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memri
January 25, 2009 No.
2116

Positions in Arab World Following Obama's Election: Pessimism Regarding Change in U.S. Policy, Initiatives for Pressuring the U.S.

Reactions in the Arab world to the election of Sen. Barack Obama as U.S. president fell into two main categories: expressions of appreciation for the American democracy which had made his victory possible, and attempts to assess the impact of his election on the political future of the region.

Regarding the political implications of his election, it was assessed that his agenda of change would focus on domestic affairs, and would not involve dramatic modifications to U.S. foreign policy. In this context, writers in the Arab press suggested ways for the Arab states to increase their influence over this policy. Some called for the formulation of a unified Arab position vis-à-vis the U.S, to initiate cooperation and direct dialogue with the Obama administration, or for the establishment of a strong Arab lobby in the U.S. itself; others called to pressure the new administration by increasing Arab resistance via forming a "multi-polar world order" in cooperation with Russia and China, or by making political demands in return for Arab assistance in salvaging the global economy.

This report will review some of the assessments and practical political suggestions presented in editorials and columns in the Arab government press.

Egyptian Editorials: No Change Expected in U.S. Foreign Policy

An editorial in the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhouriyya stated: "It would be a waste of time to expect the U.S. president to advance our just causes vis-à-vis Israel and the U.S.... Neither Obama nor anyone else will change U.S. policy, which has brought nothing but evil to the Middle East.

"[Change will come] only if the Arabs themselves [take the trouble to] change, to unite, and to understand that the language spoken in the international community under U.S. leadership is usually the language of interests. The U.S. has abandoned the Arabs while promising to safeguard their interests." [1]

An editorial in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram stated: "It would be naïve [to expect] a comprehensive and fundamental change in the U.S. policy towards Israel, considering the close historical ties between these two countries and the complex interests of the U.S. in the region. Nevertheless, Obama and his team have an historic opportunity to start advancing a just and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians…" [2]

Editor of Palestinian Daily: Don't Expect Too Much from Obama

The editor of the Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida wrote, in the same vein: "While many are glad that the George Bush nightmare is finally over, we must not have high hopes about Obama's policy. We will not derive much benefit from the new Democratic president, because the slogan of 'change' from his election campaign pertained only to domestic issues and not to foreign [policy] issues such as the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"As for the Palestinian problem, it has nothing to do with U.S. domestic affairs, and even if Obama wants to modify U.S. policy vis-à-vis the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, he does not have the tools to influence the Israeli position, so he will do no more than sponsor negotiations [between the two sides]." [3]

Palestinian columnist Taisir Al-Zabari wrote in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds: "Despite our satisfaction [with Obama's election], there is no call for harboring illusions - because resolving the conflicts in the Middle East will not be a top priority of the new U.S. administration. As American [public opinion] polls show, the top priority [of the American public] is the economic and financial crisis, and the U.S. administration cannot afford to neglect it." [4]

Iraqi Columnist: The Optimism Is Misplaced

Muzhir Jassem, a columnist for the Iraqi daily Al-Sabah, wrote: "The ever-growing optimism [inspired by] Obama's ascent to the White House is misplaced, reflecting an inaccurate assessment of this man's plans. Such optimism has no basis in reality, especially when it comes to the situation in Iraq…

"The Iraqis must realize that the improvement of the domestic situation in their country depends not on what the U.S will do, but on what the [Iraqi] people and its leadership will contribute to the establishment of true peace in [Iraq]." [5]

Syrian Dailies: We Cannot Harbor Illusions; Resistance Must Continue Despite the New Administration

Elias Murad, editor of the government Syrian daily Al-Ba'th, wrote: "It may be too early to judge [Obama], for his intentions have not yet been made clear - though he has already made some positive statements, for instance when he expressed his opposition to the American aggression initiated by the Bush administration in Iraq.

