Barry Rubin: Charisma Isn't Enough

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2007.]

The U.S. presidential election is not--at least not supposed to be--like electing a high school class president. Vague promises, glib speeches, and personal popularity shouldn't be enough to gain victory. This should be especially true this year since so many Americans don't seem to think they did such a great job of choosing the last time they voted.

All these points go double and more for the Middle East, an area too dangerous and important to deal with lightly. Yet since these debates are so highly partisan there has been a huge amount of distortion and self-interested blather on all sides.

So let's sort it out. The first issue must be who you trust to deal with the Middle East. The question is definitely not Israel, or even Arab-Israeli issues, in isolation. The next American president will face a lot of other problems, too, including at a minimum: Afghanistan, attempts to takeover states, Egypt's post-Mubarak president, Hamas, Hizballah and Lebanon, Iranian expansionism, Iranian nuclear, Iraq, oil supply and prices, radical Islamist movements, stability of relatively moderate Arab regimes, Syria, and terrorism.

The overriding question is a struggle between a well-organized radical alliance (HISH: Hamas, Hizballah, Iran, in Iraq both insurgents and radical Shia, and Syria) and a relatively moderate though completely uncoordinated set of states. In addition, there are radical Islamist forces that don't work with the HISH bloc but seek revolution in their own countries. Failure to recognize that reality is extraordinarily dangerous.

Facing this very tough situation, it's hard to believe that Barrack Obama has the experience, understanding, or worldview to manage the virtually continuous crisis the region faces. The critical point here is not whether he says the "right" things but whether he understands things the right way.

Speaking as an analyst, my main concern is not whether or not Obama is elected but that if he becomes president he will do the best possible job. The best-case conclusion--a combination of wishful thinking and accurate assessment--is that sooner or later he will reach what I'll call the default position for U.S. Middle East policy.

In other words, he might start out convinced that he can persuade the Iranian and Syrian governments along with others who are enemies of the United States to play nice. Along the way, one hopes, he will learn that this doesn't work. The main problem is that they don't just object to U.S. policies (or values even, at least if those stay confined to America) but that they rightly see the United States as a barrier standing between them and a Middle East filled with Islamist states and under their hegemony.

All presidents need to learn in office. In relative terms, though, both Hillary Clinton and John McCain are pretty much ready now. Obama is going to need two or three years. So the good news could be that Obama will eventually understand what needs to be done; and the bad news is what happens during that time period.

Given current trends, it's quite possible that by the time he gains the needed comprehension, Iran will have nuclear weapons, Lebanon and Iraq will be satellites of Tehran, and Hamas will run the West Bank. In addition, perceiving Obama as naïve and appeasement-oriented--not my invention but one inevitable in the region--will embolden extremists and make relative moderates rush to cut a deal with what they'll see as the winning side.

Or to put it another way, the economist John Maynard Keynes said that in the long run we are all dead. In the Middle East, in the medium-run we will all be in very serious trouble.

Aside from the default policy factor there's something quite important but never discussed: the division of labor. Strong criticism of Obama's ideas and positions goes hand-in-hand with friendly efforts to change them. Only because he was hit so hard--and rightfully so--regarding his views on Israel did Obama shift ground, eliminate his most objectionable advisors, and change his talking points.

Equally, there are many who praise him and denounce criticism because they want jobs, seek to influence Obama, or want to ensure that he and his supporters don't view certain communities and countries as enemies. If he's going to be president, no one wants to stir up a feud. And it is best to have good people being appointed to important positions.

Consequently, both approaches are appropriate behavior and indeed compliment each other.

But while we are on the subject, let's talk about U.S.-Israel relations. In this regard, there are three basic types of U.S. presidents:

Those who see the Middle East in terms of radical versus moderate forces and view Israel as an asset in this struggle. Like Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush.
Conservative presidents who also see the region in these terms but think that Israel is a liability because their priority is on keeping Arab allies like Saudi Arabia happy with Washington. Like Dwight Eisenhower and George Bush. Richard Nixon was in this category but switched when he recognized Israel as an asset in the Cold War.
Presidents whose main priority is to reconcile, rather than combat, radical regimes, proving America is friendly and eager to respond to their grievances. So far, only Jimmy Carter fits here. And so far also there is every reason that Obama is more likely than not to follow in this path. After all, this is precisely how he views the Middle East.
Obama said that one can oppose the Likud viewpoint and still support Israel. True. But note that the Likud, in Obama's sense, has not been in power since 1999. In fact, if this is Obama's view he should be 100 percent supportive of the current Israeli government.

But that is beside the point. The important issue is not whether one favors a compromise peace agreement, Palestinian state, and territory for peace. The real question is: Who will you blame when this doesn't happen? Remember, Israel has been harshly criticized during the last 15 years (since it made the Oslo accords) despite the fact that during 12 of them it followed the policy Obama says he likes.

Yet due to the intransigence of Hamas and the continued radicalism, disorganization, incompetence, and ambiguity (call it what you will) of Fatah, there is not going to be a comprehensive peace settlement. Would a president Obama conclude that Israel took risks and tried its best, or will he see a need to give the Palestinians, Arab states, and even Iran more and more concessions in the belief that this will eventually work?

Again, though, the key question here is not U.S.-Israel relations or Arab-Israeli issues, important as they are. The critical test for the next president is to wage a strategic struggle with radical forces that are becoming both stronger and more confident. If you have a vote, it is for you to decide who that should be.
Read entire article at Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center

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More Comments:

Vernon Clayson - 3/10/2008

Is Mr. Rubin with his comment that "vague promises, glib speeches and personal popularity shouldn't be enough to gain victory" harkening back to Bill Clinton's campaign in 1991 and 1995, probably not because that worked for Bubba. Maybe it's only "vague promises, etc......." from a young black man turning away Bubba's wife that Mr. Rubin is so skeptical about.

Arnold Shcherban - 3/9/2008

Has it not been what current President was doing with the well-known "success"?
Has it not been what all other US presidents were doing during the last, at the least, 55 years?
Or, perhaps, what the author really
wants to advise the next President to do is even more than that: a total and perpertual war all over the Middle East region, not just in Iraq and Afghanistan...