President Barrack Obama’s Middle East policies seem increasingly problematic. His expanded use of missile strikes by Predator drones against targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere -- now being launched at a rate of about one a week – seem certain to create more ‘terrorists’ than they kill. They arouse fierce anti-American sentiment not least because of the inevitable civilian death toll. Obama is said to decide himself which terrorist suspect is to be targeted for killing in any particular week, as if to confer some presidential sanction on operations of very doubtful legality.
Even more worrying is Obama’s apparently wilful sabotage of two diplomatic initiatives, one by Europe’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the other by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. Ashton has been leading an attempt by the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) to negotiate a win-win deal with Iran over its nuclear programme, while Annan has been struggling to find a negotiated way out of the murderous Syrian crisis. Obama seems intent on compromising both initiatives.
Catherine Ashton managed to launch the P5+1 talks with Iran in Istanbul on 14 April once she had agreed the ground rules with the chief Iranian negotiator, Saeed Jalili. She pledged at that time that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would be a key basis for the talks, thus sending a clear signal that Iran, as a signatory of the NPT, had the right to enrich uranium up to 3.5% for power generation and other peaceful purposes. She also declared that the negotiations would “be guided by the principle of the step-by-step approach and reciprocity,” thus giving a strong indication that sanctions would be lifted in stages once Iran gave up enriching uranium to 20% and provided convincing evidence that it was not seeking nuclear weapons. Iran responded favourably to this approach and the talks got off to a good start.
But, at the next meeting on 23 May, held this time in Baghdad, they ground to a virtual halt. No progress of any sort was made save for an agreement to meet again in Moscow on 18-19 June. The early optimism was dispelled because Obama had hardened the U.S. position. There was to be no recognition of Iran’s rights to enrich lower grade uranium -- indeed the P5+1 refused even to discuss the subject -- and no easing of sanctions. On the contrary, Iran was faced with the prospect of even stiffer sanctions coming into force on 1 July. The only sweetener was an offer of some spare parts for Iran’s civilian aircraft in exchange for an Iranian pledge to freeze 20% enriched uranium. Iran was asked, in effect, to give up its trump card in exchange for peanuts. It was no surprise that Tehran considered the miserly offer insulting.
Obama seems to have been persuaded that Iran, already reeling under crippling sanctions, would meekly submit to American demands if still more pressure were applied. This was a fundamental error of judgement. Far from submitting, Iran reacted defiantly. Hopes for a win-win deal evaporated. There are now no great expectations of a breakthrough at the Moscow talks.
What is Obama up to? He seems to have adopted Israel’s hard line view that Iran should be compelled to close down its nuclear industry altogether -- a clear deal-breaker. It is not altogether clear whether he is doing so to counter accusations of weakness from his Republican challenger Mitt Romney or whether his hard, uncompromising line is intended to stave off Israel’s much-trumpeted threats to attack Iran in the coming months which, in view of the American electoral calendar, would inevitably suck in the United States.
Obama has already joined Israel in clandestine warfare against Iran. In a major article last week in the New York Times, David E Sanger revealed that “from his first months in office, President Barack Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities...” The United States and Israel then jointly developed the cyber-weapon Stuxnet, which caused considerable damage to the centrifuges in Iran’s Natanz facility.
By any standards, launching Stuxnet against Iran was an act of state terrorism. That Israel should engage in such practices is not surprising: Its entire regional policy is based on subverting and destabilising its neighbours so as to ensure its own supremacy. But how can the United States, which claims to be the supreme guardian of the international order, justify such base behaviour?
Not content with sabotaging Catherine Ashton’s efforts, Obama is also undermining Kofi Annan’s difficult mission in Syria. The American president pays lip service to Annan’s peace plan while, at the same time, secretly coordinating the flow of funds, intelligence and weapons to Bashar al-Asad’s enemies. Numerous sources attest that the United States has taken upon itself the role of deciding which among the various armed rebel groups deserve support. One must only suppose that, in his eagerness to bring about the fall of the Syrian regime, Obama will not fall into the trap of funding and arming jihadis, many of them linked to al-Qaida, who have flowed in from neighbouring countries to fight the Syrian regime.
In a word, Obama seems to have embraced the argument of Israeli hawks and American neo-conservatives that bringing down the Syrian regime is the best way to weaken and isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran, sever its ties with Lebanese and Palestinian resistance movements, and eventually bring about regime change in Tehran.
The puzzle is to understand what has happened to Obama. This former professor of constitutional law was expected to correct the flagrant crimes of the Bush administration -- such as the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the water-boarding, the network of secret prisons where torture was routine, the practice of extraordinary rendition. Instead, by his own violent and questionable acts, he is widening the gulf between the United States and the Muslim world.
No less a person than Henry Kissinger has, in a recent Washington Post article, reminded the United States of the dangers of humanitarian intervention in Syria. “If adopted as a principle of foreign policy,” he wrote, “this form of intervention raises broader questions for U.S. strategy. Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democratic government...?” If Asad were overthrown, he argues, a new civil war could follow as armed groups contest the succession. “In reacting to one tragedy, we must be careful not to facilitate another.”
Kissinger’s main point is that states are sovereign within their borders. The United States may have strategic reasons to favour the fall of Asad but “not every strategic interest rises to a cause for war; were it otherwise, no room would be left for diplomacy.” In other words, the world should support the Annan peace plan and give it time to work.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East. His latest book is The Struggle for Arab Independence: Riad el-Solh and the Makers of the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press).
Copyright © 2012 Patrick Seale – distributed by Agence Global