x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Obama might change things, but we will have to persuade him first

The candidate's pro-Israeli declaration was disappointing to many in the Arab world who looked to him with hope that change for America meant change in its foreign policies, too.

Barack Obama has predicated his campaign for the White House on the promise of "real change". This promise has captured the attention of many Arab circles that assumed this change will fundamentally affect US policy towards their region, and embraced Obama as a dream leader of the world's only superpower.

But the pro-Israeli position that Obama announced immediately after he clinched the Democratic Party's nomination last week humbled Arab expectations from a presidential candidate who had earlier sounded more understanding of the Middle East's need for a different set of US policies.

The change the Arabs want from Obama is mainly related to the US stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The prevailing view in the region is that the unwavering support America has provided to Israel is responsible for prolonging Palestinian suffering. A more balanced approach by the US presidency would, therefore, advance efforts to end Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. It would also trigger corrective action in Iraq and ease tension with Iran.

Not much time was needed to prove that the Arab expectations of Obama grew out of a sense of hopefulness rather than an accurate reading of the priorities and political views of this non-traditional aspirant to the White House.

The change Obama promises is one that he believes will serve America - not the Arabs or any other people - better. His challenge is to convince Americans that an Obama White House can improve their economy, protect their interests and guarantee their security. Pleasing the Arabs is not what is on Obama's mind.

It should not be surprising, accordingly, that the presidential hopeful did not deviate from established US policy vis-à-vis Israel. The majority of Americans consider Israel a strategic ally worthy of their support. Obama is no rebel against this policy. Nor is he such a political novice that he would risk antagonising the powerful Jewish lobby at the beginning of what is expected to a difficult race for the presidency.

Obama has also promised to revisit US policy towards Iraq. But his objectives and reasons are not necessarily compatible with those advocated by opponents of the American approach to Iraq in the Arab world. Obama has American interests at heart; the opponents are driven by different considerations.

Many Arabs felt a degree of affinity towards Obama connected to his character and background. That was expected. For almost everything about Obama conjures a romantic image of a champion for justice. He comes from the historically marginalised African-American community. His family's history as well as its recent roots in Africa is a script for an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie. A man like that can only right the wrongs - or so people hoped. Wishful thinking.

Office brings constraints, and politics invokes survival instincts. Obama will not shake the American system the way the Arabs wish him to, although he will undoubtedly leave his mark on US politics should voters elect him into the White House. But the power that comes with this office will also restrict Obama, even if he wanted to take an idealistic stand.

Certainly Obama will offer a fresh start that not only America but the whole world needs after eight years of controversial, confrontational and, yes, reckless Bush leadership. This, however, does not mean that long-established US positions on the Middle East will change.

The Arabs can benefit from this fresh start. But if they want significant changes in the way Washington deals with them, they will have to work hard at convincing a President Obama that there is a gain for America in that. They will have to persuade America that it is in its interest to come closer to the Arab stance on regional policies. And that is almost wishful thinking too.

The Arabs have historically failed at selling their case to American policymakers and public opinion. Blaming America for every wrong has become an integral part of the Arab collective culture. What we haven't done is make any meaningful effort at communicating with the US, despite the enormous impact its policy decisions have had here. It is as if the assumption is that "we are right" and America has to see that on its own. Such passive attitude did not work in the past. It will not work now.

The sad reality is that there are no indications the Arabs have learnt much from the lessons of the past decades. America is probably second only to Israel in the amount of bashing it receives, in the Arabic press and public discussions. But it has not been the target of any substantial communication from Arab governments or non governmental organisations. Consequently, America's perceptions of the region and its positions on it have been formed with little or no influence from Arabs (except for terrorist attacks by peripheral groups that enforce negative stereotypes).

Nothing on the horizon justifies any hope that Arab apathy towards engaging American public opinion will end. It is safe to conclude, therefore, that an Obama White House will not meet the unrealistic expectations of many in the Arab world.

Which means that the Obama "myth" that has developed here will not take long to collapse. The change he is expected to bring to American politics will not be in the direction the Arabs want. And soon after he assumes office, if he does, things will be back to square one: the US will follow policies the Arabs see, and often rightly so, as detrimental to their interests. Yet Obama will not be the only one to blame. Arab inactivism and failure to state its case must also carry a great deal of the blame.


Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs