international analysis and commentary

The Obama administration, the G8 and Middle East dynamics

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Although the future of the Arab Spring is still up for grabs, the international community has a real opportunity to influence its outcome. This must be principally pursued through concerted multilateral action, bilateral efforts and effective coordination of aid, strictly contingent upon real reform. This can help much of the region’s short-term needs and long-term challenges. The outcome of the recent G8 summit provides a promising start. Dubbed the “Deauville Partnership” comprising the G8 states, Tunisia and Egypt, the new initiative aims to assist the transition to democracy with up to $20 billion in aid. 

As the principal investor and donor in the Middle East and North Africa, the EU has traditionally endorsed human rights and democracy promotion as key policy components, at least in principle. In reality, the stability argument prevailed. New realities dictate new needs which require converting the traditional rhetoric of democracy into practice. The convenient and fairly predictable top-down relationships with regional autocrats must now give way to working with new forces and dynamics emanating from the bottom-up. Aid and investment must also extend beyond the economic realm. Cultivating and nurturing democratization programs is essential, and constant outreach at all levels is required to prevent former practices from prevailing. Skilful diplomacy and adept understanding of grassroots forces will be indispensable. 

Despite Europe’s prominent role and responsibility, US choices can make a difference. Barack Obama’s May speech at the State Department was an attempt to press another regional re-start button with the Middle East in less than two years. It certainly grabbed global headlines, but it largely fell on deaf ears in the region, particularly to many struggling on the front lines of the Arab Spring. Obama’s historic 2009 Cairo speech had created high expectations: by overpromising and underdelivering, US credibility suffered. 

The complexity and speed of regional developments has understandably reduced outsiders, including the US, to a largely reactive role. However, Obama’s rhetorical twists and policy turns as the Arab Spring unfolded further undercut US standing in the region. From over-cautious reluctance on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to last-minute support at the UN Security Council for action against Libya, the US president is increasingly perceived as investing more in the rhetoric of democracy and less in its realization. Obama is now personally struggling to bridge the credibility gap in the Middle East, and initiatives coordinated at the G8 level can play an important role.

While concerned with the region as a whole, America’s primary focus remains Egypt. Its revolutionary outcome remains the linchpin for much of the Arab Spring’s future. With diminishing regional influence, US foreign policy will benefit in the longterm from a stronger and more assertive Egypt with greater democratic credentials. Its example would provide a constructive reference point, inspire others aspiring to open societies and undermine the credibility of other regional autocracies and repressive systems. 

After providing billions in aid since the 70’s, Egypt is an investment US foreign policy cannot afford to lose.  This entails a realization that Egypt will forge a more independent foreign policy, as a more democratic orientation inevitably means pursuing diplomacy more reflective of the popular mood. Even as Egypt has slightly loosened the opening of its side of the Gaza border – a move that has caused consternation in the US and in Israel – it is not succumbing to Hamas, but rather attempting to drag it into the political mainstream. 

At the G8 meeting, French President Nicolas Sarkozy again reminded President Obama of the need for more assertive US action in Libya. Ultimately, from Washington’s perspective the Libyan crisis remains an issue for Europe to deal with. Unless a defining moment arises that can potentially break the current stalemate, President Obama will reluctantly continue to provide just enough support to keep Muammar Gheddafi on the defensive. 

Despite demanding an end to violence in Syria in its final communiqué, the G8 failed to propose a UN Security Council resolution calling for sanctions. Russian opposition neutralized the initiative. Overall, sanctions would have been more symbolic and would have lacked the necessary bite to bring the regime to its knees. Despite revolutionary forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, resistance remains stronger in certain quarters. Survival is the Assad regime’s sole objective, and it has proven its willingness to employ any means possible to pursue that goal. However, regime opposition is gaining momentum at home, but struggling to coalesce abroad. Defying the state of fear, popular resistance shows no signs of abating. It will be increasingly difficult for the regime to sustain the current level of violence and intimidation beyond summer. 

Until now, the regime’s chief leverage against bordering states, and some beyond, is the threat of regional chaos and spillover should regime change result. For them, the Assad regime has been an annoying yet conveniently predictable neighbor over the years.  However, Turkey is becoming more vocal as violence targets Syria’s Sunni-majority. This challenges its diplomatic ability to remain above the regional sectarian fray and may provoke a greater shift toward the developing Sunni regional axis.   

On the most traditional regional front, the G8 did urge immediate Israel-Palestinian peace talks, but gridlock will prevail without bold action from all players involved. Approaching the end of his political career with no considerable legacy and nothing to lose, Mahmoud Abbas pushes ahead for international recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN in September. The UK and France have signaled that they will give their support unless significant progress unfolds in the peace process. With solid support in the US Congress, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has little incentive to submit to Obama’s pressure. After all, he received more standing ovations from the US Congress during his recent speech than did President Obama in his State of the Union address.

President Obama’s recent speeches attempted to court everybody on both sides of the conflict, but convinced few. Despite emphasizing rhetorical differences, he offered nothing new that moves the process forward. The failure to achieve any concrete results since the start of his presidency has complicated Obama’s ability to effectively mount a second initiative. The new regional dynamics are beyond the control of Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas, and will now inevitably impact the course of any peace process.

Netanyahu certainly trumped and humiliated Obama in the first round, while the Palestinians remained sidelined by internal divisions. Netanyahu’s lack of vision in the face of major regional changes raises serious doubts about his long-term strategy. Simply digging in one’s heels will not work. It undermines Israel’s long-term interests and risks further international isolation.

In retrospect, the Bibi-Obama rivalry will remain a historical footnote when compared to recent developments. After two years of trying to outmaneuver each other, neither now possesses the momentum to shape events. This equally applies to the region’s main fault lines, as well as the G8’s ability to guide change.