"But it would be naïve of us to assess the positions of a president in a country like the U.S., which is controlled by many bodies, institutions and [power] centers... We cannot harbor illusions and talk of positive [developments] before this administration even enters the political kitchen, formulates its foreign policy, and endorses the U.N. resolutions...

"Many now hope for a balanced American policy that will repair all the damage done by the Bush administration around the world. [But] does Obama [really] intend to do this? Or will the economic pressures and the financial collapse [in the U.S.] - and their repercussions for the American people - occupy him and draw his attention away from the global arena, at least in the first two years of his presidency? And after two years, won't he be busy preparing for his second term in office?!...

"The new U.S. administration faces a difficult challenge in its relations with the Arabs and the world at large, but the main sources of power remain with us, the Arab peoples and governments. It was [our] willingness to resist that had a role in thwarting the Bush policy, and our willpower will surely hold until we achieve the goal of liberating our land and restoring our rights." [6]

Hassan Hirdan, columnist for the Syrian daily Al-Watan, likewise called to continue the resistance: "The lesson to be learned from the events of the last few years since 9/11 is that the resistance to the occupation in Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, and the refusal of the world to have U.S. hegemony imposed [upon it], were the main factors that depleted America's strength and defeated the policies of the neo-conservatives.

"Sustained resistance is the way to guarantee that Obama's new administration will not continue America's imperialist policy, its pro-Israeli bias, and its support [of Israel] at the expense of the Arabs' rights. Continued resistance will ensure that the price of the occupation will be too high, preventing the occupation forces from imposing their imperialist goals. [The occupation forces] will thus be left with only two options: to continue [the occupation] and face a war of attrition which will only exacerbate the crises in the U.S. and Israel... or to withdraw and thus extract themselves from this [dark] tunnel." [7]

Saudi Arabia: We Must Support Obama's Bid for Change Despite His "Extremist Positions"

An editorial in the government Saudi daily Al-Watan stated that good relations must be maintained between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., despite the "extremist positions" that Obama is known to hold:

"In their joy over the victory of Obama - whom the Arab media has begun to call 'Abu Hussein' or 'Ibn Hussein' - some Arabs have forgotten his positions vis-à-vis the Arabs and Israel, which have always been extremist... Still, a smart enemy is better than a stupid friend, and Obama is undoubtedly much smarter than the Republican candidates. This makes it possible for the Arabs to talk to him and engage him in dialogue...

"Despite their good relations with some American statesmen, Saudi officials do not know much about Obama. However, we had the same experience when the American South produced an unknown political star named Bill Clinton. It was not long before the Saudi diplomacy - represented by then-Saudi Ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan - established strong ties with the new [president].

"The same could happen with Obama, because Saudi Arabia is an influential [country], and the election campaign is over. In their upcoming visit [to the U.S.] this week, Saudi Arabia's king and foreign minister may meet with Obama, in order to establish a working relationship for the benefit of the two countries and of the Arab and Muslim world.

"Therefore, at this stage, it is important that we support Obama's bid for change and examine the new ideas that he is proposing." [8]

We Have an Opportunity to Influence Obama

UAE columnist Muhammad bin Huwaiden called on the Arabs to support Obama, with an eye to changing U.S. foreign policy. In an article titled "How the Arabs Might Lose Obama," published in the UAE daily Al-Bayan, he wrote: "It is clear that the Arab world has no strategy to win over an American president [and convince him] to take our side. The Arab countries have reservations, and many of our politicians [are caught up] in the belief that nothing will ever change in U.S. foreign policy towards the Arabs and their problems.

"This pessimistic attitude clearly [means] that the Arabs do not want to initiate a rapprochement with Obama, but are waiting for him to define his policy and his work plan vis-à-vis the Arab world... [But because of this approach,] the Arabs are about lose Obama to other forces that are not waiting around but are taking active steps to influence the American president and get close to him, even before he has entered the White House.

"Barack Obama represents an opportunity for the Arabs to seriously address their problems, for he bears the banner of change - that is, change in American policy, including its foreign policy... This is something that the Arabs must internalize before anything else.

