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Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

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Beyond the "Arab Spring" and Obama's Options

Posted: 04/10/11 10:25 PM ET

President Barack Obama may want to dedicate his time to domestic affairs in order to secure a second term in the White House, but he must prepared for foreign policy intruding into his reelection campaign, especially Middle Eastern issues. This is because the "Arab Spring" will soon be followed by summer, autumn and winter, before it becomes clear whether it will blossom in the manner envisaged by Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution. Today, there are fears in Tunisia of possible economic shakedowns and political turmoil. In Egypt, there are significant signs pointing, on one hand, to potential electoral victories for the Islamists, and on the other hand, in terms of the strategic choices made by the Egyptian transitional government exemplified by the current rapprochement with Iran and backtracking from the moderate camp that had brought together Egypt and Saudi Arabia alongside the United States. Those coming challenges where the revolutions of change took place without a prohibitive cost seem nearly benign when compared to the challenges posed by Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, and also by the growing conflict between Iran and the GCC countries. Iraq is a wellspring of challenges of a different kind, a kind that Lebanon promises to be a spawning ground for. Then there is the issue of Israel in light of the changes to the Arab geopolitical map and the emerging new order in the region. While the Arabs today seem to be distracted away from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this issue will return and will pose a multitude of challenges for the U.S. administration, should the latter not seize the current window of opportunity to alter its policies. This will be no easy matter for Barack Obama, in the midst of his bid for reelection. Nonetheless, it is necessary for him to afford it attention, lest he be forced to reckon with events only after the fact. The policy of patching things up will inevitably only cause complete rupture of the fabric. Tactics of catch up with developments are no alternative to the proactive strategy and taking initiatives which is direly necessary for the United States this crucial time.

Libya remains at the forefront of the American media's attention though it has started to falter and recede considerably. Of course, there is talk behind the scenes of arrangements for the departure of Gaddafi's family, and on the other hand, there is the letter sent by Muammar Gaddafi to Barack Obama, in which he addresses the American president as "our son" and wishes for him to accept a deal that would keep Gaddafi in power.

Clearly, there is regression in terms of achievements on the battlefield by the revolutionary forces who blame NATO for some of their failures. The revolutionaries are right. NATO's promises were indeed exaggerated to the extent of being misleading. The timing of suspending NATO's military operations has helped Gaddafi's forces make gains on the ground. The outcome was at the expense of the Libyan people first, and at the expense of the opposition and the revolutionaries second.

This coincided with the defection of Gaddafi's Foreign Minister and the regime's "black box" for decades, Moussa Koussa. British, French and American intelligence services were quick to shower Koussa with guarantees of immunity to entice him to reveal everything he knows about the history of the regime that has managed to collectively subjugate two generations of the Libyan people and loot the country's wealth.

Deals of this kind have been struck before between international players and the Libyan regime for the bonanza of intelligence gathering -- promoted this time as an effort to encourage further defection. In truth, Britain gathered in the past all the information the Gaddafi regime had on the Irish Republican Army (IRA), in exchange for deals to legitimize the regime. Deals on the Lockerbie affair were also struck, by means of oil-related arrangements that favored the United States and financial reparations, which also gave further legitimacy to the regime. So no wonder that Gaddafi and the men who took part in those deals indulge today in believing that there is still a way to strike similar deals again.

The greatest fear is that some may encourage them to do so, inadvertently or purposely, through public statements, or behind-the-scenes promises, or even through reduced enthusiasm for settling matters on the battlefield for fear that this would implicate the leaders of NATO further in the Libyan quagmire.

Political analysts close to government leaders in Washington, London and Paris began to speak in a tone of triumphalism for having stopped a massacre in Benghazi. All of a sudden, the focus shifted to Benghazi alone -- not to Libya's future -- as though Benghazi had from the start been the end of the story.

Worst still is that there nearly seems to be a resignation to the idea of partitioning Libya, and in fact there are those who have begun to promote it.

The danger of partitioning Libya is certainly in the impression that would accompany such a move reinforcing the prevailing belief that the United States' long-term strategic policy is to partition Arab countries, from Sudan to Libya, and from Iraq to GCC countries. The United States is already accused of having taken the decision to partition the Arab countries, through a war as in Iraq, a referendum as in Sudan, insufficient support for the revolutionaries as in Libya, and sectarian strife as in Gulf countries and in Lebanon, as well as sheer negligence as in Yemen. That is why the prevailing talk in the United States about living with the partition of Libya is dangerous at many levels.

Furthermore, the partition of Libya would disillusion those who dreamt of revolution for the sake of reform. It will pave the way for al-Qaeda, which has a high-level organization in Libya. Partitioning Libya may also keep the Gaddafi regime -- even if not Gaddafi himself or his children -- in power. And then a culture of revenge would emerge.

It would be far better for the Obama Administration to convey a clear message to Gaddafi and his family -- one that emphasizes that the military achievements of his forces on the field are today his only window for getting a deal of safe departure.

