x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Bush's policies an added burden to task

As his unprecedented legion of admirers around the world hoped, Barack Obama has been elected.

As his unprecedented legion of admirers around the world hoped, Barack Obama has been elected leader of the world's only superpower. Yet nowhere is there less enthusiasm for the man hailed by some as the "world's first president" than in the Middle East, where the symptoms of "Obama-mania" bear more resemblance to an occasional cough than a raging epidemic. Mr Obama's speech to a powerful pro-Israeli lobby group in Washington in July, two days after winning his party's presidential nomination, is the most frequently cited evidence that the new US commander-in-chief will, despite a life story that personifies change, be a carbon copy of his predecessor. Yet just as the hyperventilating optimism of Mr Obama's supporters is unwarranted - "it's time for everyone to catch their breath", said Stephen Hess, an adviser to four US presidents - so is the scoffing cynicism of the region's sceptics, say veteran diplomats and longtime Washington observers. The president-elect, of course, faces severe - some say unprecedented - constraints. He won the election with withering criticism of George W Bush's oversight of the economy and his handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The tables will soon turn. At noon on Jan 20 when Mr Obama is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan become his wars; Iran's nuclear ambitions, his waking nightmare; an economy mired in recession and a US$10 trillion (Dh36.8 trillion) national debt, his burden; and America's tattered image abroad, his albatross. The United States is stuck in a deep hole from which it will not easily extricate itself, and now it is Mr Obama's task to find a way out. The juxtaposition of a potentially great US president with a track record of recent American failure, particularly in the Middle East, forms a picture of exquisite irony, notes Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "The good news is that many of the arrows in Iraq are finally pointing in the right direction and it will not dominate your presidency," Mr Haass wrote in a mock memorandum of advice to the president-elect. "The bad news is that you know you are in for a rough ride when Iraq is the good news." The fact is neither the overwhelming repudiation of Mr Bush by both candidates during the campaign nor the election on Tuesday of a black man with African roots and a Middle-Eastern middle name, can redeem US policy mistakes of the past eight years. Nevertheless, long-time policymakers and observers of the Washington scene say Mr Obama has the tools if he chooses to start correcting those mistakes. His skills are formidable, say Middle East specialists. "Mr Obama is inquisitive, cool and detached and reluctant to impose ideology on things he doesn't know," said Aaron David Miller, a senior adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations to six US secretaries of state and author of The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace. That is a start, Mr Miller said. "He has a tremendous potential to create an effective basis for relating to the Middle East. He understands that what is happening is a clash of interests not cultures, which means that a way can be found to ameliorate differences and create a modus vivendi." By all accounts, Mr Obama also prides himself in his ability to see the world through the eyes of others. Just as he has been forced to make sense of the disparate strains of his genealogy to make his way in the world, so has he learnt the importance of trying to bridge cultural, racial and political differences in the broader world. Jon Alterman, the director of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, likens it to a "Gulf approach" to conflict and decision-making. "Instead of confronting enemies and rivals, you figure out what they're about and try to work out ways of dealing with each other despite differences. And before making pronouncements, you consult and listen to diverse views so people feel they've been heard," Mr Alterman said. Mr Obama's oratorical skills also match the needs of the moment. He enters office at a time when Washington's ability to work with others in an interdependent world has been sharply reduced. As diplomacy makes a comeback, with even Bush administration officials speaking of starting negotiations with elements of the Taliban and of opening an interests section in Tehran, it will be a boon to have a head of state whose speechwriters, for example, are not forced to dumb down their prose to fit the syntactical abilities of their boss. For all of the hope he engenders, however, President Obama will differ from candidate Obama in ways that cannot be predicted and that will doubtless disappoint his backers. The open secret of US politics is that no candidate for high office can afford to be completely sincere or transparent and still win. Modern presidential campaigns also are less a test of policies than marathon-length, glaringly public auditions of temperament, character and stamina. The result is that President Obama's view of the world will inevitably differ from candidate Obama's. This shift in vantage point does not mean that a President Obama suddenly will tilt heavily in favour of the Palestinians, nor does it mean that he will embrace Hizbollah. It could just as well mean that the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are not immediately shut down as promised during the campaign and the deadline for withdrawing US forces from Iraq will slip. What is certain is that regardless of how much Mr Obama's genealogy and message of change reflect what many in the world know and say they want, he is not secretary general of the United Nations or an heir to the Non-Aligned Movement. Mr Obama is an American, the product of a system shaped by long-standing commitments, enduring principles and bureaucratic inertia, "a conveyor belt" of inheritances that are not easily done away with or changed, said Mr Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. It is also certain that the enormity of the office changes its occupant in ways that cannot be easily foreseen, Mr Hess said. "Presidents suddenly get information they never had before. Some senior staff prove more incompetent or incompatible than they expected. You can't predict everything that will happen," he said. cnelson@thenational.ae