Whither Obama’s Middle East Agenda?

With Republicans now in control of the US House of Representatives, President Barack Obama’s efforts to achieve Middle East peace and repair frayed relationships across the region have become more difficult.

In some ways, the challenges the president will face may be greater than those confronted by president Bill Clinton who lost control of both houses of the US Congress in the 1994 election. In other ways, they may be less problematic.

Clinton’s Middle East, though troubled, was far less complicated than the region inherited by George W Bush’s successor. Obama came to office facing, among other problems, two unfinished (and possibly unwinnable) wars, which had consumed thousands of lives and vast amounts of the nation’s treasure, and the rest of the region roiled by years of either diplomatic neglect or reckless policies. All of this emboldened extremists, while causing America’s standing to sink to all-time lows, leaving our allies and our interests at risk.

When President Obama travelled to Cairo a year and a half ago, his intention was to signal a change in direction and a commitment to heal the deep divide that had developed between the US and the Arab and Muslim worlds. And when he launched, in earnest, his effort to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he did so in recognition that it was in the national security interests of the United States to achieve a comprehensive peace.

In both instances, his efforts were met with stiff opposition from both Republicans in general and hardline supporters of Israel in both parties in Congress. The president was criticised for “appeasing America’s enemies”, for “making America look weak” and for unwisely “pressuring our only ally Israel”.

Now, while it is right to note that both parties are pro- Israel, it is also fair to say that the Democratic leadership in Congress gave Obama some leeway in pursuing diplomacy, and at times were restrained in the pressure they placed on his peacemaking efforts. This, however, will not be the case with the incoming Republicans.

The new chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for example, has proposed a number of ideas that would be quite destructive of US diplomacy in the region. She and Representative Dan Burton (who most likely will chair the Sub-Committee on the Middle East) have proposed legislation designed to remove the waiver provision that has allowed presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama to defer moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.

Burton’s latest version of the legislation even threatens to suspend a portion of State Department funding should the move not occur by a set date. They are also proposing to require the Palestinians to accept Israel as a “Jewish State” or face the prospect of having their Washington offices closed and their diplomats deported. Others in the Republican leadership have suggested legislative manoeuvres that would threaten US aid programmes to the Palestinians, Lebanese and others (excluding, of course, defence assistance to Israel).

These measures, and other divisive initiatives designed to impede the president’s efforts at peacemaking in the region, are reminiscent of the equally destructive role played by the Gingrich-led Congress that, beginning in 1995, was able to pass legislation that: placed encumbering and humiliating conditions on Palestinian aid, called for moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, forbade US diplomats from conducting any business with Palestinians in Jerusalem, established the religious freedom oversight commission, provided funding for “Iraqi liberation”, and more. All of these combined had an extremely negative impact on the Middle East and tied the hands of the Clinton administration as it pursued diplomacy in the region. And because Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and were able to pass these bills with “veto- proof” majorities, the White House felt compelled to sign them into law.

This may not be the case in the 112th Congress. I have no doubt that the new leadership of the House of Representatives will try to advance a hardline agenda of disruptive initiatives, working to impede President Obama’s efforts in the region. But the Senate, still controlled by the Democratic Party (with Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar as Democratic chair and Republican ranking member of that body’s Foreign Affairs Committee), will serve as a check by either stalling or forcing compromise on legislation that comes its way.

Make no mistake; the next two years will not be easy for the White House or for Middle East diplomacy. It is still a steep climb for the US to find its way out of the deep holes dug by the previous administration. And with unresolved problems on the home front (economic woes chief among them), and an aggressive and now emboldened opposition seeking to place obstacles in their path (including investigations and congressional hearings that will consume valuable White House energy), the Obama administration and America are in for a rough ride. But the president still has considerable talent and tremendous resources at his disposal.

And, as polls show, despite the deep partisan divide, most Americans want him to succeed, especially in efforts to restore American prestige and to achieve a comprehensive and just peace in the Middle East. If he has the will to fight off disruptive initiatives and domestic challenges, he can still make progress on both fronts.

JAMES ZOGBY is president of the Arab American Institute.


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