would be more progressive than he is letting on and that he would take bolder initiatives to shift U.S. policy in the region further away from its current militaristic orientation than he may feel comfortable advocating as a candidate. Indeed, given how even the hawkish John Kerry was savaged by the right-wing over his positions on Middle East security issues during his bid for the presidency, the threat of such attacks could be enough to have given Senator Obama pause in making more direct challenges to the status quo during the campaign. In other words, he could be open to more rational and creative approaches to the Middle East once in office.

However, many are holding out hope that as president, Obama would be more progressive than he is letting on and that he would take bolder initiatives to shift U.S. policy in the region further away from its current militaristic orientation than he may feel comfortable advocating as a candidate. Indeed, given how even the hawkish John Kerry was savaged by the right-wing over his positions on Middle East security issues during his campaign for the presidency, the threat of such attacks could be enough to have given Senator Obama pause in making more direct challenges to the status quo as a candidate. But he could be open to more rational and creative approaches to the Middle East once in office.

The Illinois Senator’s intelligence and independent-mindedness, combined with what’s at stake, offers some hope that at least for pragmatic reasons–if not moral and legal ones–a future President Obama would have the sense to recognize that the more the United States has militarized the Middle East, the less secure we have become. He would perhaps also recognize that arms control and nonproliferation efforts are more likely to succeed if they are based on universal, law-based principles rather than unilateral demands and threats based upon specific countries’ relationship with the United States. And that exercising American “leadership” requires a greater awareness of the needs and perceptions of affected populations.

Most importantly, given that the strength of the anti-war movement brought Obama to his position as a serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, just such a popular outpouring can also prevent him from further backsliding in the face of powerful interests that wish to see U.S. policy continue its dangerous course. Those who support peace and human rights in the Middle East and beyond must be willing to challenge him–as both a candidate and as a possible future president–for advocating immoral or illegal policies that compromise the security and human rights of people in the region and here in the United States.