"If we do not believe in this opportunity to influence the American president, but continue to talk of conspiracies and to make various excuses to justify our wretchedness, like the one about the Zionist lobby - the [power balance] will shift against us and we will never gain any achievements that will serve the Arab causes.

"In order not to miss the opportunity [presented by] Obama, we must first of all think positively and support the new American president. We need to show him that American policy towards Arab affairs must change, and that [change] would serve the mutual interests of the Arabs and the U.S...

"In order to reinforce this move, the Arab leaders must... be the first to visit Obama in the White House. Unfortunately, this is not happening. While other world leaders are racing to be the first [visitors] to the White House under the new [administration], we are not hearing of any Arab desire to join this race. Worse still, we are letting others get there before us.

"I am willing to bet that Israeli officials will be the first to meet with Obama in the White House, while the Arabs remain far behind - as though the new American president does not interest them [in the slightest]..." [9]

Former Egyptian Journalists Union Head: Arabs Must Unite, Place Themselves in Bargaining Position

Egyptian journalist Jallal 'Aref, former head of the Egyptian Journalists Union, argued that the Arabs must present a unified position on Middle East issues before they can expect a change in U.S. policy:

"We are facing crucial months, in which the new leadership will enter the White House and prepare to handle the burdensome legacy of the previous wretched administration. But are we, [the Arabs,] also preparing and rearranging [our position]?... Do we have any policy regarding the Arab Iraq, other than leaving it to Washington and Tehran, to either fight over or reach an agreement about? Do we have a unified Arab position regarding oil and the management of Arab capital in the service of the Arab interests? Do we have a position we can present to the new administration that will end its blind pro-Israeli bias?

"Will anyone even consider our position if we do not settle our internal differences, especially in Palestine, and if the major Arab forces do not reach an agreement?... [Will anyone take us into consideration] if we do not make every effort to place ourselves in a bargaining position [so strong] that America will see that it cannot possibly guarantee its interests in the region while disregarding the Arab interests?

"That is the real question, and until we answer it, all the talk about a significant change in America's policy towards us will be meaningless." [10]

Writing in the Egyptian daily Al-Akhbar, 'Aref called for Egyptian involvement in formulating this unified Arab position: "It is important for the Arabs to overcome their impotence and build up their ability in a way that will make everyone rethink [their policies] - so that the fate of this region will not be decided without [the Arabs'] participation and at the expense of their interests.

"[For this to happen,] Egypt must undertake the role of pooling the considerable Arab resources and of creating a force that can meet the challenges... and put an end to the division among the Arabs. Only then will we see real change in American policy in the region... because America will realize that respecting the Arabs' rights is an essential condition for the safeguarding of its own interests..." [11]

Arabs Must Establish a Lobby to Influence U.S. Policy

Mahmoud Shukri, columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, called on the Arab countries, and on the Arab League, to form a civil organization of Arab-Americans that would influence U.S. policy: "It is estimated that about 68% of American Arabs supported Obama - but what kind of body can turn this considerable electoral force into a voice that expresses the views and demands of [all] Arab-Americans?

"Hasn't the time come for the Arab countries and the Arab League to support the establishment of a civil organization of Arab-Americans, so that the Arab voice will have some impact in the [next] U.S. elections? All foreign communities in the U.S. - except the Arabs - have political or civil organizations called 'lobbies'...

"Now we come to the main question: What do the Arabs expect of president-elect Barack Obama? I can say without reservation that there is no well-considered and promising position that the Arabs can present to the new U.S. administration regarding what they want to achieve. This is because global politics requires the use of a method unfamiliar to the Arabs - namely, the art of the possible. The Arabs are by nature big talkers who [express themselves] in strident voices with much verbiage and rhetoric...