It is not at all logical for the Obama Administration to consider any other idea after the American President has stated that Muammar Gaddafi must leave.

It also is unacceptable, logically, for deals of political inheritance to be struck for any of Gaddafi's sons -- even during the transitional phase -- because the crisis of political inheritance is what led to the revolution in Egypt resulting in toppling Hosni Mubarak's family and keeping the regime's military leaders intact.

Egypt seems like a case study in US betrayal of its allies and friends, when the need for this arises. This is a historical legacy that has its reasons and its drawbacks.

What matters today is that Egypt seems to be on the verge of a radical change in its regional strategy, perhaps towards protecting itself from any possible surprises. This means it may very well discount itself from the regional mass visa vi Iran.

This is something the Obama Administration should pay heed to, especially at a time when the tension between Iran and the GCC states is growing ever more acute. The direct reason for the tension is Iran's interference in Bahrain, after the Iraq war ceded tremendous influence for Iran in Iraq, and after international silence reigned towards Iran's de facto military base in Lebanon.

Iran, on the one hand, behaves nowadays with even more overconfidence because it feels it is above accountability by an international community which fears that this would increase the space of clash with the Islamic Republic. On the other, Iran is also behaving nervously out of fear that the Arab popular faith in change might extend into its territories. Iran is taking a risk by feeding sectarian strife in GCC states as it seeks to sow the seeds of division in some of these countries. It is doing all this while building its nuclear capabilities, ignoring the carrot and the stick offered to Iran by the major powers.

From the point of view of the GCC states, the battle is existentialist. It is fateful not just because Iran now nearly controls Iraq in the wake of the American war there, but also because Iran's tentacles stretch across Bahrain and Yemen -- sometimes in coordination with Al-Qaeda -- with the aim of besieging the remaining GCC states. It is a sectarian battle from one perspective, but it is a battle for survival at its core.

The Obama Administration must choose a side in this battle, because the prevailing impression that this administration abandons its friends leaves her in the same bed with Iran.

Iran requires immediate and profound attention, no matter how much the world becomes preoccupied with Libya today or Yemen tomorrow. In fact, the expected preoccupation with Yemen certainly requires closely examining the role played by Iran there -- in particular with al-Qaeda.

What the situation in Yemen requires is not for the international community -- and in particular the United States - to run breathless after the fast-developing events after the fact. What is required is putting forward a road-map for all involved through a comprehensive, clearly stated strategy, in the face of confusion. The ticking time-bomb in Yemen would otherwise explode in the face of many players and bystanders, and its beneficiaries may well be the advocates of extremism, military solutions, and the suppression of reform and state-building ideals brought by the "Arab Spring".

Yet it is not too late for cautious optimism. The overwhelming desire among the Arab youths is to speak in terms of jobs, social security and education, and aspire to a safe future. Some prefer not to use the terms "moderation" and "moderate" at this stage, but would rather call it the change of the "enlightened". Regardless of terminology, the hopes of the new generation must not be done away with amidst narrow political considerations. And this is where the issue of Israel comes in.

Those who say that the Palestinian Cause is not at the forefront of Arab priorities at this juncture may be right, but this does not negate the fact that tomorrow may bring explosive feelings that are never in the interest of the sought after coexistence. Indeed, the fire still burns under the embers and those who assume that the fire has been put out are only deceiving themselves.

It is therefore necessary for the Obama Administration to grant the utmost importance and support to the non-governmental Israeli peace initiative, which is the first comprehensive Israeli proposal on the issue of peace. In truth, the Arab Peace Initiative had remained on the shelf for years, essentially because it was not promoted at the Arab level and because the US, both in the government and in the media, refused to acknowledge and recognize it.

Today, there is an Israeli Peace Initiative for the Middle East announced by more than 40 major political, military and cultural figures in Israel, which is tantamount to a positive response to the Arab Peace Initiative. Among those who have signed it are two former heads of the Shin Bet, the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army, the former head of Mossad, former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's son, and the former chief of the Labor Party. What they are saying is that the Palestinian state must be established on the basis of Israel's withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967, with land-swaps, and East Jerusalem as its capital while the situation of Palestinian refugees must be resolved with reparations or return to the State of Palestine, with the exception of a few cases who would be allowed to return to Israel.

The details of the initiative are important, yet what is more important is that there is an Israeli proposal for the first time under the title of the Israel Peace Initiative. This deserves some encouragement and enthusiasm on the part of the Obama Administration, instead of entrusting the peace process to the man who has made of the very process an end in itself, i.e. Dennis Ross, whom Obama appointed to be in charge of the Middle Eastern issue.

So before the events of the Middle East intrude into Barack Obama's campaign for the White house, it would be useful for him, for the United States, and for the world to be well-prepared with a proactive strategy and initiatives that preempt infringements.

 

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