Time for Obama to take a stand on Egypt and the Middle East

Within the space of two weeks, the Obama administration has managed to find itself sitting in the middle of the road on the vexed questions of Egypt and the Middle East.

It’s not enjoyable to criticise Obama, it is difficult to let go of the wave of optimism, hope and change he rode into the White House; however, what has become clear through the President’s dealing with Egypt and the Palestinian Authority in the last two weeks is that his wave may have petered out before it reached the shores of the Middle East.

Obama’s foreign policy has been in an almost constant state of flux since his election, with the presumption of an end to American unilateralism and belligerence the only palpable constant. From the electrifying moment in June 2009 when he greeted Cairo and the Muslim world with the words “assalaamu alaykum”, he began to promise more than he could fulfil.

In the early days of the Egyptian uprising (the term ‘protests’ doesn’t really do justice to 15 days of hundreds of thousands defying 30 years of dictatorship) Obama signalled that he wanted to be on the right side of history.

Apparently abandoning his long time autocratic ally he said the United States was looking for:

“…an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”

To this end the President had an opportunity to exceed his predecessor and support democratisation via broad-based people-power rather than unilateral military might. He had a number options open to him to this end, some more credible than others.

Without directly calling for Mubarak’s resignation, the most extreme decision open to Obama would be to suspend military aid to the Mubarak regime, which stands at around $1.5 billion per year. Rightly, this option has been dismissed out of hand.

This leverage will be vital in shaping the future of a post-Mubarak regime and in the meantime, prevent any Revolutionary Guard styled crackdown on the protests. Likewise, undermining the army – the only truly popular institution amongst the Egyptian people – will not endear the United States any more to a future democratic government.

Perversely, any attempt to remove Mubarak is also rejected as interfering in the affairs of another state, which could undermine trust with other allies around the world. We have to wonder how far Obama has really shifted US foreign policy when the trust of autocrats is more important than rebuilding trust with oppressed populations.

In his Cairo speech, Obama mentioned ending or overcoming “mistrust” no less than four times and failed to mention the creation of trust at all. Nudging Mubarak to stand down, forming an orderly transitional government before free and fair elections, would have gone a long way towards achieving both.

Aside from condemning the violence by pro-Mubarak supporters, Obama has said little else on the subject. If democracy does eventually come to Egypt, Obama will be able to take precious little credit for it. The Muslim world will remember that.

The last two weeks have also illustrated Obama’s difficulty in coming to a consistent foreign policy position on the issue of Israel’s continued illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Again, in his Cairo speech, he said:

“The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”

Another exciting, unequivocal, steadfast message from the new President. As I have written previously on Left Foot Forward, it is clear that since then Obama’s approach of incentivising Israel towards suspending settlement construction has failed. This breakdown has left the Palestinian Authority turning to the United Nations Security Council for guidance, submitting a resolution condemning settlement construction.

Once more, Obama has options. He knows that his incentive package did not manage to bring Israel to the negotiating table. He knows that luminaries from all sides are lining up behind the resolution, including:

• Two former ambassadors to Israel (Thomas Pickering and Ned Walker);

• Prominent members of the American Jewish community, including Peter Beinart and Rabbi Tirzah Firestone;

• Dozens of people from the diplomatic and intelligence communities, James Dobbins and Paul Pillar to name but two;

• And even a former Secretary of Defense under President Reagan – Frank Carlucci.

Obama knows that Resolution 446 was allowed to pass by President Carter in 1979, which said amongst other things that the United Nations:

“Determines that the policy and practices of Israel in establishing settlements in the Palestinian and other Arab territories occupied since 1967 have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

With all this in mind, it is deeply distressing to see the President simply stalling, delaying the vote, giving himself an excuse not to veto an otherwise necessary resolution.

Within the space of two weeks, the Obama administration has managed to find itself on two crossroads in one of the most important regions on Earth, and rather than make a difficult choice, it seems to be happily sat in the middle of both of them. Reluctantly, we can only hope for change.

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