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Setbacks in U.S. Outreach to Muslim World

Recent setbacks from Palestine to Pakistan threaten to reverse whatever gains President Obama has made in restoring Washington's badly battered image and influence among Muslims.

Inter Press Service

U.S. President Barack Obama’s extraordinary efforts since his first days in office to reassure Muslims in the Greater Middle East about U.S. intentions in the region have suffered a series of setbacks that threaten to reverse whatever gains he has made over the past 10 months in restoring Washington’s badly battered image and influence there.

From Pakistan – where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got an earful of growing anti-U.S. sentiment last week – to the West Bank and East Jerusalem – where Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has successfully defied Washington’s demands that he freeze Jewish settlement activity – events appear to have strayed far from the president’s original game plan.

As for the vast territory that lies between, the badly tarnished election victory claimed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai raises new questions over the viability of what Obama himself called as recently as August “a war of necessity”, while Iran’s failure so far to accept a U.S.-backed plan to export most of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) for reprocessing looks increasingly likely to foil his hopes for détente on that front.

Meanwhile, a series of devastating bombings in recent weeks has raised the spectre of renewed ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq, while the widely anticipated U.S. rapprochement with Syria – as well as the resolution of the protracted political impasse in Lebanon – appears to have stalled.

Few analysts here blame Obama alone for the lack of substantial progress on these fronts. In a number of cases, unanticipated events, like the rapid deterioration in security in Afghanistan – and forces over which the administration exercises little or no control, such as the hard-line governments and domestic politics of Israel and Iran – have sabotaged his hopes.

But disappointment is clearly on the rise among those here and in the region who believed that Obama’s realist foreign policy strategy of “engaging” foes, and his oft-repeated determination to achieve a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict “from day one” of his presidency promised rapid improvement in Washington’s standing after eight years of catastrophic decline under George W. Bush.

“There is a general concern now, especially in the Arab world, that the administration is not delivering with respect to any issues in the region,” said Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who withdrew his appointment to chair the National Intelligence Council (NIC) earlier this year in the face of a media campaign by neo-conservative critics close to Israel’s Likud Party (see Right Web Profile: Steven J. Rosen; and Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe, “Freeman Withdrawal Marks Victory for Conservative ‘Israel Lobby,’” Right Web, March 11, 2009).

“I think there’s been quite a difference between how Obama as a person is perceived and how the U.S. government as an institution is perceived,” he added. “I think what may be happening is that Obama is sinking into the generally negative view of the U.S. government in the region rather than transcending it as he once did.”

“He started really well, particularly in his speeches in Istanbul [in April] and in Cairo [in June], in changing how the region perceives America and in setting forth a vision of the kinds of relationships he wanted,” said Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Project at the New America Foundation.

“But those words have not been followed up by the kind of deep restructuring of policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and the Palestinians that [former President Richard] Nixon implemented toward China,” he added. “If he had done so, the trend lines we’re seeing in the region might not be as negative as they appear at the moment.”

Of all the problems he faces the region, Afghanistan is the most urgent and time-consuming. Obama has been considering a recommendation from his military commanders to add some 44,000 U.S. troops to the 68,000 already deployed there in order to repel Taliban advances and gain time for Washington and its NATO allies to build national and local governance capacity and the Afghan Army so it can hold its own.

The request comes just eight months after the same military institution told Obama that a total of only 75,000 U.S. troops were needed to achieve the same goal. In the intervening period, not only has the Taliban made far greater strides – and killed more U.S. and NATO forces – than anticipated, but the discredited election, combined with the Karzai government’s notorious corruption, is virtually certain to make a U.S.-led counter-insurgency campaign that much more difficult.

By calling the conflict against the Taliban a “war of necessity” and subsequently ruling out any drawdown of U.S. forces, most analysts believe that Obama will approve if not all, then at least half of the military’s request.

But some experts are worried that any escalation in the U.S. troop presence could prove counterproductive, not only in Afghanistan, where they risk being seen as enforcers of a corrupt regime’s writ, but also in neighbouring Pakistan where Washington’s pressure to bend the government and army to its will has clearly spurred widespread resentment of the kind Clinton ran into last week.

“The more that a war is seen to be Americanised and a matter of American occupation, the more we [risk] unit[ing] the disparate elements that we place under the label of the Taliban and bring[ing] into the fight [against the U.S.] many people who have no sympathy whatsoever for the Taliban,” noted Paul Pillar, a retired top CIA analyst who served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia between 2000 and 2005, at a RAND Corporation conference here last week.

Meanwhile, events in the rest of the Middle East also appear to be conspiring against Obama.

The renewed bombing campaign in Iraq, combined with rising tensions between Kurds and Arabs over the fate of Kirkuk, could yet force a slowdown in the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops there, if not an unravelling of the relative stability achieved over the past two years.

At the same time, continued stalling by Iran over implementation of the LEU export plan agreed in principle last month is making it increasingly difficult for the administration to resist intense and growing pressure from the so-called Israel Lobby and its Republican and Democratic allies in Congress to adopt what Clinton has called “crippling sanctions” against Tehran, even before the end of this year.

Not only would such a quick return to “sticks” risk nipping Obama’s engagement efforts in the bud, but it would also sharply escalate tensions between the two hard-line governments in Tehran and Jerusalem, renewing speculation about whether Israel intends to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities and how the U.S. would react.

But perhaps the most serious cause for the growing scepticism surrounding Obama’s policy trajectory lies with his handling of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which his national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, just last week identified as the “epicentre” of U.S. challenges in the region and beyond.

Not only has the administration retreated from its early demand – voiced most bluntly by Clinton last May – that Israel freeze all settlement expansion, it also praised – through Clinton herself during a visit to Israel this week – as “unprecedented” Netanyahu’s offer to “restrain” settlement growth for up to a year in order to help launch new peace talks.

At the same time, she publicly scolded Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – who had joined the administration’s demand for a total settlement freeze earlier this year – for making it a pre-condition for Palestinian participation in the talks, thus further undermining his position less than a month after initially bowing to U.S. pressure to shelve the Goldstone Report that documented war crimes allegedly committed by Israel during its Gaza campaign.

Calling her remarks a “slap in the face”, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Washington appears to be moving backwards.

“[W]e are once again the same vicious circle we were in in the 1990s,” he said, while other Arab commentators argued that it was difficult at this point to distinguish between Obama’s policy and the Annapolis process pursued by Bush in his last year in office.

“There had been growing scepticism in the region, and I suspect this apparent capitulation to Netanyahu and the Likud will turn scepticism into suspicion,” Freeman told IPS.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/).

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