Various people have asked recently, “What are the implications of the global economic crisis for US policies in the Middle East, and will Middle East countries lean more or less toward the US as they suffer their own economic crises?” Not simple questions, but here, presented very briefly, are our first shots at them.
Let’s start by discussing what US policies affecting the Middle East may emerge in coming months. A preliminary point that is necessary to make is that present policies inherited from the Bush administration are a mess. Practically everyone of every nationality who lives in the Middle East — and elsewhere for that matter — believes that the economic crises now moving in on the world were largely caused by the US’s own extreme version of capitalism with its massive emphasis on privatization and on elimination of regulations that might have provided some protections for ordinary people. At the minimum, there are widespread feelings of Shadenfreude over the pain the US is now suffering, and at a political level there is intense dislike of the US for policies that are seen, correctly, as arising from US and Israeli colonialism and empire-building and that are blamed for the economic woes and inequalities now affecting nations everywhere.
There are two major scenarios of how US Middle East policies may develop in the next year or so. Even now, no one knows enough about President Obama to know which scenario or variation on it might be likely. Increasingly, though, it appears that in foreign affairs, he is not going to change very much. We hope this is wrong. At least on the central issue of Palestine-Israel, Obama made it clear from the start of his campaign, well before the election, that he will support the right-wing elements of the Israel lobby led by AIPAC. But there still is the question of how strong his support will be.
The first scenario is that Obama will just bumble along, changing as little as he can get away with from Bush’s policies, except for clearing away some of the roughest edges of Bush policies on torture. Obama is expanding the war in Afghanistan and continuing the war in Iraq longer than he said he would. Under this scenario, he will try to keep talking as long as possible over Iran and try to avoid fighting. He will try to keep supporting a civilian government in Pakistan, but would not really oppose a return to military dictatorship in that country, if Pakistan would continue supporting his Afghanistan and Iran policies.
That’s the first scenario. Although its support for empire and colonialism makes it an undesirable scenario, at least Obama would be trying to avoid a major war.
The second, much more militaristic scenario is far worse, possibly involving more wars, but it describes what Obama’s policies in the Middle East may well turn into as the remaining months of 2009 pass by.
Right now Obama is faced with domestic economic difficulties greater than he would have thought, during most of his campaign, could conceivably happen as rapidly as they did. But he is also faced with a military-industrial complex that is now pushing for ever larger military expenditures and more aggressive foreign policies, among other things as a way to help solve US economic difficulties. In addition to this, Obama is faced with the prospect of an Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu that is even more right-wing than the present one, supported by that portion of the Israel lobby led by AIPAC. This part of the lobby is probably the strongest ally of the military-industrial complex in supporting more wars and more aggressiveness in US Middle East policies. Obama showed his support for the lobby throughout his campaign and, most recently, did nothing to oppose the lobby’s successful trashing of Charles Freeman, a fine candidate for a senior intelligence position whom the lobby charged with being anti-Israel. Since a majority of US voters generally support Israel without thinking much about it, the disorganized justice and peace movement in the United States is not very effective in opposing either the military-industrial complex or the right-wing Israel lobby.
Obama has by now clearly shown that he does not want to be the American leader who loses the American empire. In general, most European governments, most of the Arab governments, and the Japanese government as well, will not oppose him. Public opinion in these countries, in contrast to the governments, will be somewhat stronger in opposing US policies of empire, but it is doubtful that the publics in these countries will be able to accomplish very much.
So the conclusion that one comes to if this second scenario turns out to be true is that we are facing a very dangerous period in world history. There are indeed forces in both the United States and Israel that want a clash of civilizations and are definitely not against further wars, and these forces are powerful. Obviously, the first nation to be affected by implementation of this scenario would be Iran. At this point it is impossible to know whether Obama will want to, or be able to, prevent these forces from dominating future US policies throughout the Middle East.
BILL and KATHLEEN CHRISTISON have been writing on the Middle East for several years and have co-authored a book, forthcoming in June from Pluto Press, on the Israeli occupation and its impact on Palestinians. Thirty years ago, they were analysts for the CIA. They can be reached at email@example.com