With a father from Kenya and a stepfather from Indonesia, Barack Obama has a broader perspective on the Middle East and Islam than does the New York Times. Allah Akbar! (God is great.) Over the next month or two we will have a chance to see beyond the few conflicting clues that have carried him this far. One would hope that caution and pragmatism will lead him to expend his political capital on situations that are ready for progress, and which align with basic American interests while treading lightly in areas that offer little hope.
The smallest problem in the Middle East (in terms of geography and population) is the Palestinian/Israeli question which has evaded solution despite the efforts of recent American presidents and British Prime Ministers. Faced with the end of the Bush protectorate, the Israelis have chosen to clean up the minor threat from Gaza rather than the nuclear threat from Iran. Politics is the art of the possible, and the Iran option was beyond reach. So also is an Obama-led solution unless both sides decide that something like Carter's Camp David Accords and Clinton's tentative 2000 Palestine agreement is better than continued conflict. (It really seems simple out here in San Francisco. To remain a Jewish democracy, Israel must have a place to put thet Palestinians. To have this succeed, they need to help the West Bank and Gaza prosper.) Perhaps the best approach is to leave a phone number to call when the parties are ready.
The second theater on which Obama would be wise to not base his foreign policy is Afghanistan. My premise is that his support for increased troops in Afghanistan was a political tactic, allowing him to be a vocifrous advocate for an ignominious withdrawal from Iraq without being branded a naive anti-military pacifist. Afghanistan defied conquest by the British, the Russians, and many others; it is hard to envision any scenario that would lead to a stable, unified government; and we have little reason to be there other than chasing Osama bin Laden - who is probably not there anyway.
The larger issue is the millenial conflict between the Shiite Iranians and the Sunni Arabs, and it is in this context that Obama should view politics in Iraq, support for Hamas and Hezbollah, the expansion of the nuclear club, and our need for oil. "Meeting without preconditions" with Ahmedinejad suggests his perspective - and while it may be opposed by the right in the US, and most of our allies in the region, it will probably happen, and will be likened to Nixon meeting with Mao in China in 1972 as an opportunity to change the game.
The fourth issue - and the second worth spending a lot of time on - is the India/Pakistan conflict. In fact, an unstable, nuclear, Muslim Pakistan should probably be the first priority. In a sense, the restraint of the Indians with attacks on their parliament in 2001, and then on Mumbai in December is more than remarkable, and an indicator that they understand the risk of chaos. So does the government of President Zardani in Islamabad, whose family has had two previous leaders assassinated by the zealots. With motivated leaders on both sides, progress is possible. Hopefully Obama did not mean his campaign rhetoric about attacking our long-time ally Pakistan if they didn't help more against al Quaeda.
Obama has promised that shortly after his innauguration he will make a major presentation in a prominant Muslim location (perhaps Indonesia.) If he demonstrates a nuanced understanding of why the Bush administration has done what it has, and emphasises the above priorities, he will be off to a good start in my mind. The reality will look quite different from the Oval Office.
For those who don't know the apparent winner of the Minnesota Senate race, here's a short clip by Al Franken's supporters. Thanks to thet people who gave us Jesse Ventura. And why has it taken over two months to count a few thousand votes anyway?
Bill Bowen - 1/9/09