Inter Press Service
More than a year after his election, President Barack Obama appears to be dashing hopes both in the Arab world and in Latin America that he would bring major changes in U.S. policy toward their respective regions.
His administration’s decision to back down from its initial demand that Israel freeze all settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem is widely seen as capitulation to the government of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and its right-wing allies in the so-called Israel Lobby here.
Similarly, the State Department’s abrupt reversal on its longstanding demand that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya be restored to office as a condition for U.S. recognition of elections scheduled for Nov. 29 is seen as a surrender to the de facto government headed by Roberto Micheletti and hard-line anti-Castro forces in Congress.
The administration’s readiness to abandon previously held positions in both cases has resulted in disillusionment among key regional allies, including in Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the Arab world; and most importantly Brazil in Latin America.
It has also reinforced the growing impression – among Obama’s right-wing critics and left-leaning supporters alike – that the president is unwilling to spend his still-hefty, albeit diminishing, political capital on key foreign policy initiatives and principles.
“If you can’t solve a crisis in Honduras, where can you solve one?” asked William LeoGrande, a Latin America specialist and dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University.
He noted that the collapse of a U.S.-sponsored accord to resolve the impasse in Tegucigalpa and Washington’s failure so far to revive it “makes the United States look impotent in the region”.
“Of course, you can always solve a crisis by caving in,” he added.
Obama’s election kindled hopes among both Arab and Latin American leaders who felt that their interests were for the most part ignored in Washington under Obama’s predecessor. George W. Bush’s aggressive support for Israel, on the one hand, and hostility toward Cuba and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on the other, dominated U.S. policy toward the two regions during his eight-year tenure.
Those hopes were raised by major speeches in which Obama appeared to promise important breaks from Bush’s policies.
At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago last April, he pledged to pursue “engagement based on mutual respect” with Washington’s southern neighbours, notably a “new beginning with Cuba”, and graciously accepted a gift – a book by noted anti-imperialist author Eduardo Galeano – from Chavez, a gesture for which he was much criticised by Republicans.
In a widely hailed speech in Cairo two months later, Obama called for a “new beginning” between the U.S. and Muslims “based upon mutual interest and mutual respect”. He also described the plight of Palestinians as “intolerable”, promised to work tirelessly toward a two-state solution, and insisted that it was “time for these [Jewish] settlements to stop.”
The two speeches clearly raised already-high expectations in both regions skywards, adding to the risk that a perceived failure to follow through would result in that much greater disillusionment.
That appears to have to taken place in both regions over the past two weeks.
While Latin Americans were already complaining about the snail’s pace at which the Obama administration was pursuing détente with Cuba, the Jun. 28 coup d’etat that exiled Zelaya – and the U.S. response to it – soon overshadowed it.
While Obama initially rallied behind demands by fellow members of the Organisation of American States (OAS) that Zelaya be immediately restored to power, he proved much slower to exert serious pressure on the de facto government, in part due to fierce opposition by right-wing Republican lawmakers who accused him of siding with a Chavez pawn. As a result, the crisis dragged on over the summer to the region’s growing frustration.
With the scheduled Nov. 29 elections drawing near, however, Washington finally brokered an accord between Micheletti and Zelaya Oct. 30. It provided, among other things, for the creation by Nov. 5 of a national unity government that would oversee and legitimise the elections.
But while the region and other observers assumed that Zelaya would be swiftly approved by Congress to head the unity government, Washington’s chief negotiator insisted in a CNN interview Nov. 4 that there was no deadline for Congress to act. He also said Washington would recognise the Nov. 29 election whether or not Zelaya was restored to office by then.
Meeting in Jamaica one day later, the foreign ministers of the 24 Latin American and Caribbean nations that make up the Rio Group unequivocally rejected the U.S. stance, declaring they would not recognise the results of the Nov. 29 elections unless Zelaya was immediately restored to office.
Most of them, including powerhouses Brazil and Mexico, reaffirmed that position this week during a debate at the OAS, only to be dismissed by Washington’s interim ambassador, a Bush holdover, as engaging in “magical realism”.
“That wasn’t very helpful,” noted Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue, who said the current controversy over Zelaya and recognition of the elections marks “a potentially serious rift between the U.S. and the rest of the hemisphere” that threatens to “aggravate existing irritations”.
“The United States is once again isolating itself in the Americas,” warned a letter to Obama signed by 240 mainly university-based U.S. Latin America specialists this week. The letter noted that his promise at the Trinidad Summit to treat “Latin American nations as equals is evaporating”.
A similar – if far more serious – disillusionment seems well underway in the Arab world surrounding Netanyahu’s defiance of the administration’s demand – most strongly stated last May by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – that all Jewish settlement activity be halted.
The administration had already downplayed that demand in September, when Obama convened both Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to press them to launch final-status talks. But Clinton’s praise during a visit to Jerusalem Oct. 31 for Netanyahu’s offer to “restrain” settlement activity as “unprecedented” – coupled with her criticism of Abbas for making a freeze a pre-condition for his participation in the talks – was widely seen as a devastating blow to hopes raised by Obama’s Cairo speech in the Arab world.
Coming so soon after Abbas’s embarrassing reversal on referring the Goldstone Report on alleged Israeli war crimes committed during the Gaza conflict to the U.N. Security Council, Clinton’s warm words for Netanyahu further weakened the Palestinian leader’s position and credibility, leading to his announcement last week that he will not seek re-election in January.
Some observers believe the latest chain of events has brought the U.S.-backed PA to the brink of collapse.
“Obama’s reversal on the settlements has dashed the hopes of the Arab world from their highest point, which was the Cairo speech,” said Chris Toensing, editor of the Middle East Report.
“It’s not only Abbas that has been hurt by this, but other U.S.-allied regimes as well,” he went on. “Jordan’s King Abdullah is warning darkly of disaster if negotiations do not get on track; the Egyptian government looks more and more like a U.S.-Israeli agent to its own people, unable to get Washington to do anything to repay Egypt for enforcing the blockade on Gaza; and the Saudis see this as a major boost for Iran’s influence in the region.”
The administration has since tried to loosen Clinton’s embrace of Netanyahu – it has stressed that it still regards Israeli settlements as illegitimate, dropped “unprecedented” from its description of Netanyahu’s offer to restrain them, and suggested that this week’s White House meeting between Obama and the Israeli leader was less than warm.
But hopes that Obama’s policies toward the Arab world, as in Latin America, will be significantly, if not decisively, different from those of his predecessor are fading fast.
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).