The normally sure-footed Barack Obama made a misstep during his press conference with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. He declared: “I want to publicly commend President Abbas” for steadfastly insisting that a Palestinian unity government would have to recognize the Quartet conditions for dealing with Hamas.
In providing this seal of approval, the American president tripped over one of the oldest maxims of the modern Middle East: The closer the United States appears to side with a leader, the further away that drives the people from the leader.
By contrast, vice president Joe Biden, who is often accused of being a “gaffe machine,” was more nuanced in enveloping Lebanon’s president Michel Sleiman in the American embrace earlier this month, saying he had “not come to back any particular party or any particular person.”
Nevertheless, Biden’s visit to Lebanon, hard on the heels of secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s, was widely seen as an attempt to shore up the pro-Western March 14 Alliance. As for Obama’s plaudits for Abbas, they sent a signal to the region, intentional or not, that the United States is the reason the Egyptian-sponsored unity talks between Palestinian parties have yet to bear fruit.
To say that Lebanon and Palestine are both volatile situations is an understatement. The Lebanese will need all their political skill and maturity to handle the election — and post-election — period without renewed conflict. In the occupied Palestinian territories, this week’s clashes between Palestinian Authority forces and Hamas in the West Bank will keep tensions high there and in Gaza, where suffering is as yet unrelieved after the Israeli assault earlier this year.
America would do well to keep a low public profile when it comes to the internal dynamics of Lebanon and the Palestinians. Otherwise it will continue to be blamed for everything that goes on — and ridiculed. There is something comic about a foreign power with a heavy footprint in the region, including a substantial proportion of its military, sending two top officials to insist that Lebanon’s elections must be free of “outside interference.”
Besides, the United States’ professed support of democracy took a big hit when it refused to recognise the outcome of the free and fair elections that brought Hamas to power in 2006, and did everything possible to subvert the results.
Inveterate optimists will spot a couple of signs that Obama’s rhetoric may be for public consumption rather than policy. For example, one of the ways Palestinian politicians have considered to get around the Quartet conditions is to form a unity government with members of Hamas that, as individuals, recognize those conditions. That is, Hamas could maintain its positions and still participate in government.
Asked by journalists whether the United States would work with such a government, the State Department spokesman took the question back for consultation, and then issued a formal response: The United States would “expect any Palestinian Government and all of its members” to accept the Quartet conditions. In other words, if such Hamas members can be found, there might no longer be an American bar to dealing with a Palestinian unity government.
That would be an act of realism. According to Clinton, the American administration plans to put forward specific proposals to the Israelis and Palestinians. Without a Palestinian government that represents the majority who live in the occupied territories (Palestinian refugees and exiles remain without representation), it would be hard to forge an agreement.
In Lebanon, the United States knows full well that the British and other Europeans are meeting with Hizbullah. A seasoned British analyst affirmed that there was no way the United Kingdom would have done so without clearing it with the Americans. “Right now, nobody would dare cross Obama; everyone wants to ingratiate themselves with him.”
As for the Clinton-Biden visits, they might have been for domestic consumption. The Administration has said it will review military aid to Lebanon depending on the outcome of the elections. By spotlighting Sleiman and Lebanon’s military, the Administration might, in the event of a Hizbullah victory, be able to convince Congress to keep the military aid flowing on the grounds that the president and the army are the real partners. Particularly if a new government and “all of its members” uphold United Nations resolutions dealing with Lebanon.
Obama is investing considerable capital in the speech he plans to deliver to the Muslim world this week in Cairo. If he wants to be taken seriously, then embracing democratic outcomes, even if the United States doesn’t like them, would be a good place to start. And calling a moratorium on the American embrace.