Changes in American policies and rhetoric are already triggering intriguing responses from different parts of the Middle East, as we can see in four separate issues: Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, Iran, and American attitudes toward Islam and Muslims, says Rami G. Khouri
BEIRUT -- One of the fascinating developments taking place before our eyes these days is the evolution of American power and presence in the Middle East -- though it remains to be seen if this is a truly constructive change in policy or merely a temporary cosmetic repackaging of failed old ways. Nevertheless, two important points should be noted: American power is a constant factor in the Middle East, regardless of whether one likes or dislikes how it is applied; public perceptions of the United States throughout the Middle East are not fixed in stone, but rather respond in tandem to evolving American policies.
Changes in American policies and rhetoric are already triggering intriguing responses from different parts of the Middle East, as we can see in four separate issues: Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, Iran, and American attitudes toward Islam and Muslims.
Many analysts have suggested that President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo a week ago played a role in promoting the ascendancy of “moderate” or “pro-Western” voters in the elections in Lebanon and Iran this week. There is a link for sure, but I suspect the cause-and-effect relationship is the opposite of what many American and Arab commentators are saying.
If we look at public opinion in this region and the policies and words of the US leadership, we find that change has occurred first and more clearly in the United States than it has in the Middle East. The more accommodating tone and some adjusted policies by the new US administration are largely a response to realities on the ground.
The signs of change are real, if still limited in scope: Sending rhetorical love notes to Iran -- and dropping uranium enrichment-linked preconditions on talks with Iran -- sending envoys to Syria, lowering the rhetoric on Hizbullah in Lebanon, speaking out forcefully on the unacceptability of continued Israeli settlement activity, and making dramatic public diplomacy gestures on American relations with Islamic societies.
Sincere people can disagree on whether the changes in US policy are a sensible reconfiguration reflecting acknowledgment that the old policies did not work in America’s interest, or are a response to the widespread opposition to the United States that defines large swaths of public opinion in our region. My guess is that it is a combination of the two.
A more realistic, less ideological bunch of political managers in Washington surveyed US policy in the Middle East, saw it was not working well, and recognized the ability and willingness of people and governments throughout the region to stand up to the United States and its proxies. So they started to make changes that could respond more rationally to the interests of the United States as well as the principal parties in the region -- namely the Arabs, Iran, Turkey and Israel.
As the United States started to adjust its rhetoric and policies, people and governments in the Middle East reciprocated the capacity to act sensibly. Even Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, in his statements in Cairo earlier this week, acknowledged the new tone in Washington’s language and approach, and spoke more about diplomatic possibilities than eternal resistance.
In Lebanon, where the US-backed March 14 alliance won last week’s parliamentary elections, analysts disagree on whether Obama’s lofty and loving rhetoric on Islam and Arab-Israeli peace-making played a role in the victory. My sense of US attitudes toward Lebanon is that both the Obama speech and the recent virtual visits to Beirut by Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden revealed a clear toning down of public rhetoric against Iran, Syria and Hizbullah. As the United States changed its attitude toward Iran and Syria and started talking to them, it also pulled back to some extent from its brass knuckles-style diplomacy of threats and dire warnings in Lebanon.
A more relaxed regional context in which, most notably, the United States, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia spent more time recently exploring diplomatic opportunities -- rather than plotting new bombing targets and sanctions -- has triggered both the toned down rhetoric from Washington and the revived dynamism of centrist politics in the Arab world and Iran. (Though as I write, Iran appears to be producing an Iranian version of the 2000 US election.) Life on the edge, in a world of perpetual brinksmanship and confrontation, has proven both uncomfortable, and widely unsustainable, for most players in the Middle East. So, wisely they are exploring other ways.
It is comforting to witness the capacity for real change in the United States and among Arabs. It is also refreshing to hear so many in the region wonder whether the softer, gentler Obama approach is eliciting reciprocal common sense from different parts of the Middle East. Transformative moments like this remind us how important it is to acknowledge two key realities: public opinion, popular perceptions and foreign policies are intimately linked in a perpetual embrace that sees them evolve together, and, it is both immature and inaccurate to ascribe all good or bad things to one side or the other.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2009 Rami G. Khouri – distributed by Agence Global