"President Obama has already clearly expressed his position [on the Palestinian issue] by placing Dennis Ross, Clinton's Middle East coordinator, in charge of Middle East [affairs], and especially the Arab-Israeli [conflict]. We are all familiar with Ross, and with his political philosophy on this issue. Obama gave even clearer signs [of his position on Palestine] when he appointed Rahm Emanuel to the post of White House chief of staff - the mediator [who handles] all the issues brought before the U.S. president... A mere glance at these two [appointments] is enough to reveal Obama's true colors in terms of the Palestinian issue..." [12]

Palestinian Researcher: We Will Help Resolve the Economic Crisis - In Return for Political Gains

Palestinian researcher Dr. Khaled Al-Haroub wrote: "We must keep in mind that Palestine and the Palestinian cause will not be a top priority for the new president, or a major part of his agenda, which is jammed with burning issues... No great breakthroughs can be expected in U.S. policy towards the Palestinian cause - either in the coming months, or in the coming years.

"The complex equation with its multiple parameters - including the U.S., Israel and the Arabs - remains as it was, with America blindly biased in favor of Israel, with the strong Jewish lobby in the U.S., and with the Arabs' scandalous absence from any position of influence or leverage vis-à-vis the U.S...

"The current global economic [crisis] tempts us to consider this Arab absence from a new perspective. The U.S. and Europe need Arab capital to save the world economy from collapse. In return, we might propose a deal... It is time for the Arabs [to learn how] to make significant political demands in return for their capital and investments in the world economy...

"Any significant contribution on their part towards saving the world economy from collapse... must come with conditions, with the main condition being change... in the policy of the U.S. and Europe towards the Middle East in general and towards the Palestinian issue in particular...

"There is a clear and important [proposal] approved by all the Arab states: the [Saudi] Arab Peace Initiative." [13]

Arab Problems Can Be Resolved Only with a Multi-Polar World Order

Dr. Shubakshi Radhwan argued in the Saudi daily 'Okaz that the solution to the Arabs' problems lies not lie in Obama's rise to power but in the establishment of a formidable front against the U.S., along with Russia and its allies. In his article, titled "The U.S. Election - A Mirage That the Arabs Are Chasing," he wrote:

"Why this exaggerated interest in the [recent] U.S. elections, and what can be gained from them that could not be gained from the previous elections? To rational Arabs, the U.S. elections are merely a mirage [that some] delusional [people] are chasing. Obama's predecessor paid no heed the Arab problems, even though he had fewer crises to handle. So why this exaggerated optimism that solutions [to all our problems will suddenly emerge] from a single source, [namely Obama]? [Our experience] of past years has taught us that this [hope] is absurd.

"Real and active solutions to the problems of the Arabs and the world will only come with the emergence of an international power balance and a multi-polar world [order]. This will happen when at least one country opposes the U.S. with all its might.

"At present, there is nobody to play this important and serious role, except Russia - that large country on the other side of the world which is America's re-emerging rival. The world desperately needs an axis comprising Russia and some of its traditional allies, such as China and the large Arab and Muslim countries in Asia and Africa...

"[Forming] such an axis is the only thing that should be occupying the Arabs and Muslims [at the moment], for such an axis will be able to compel the U.S. and its allies in the West to adopt a more reasonable policy and to resolve the problems on the agenda - first and foremost among them the Palestinian problem..." [14]

Endnotes:

[1] Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), November 9, 2008.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 8, 2008.

[3] Al-Hayat Al-Jadida (PA), November 6, 2008.

[4] Al-Quds (PA), November 7, 2008.

[5] Al-Sabah (Iraq), November 10, 2008.

[6] Al-Ba'th (Syria), November 9, 2008.

[7] Al-Watan (Syria), November 6, 2008.

[8] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), November 9, 2008.

[9] Al-Bayan (UAE), November 8, 2008.

[10] Al-Bayan (UAE), November 6, 2008.

[11] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), November 6, 2008.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), November 10, 2008.

[13] Al-Ayyam (PA), November 10, 2008.

[14] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), November 10, 2008.