The Current Discussion:What's the biggest mistake Barack Obama could make in his first six months in foreign policy?
PostGlobal asks what mistakes Barack Obama should avoid during his first 6 months in office. The answer seems crystal clear to observers from Damascus. Ask any ordinary Syrian, and he or she would reply: turning a blind eye to Israel's war machine in the Arab world would ruin Barack Obama's image in the eyes of ordinary Arabs.
That is especially true after the Israelis savagely destroyed Gaza since late December, killing over 1,100 Palestinians, under the watchful eye of the Bush White House. Obama needs to show the world that he is a man who will uphold justice. Some claim that the only former U.S. president to have such a large basked of problems sitting on his White House desk, the day he assumed office, was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Obama has a financial crisis, and FDR had the Great Depression, which held Americans by the throat. But Obama's problems surpass FDR's in their severity. FDR had no significant foreign affairs problems to deal with; America on his Day One was passing through a period of isolation, very distant from the affairs of Europe or the Middle East. Obama has an America that is occupying war-torn and oil-rich Iraq. He has an ally in Israel, which he has promised to protect. He has an enemy in international terrorism, which was made all the more dangerous by the policies of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Thanks to Bush, Obama has failed states in Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, and Afghanistan. He faces an incredible genocide that has taken place in Gaza. In short, he has plenty of dangers--and opportunities--awaiting him at the White House.
When asked to comment early on in the crisis in Gaza, Obama replied, "There is only one president at a time." That was seen as a smart answer by most observers, who sensed that he did not want to commit himself to a crisis he did not create, yet would have the difficult task of ending once he assumes office on January 20. As the bloodshed in Gaza snowballed, Obama said that he feels deeply for the human misery coming out of the Middle East, and would work to prevent the senseless loss of life on both sides.
Having said that, Arabs are no fools and have no illusions that Obama will be a savior to the Arab world. He would not come out and harshly criticize Israel for its use of excessive force in Gaza. There is belief however, that he will live up to his commitment to start withdrawing from Iraq in 2009, and be completely out by 2011. He will also commence on political dialogue with the Syrians and turn a new page with Damascus by sending an ambassador to Syria, for a post that has been vacant since 2005. The real challenge will be how Obama will react to the Palestinians.
Obama will be in charge of finding a solution to the crisis in Gaza. Any solution would need an honest American broker. As the Bush team packs up and prepares to leave office (with the exception of William Burns and Bill Gates,) it won't be able to come up with any solution to Gaza. Obama starts his tenure with a rising death toll in Gaza and the task of putting a real end to the bloodshed. Obama needs to end the human suffering, which means opening the Rafah Crossing, with or without consent of Israel. If Egypt shows resentment, Obama should use his influence to get Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to yield, for humanitarian if not political reasons.
President George W. Bush once asked Condoleezza Rice, in early 2004, what the single obstacle was to peace in the Middle East. Without hesitation, she replied: "Yasser Arafat!" Well, Arafat died in November 2004 and the Arabs waited to see what Rice and Bush could offer the Middle East in the post-Arafat era. On November 12, 2004, Bush shattered Arab hopes for a new approach to the Middle East crisis when he said; "I believe that the responsibility for peace is going to rest with the Palestinian people's desire to build a democracy." Bush's answer, and Rice's previous one regarding Arafat, confirm that unfortunately neither of them ever fully grasped the core of the problem in the Middle East.
Today in 2009, they still miss the real problem Arabs face. It was not about Arafat. Nor is it related to Hassan Nasrallah or Hamas. The real keys to peace in the Middle East can be found in three golden
words: land, freedom, and justice for the Palestinians.
Arabs will only begin to have faith in the U.S. when peace is brought to the Palestinians, security is maintained in Iraq (followed by a complete U.S. withdrawal), and occupied land, like the Syrian Golan Heights, is restored to its rightful owners. The road to peace in the Middle East runs through Jerusalem, however, not Baghdad.
As Joseph Weitz, head of the Jewish Agency's colonial department, said in 1940:
"We shall not achieve our goal if the Arabs are in this small country. There is no other way [other] than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries - all of them! Not one village, not one tribe should be left." In 1948, there were 475 villages in Palestine, 385 of which were bulldozed to the ground by Israel. In 1938, the "founder" David Ben Gurion told the World Council of Poale Zion, "The boundaries of Zionist aspirations include southern Lebanon, southern Syria, today's trans-Jordan, all of the West Bank and Sinai." Ten years later, as premier of Israel, he said, "Our aim is to smash Lebanon, trans-Jordan and Syria. We shall establish a Christian state [in Lebanon], and then we will smash the Arab Legion, eliminate trans-Jordan, then Syria will fall to us. We then bomb and move on and take Port Said, Alexandria and Sinai." (Taken from Michael Bar Zohar's Ben Gurion: A Biography).
These words, along with what is happening in Gaza, have had more of an impact on Arabs, even those who are moderate and Westernized, than Obama can possibly imagine. My friend and colleague, Abdulsalam Haykal, publisher of Syria's English monthly Forward Magazine, was sitting next to me while I was writing this article. I discussed Ben Gurion's words with him, and he replied that Israel will not rest until it sees a Palestinian State without the Gaza Strip. He believes, as do several Arab intellectuals, that for a variety of reasons related to Israel's security, Israel is bent on re-occupying the Gaza Strip and push every single Palestinian out--just like Weitz said 69 years ago--preferably into Egypt or perhaps, into the West Bank.
As an African-American who grew up inspired by the American Revolution against colonialism, and as someone who knows forwards and backwards the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, how can Obama admire a people uprooting, terrorizing and "smashing" another people? Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the trinity that holds the U.S. together and defines its democracy, yet it has not been applied by the US when dealing with the Middle East. Obama, with his "yes we can"
attitude, must show the world that things have changed and that this is a new United States.
Obama knows how much African-Americans suffered from persecution during the civil rights movement. To mainstream Arabs, the symbols of resistance are the Palestinian women kept waiting at checkpoints for hours, the stone-throwing children and the aging men being shoved around by young Israeli soldiers, and the young boys and girls torn to pieces by the missiles landing on Gaza. Arab intellectuals and activists have read the famed speech by Reverend King, and like him they have often spoken of their dream of emancipation, from Israeli occupation. The Arabs had a dream that their children would one day live in a nation where they would not be judged by their leaders as inferior to the powerful elite; "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Like King, they had a dream that "with this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, and to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day".
It is all about land, freedom, and justice for the Palestinians.
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