WASHINGTON – As money shots go, especially archived under “team of rivals”, few surpass the one last week heralding the launch of the new United States State Department.
The photo features President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, new US Middle East envoy George Mitchell and new US Afghanistan/Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke. Washington’s chattering classes have genuflected accordingly and burned down their Blackberrys in awe.
Obama then laid down the (new) law – sort of. He re-extolled “America’s moral example” as “a beacon of our global leadership”.
But the way the new White House is setting a “moral example” after the horrible carnage in Gaza is quite revealing. Obama phrased his top priority in no uncertain terms: “America is committed to Israel’s security … Israel [has the right to] defend itself against legitimate threats.”
Not a word on the root cause of the whole tragedy: the illegal, neo-colonial, ever-expanding Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
Obama stressed “Hamas must meet clear conditions: recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and abide by past agreements”. But America’s “moral example” would have to translate into demanding the same thing from Israel. Israel should recognize Palestine’s right to exist in its own, stolen land. Israel should renounce state terror on Palestinian civilians. Israel should freeze non-stop building of settlements (almost half a million Jewish settlers now live between East Jerusalem and the West Bank) and allow Palestinians real freedom of movement.
Obama stressed Hamas must not re-arm and praised Egypt’s role in achieving a ceasefire. What’s this appreciation for Egyptian dictator-for-life Hosni Mubarak, who refused to open the Rafah border crossing to throngs of desperate people in Gaza fleeing Israeli bombs?
For Obama, “just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so too is a future without hope for the Palestinians”. He lamented “the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days”.
Obama does not seem to be very moved, to say the least, by Israel killing over 400 Palestinian children in Gaza. He in fact legitimizes the “100-for-1” rule, equating over 1,300 Palestinians killed – most of them civilians – to 13 Israelis killed (10 of whom were soldiers).
Obama does “sustain a deep commitment” to “two states living side-by-side in peace and security”. As for the “Arab peace initiative” – the Saudi-sponsored 2002 Beirut Declaration which essentially asks Israel to return to pre-1967 borders in exchange of normalizing relations with the Arab world – Obama only said it “contains constructive elements”. He turbo-charged once again his “Now is the time” motto – just to alert for “standing up to extremism that threatens us all”. What about Saudi Arabian or Egyptian “extremist” internal repression?
The bottom line is clear. Obama’s strategy is to prop-up Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah – whose credibility in Palestine and across the Arab world, after Gaza, is less than zero. And Obama still demonizes Hamas – which, nasty overtones or not, came to power in Gaza via free and fair elections. Obama did not even acknowledge the Israeli occupation – the source of all this tragedy – by name. What he did acknowledge was Israel’s narrative – be it by Tzipi Livni, Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu or Ehud Barak – that Hamas is evil, and this is all about the – remember? – George W Bush-coined “war on terror”.
Under this framework, Obama’s new Middle East special envoy, the suave gentleman and former senator George Mitchell, will have to be a magician. Mitchell may have succeeded in Northern Ireland. Under Bill Clinton he wrote the Mitchell report on the Second Intifada in late 2000 which, to his credit, debunked Ariel Sharon’s propaganda. But his “new” mission is – once again – just to restart the “peace process”, which has been in a coma for 40 years anyway.
What kind of envoy goes to the Middle East this week but won’t talk to Hamas or to the Syrian leadership? And will he see the Gaza wasteland for himself?
Obama the media wizard is taking no chances, carefully packaging all this to the Arab world as a major breakthrough. The punditocracy is offering incense, gold and myrrh to the heavens because of his “game-changer” interview to al-Arabiyya, where he declares himself “ready to initiate a new partnership” based on “mutual respect” and clearly announces to the Arab world that “America is not your enemy.”
As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of politics at California State University, Stanislaus, goes deeper into it: “Al-Arabiyya is run by the Saudi King Fahd’s brother-in-law … The administration selected al-Arabiyya because it is ‘friendly’ to US interests and because on al-Arabiyya, US officials get softball questions … Obama chose this station because he wanted to appease the Saudi royal family. This president talks about how bad dictators are, but he is signaling that he, like Bush, will coddle Saudi Wahhabi dictatorship – a key ally of Israel today.”
Appeasing the Saudi royal family in this case means Obama making sure he more or less agrees with the terms of the Arab peace proposal – which will not be on the table forever, as the House of Saud has been explicitly saying. But the real game-changer would be Obama convincing Netanyahu – if he’s elected next month as the new Israeli prime minister – this is the only possible way forward for Israel.
Warning: Vietnam ahead
Then there’s Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s all related, as Obama himself acknowledged, and “the central front in the war against terrorism and extremism”.
So contrary to endless chattering-class frenzy in Washington, the “war on terror” framework is still in place. And to prosecute it, Obama counts on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and new Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy Richard “The Bulldozer” Holbrooke, whose reputation in Washington is of a man of “sharp elbows”. These elbows signaled to Slobodan Milosevic in March 1999 that if he didn’t accept the pure and simple occupation of Yugoslavia, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would start bombing, as it duly did.
The problem now is there is simply no US-NATO sharp-elbow military solution to the Afghanistan-Pakistan maze. There is no solution without a negotiation including the historic Taliban in Afghanistan, the neo-Taliban in the Pakistani tribal areas, and Pashtun leaders on both sides of the border. The monotone “radical Islamic insurgency” litany is gibberish; the real issue for Afghans is to fight and expel a foreign occupying force. Be they Soviets, Yankees, Europeans or Martians.
It gets worse.
This will be a long war, which happens to be another Pentagon denomination for the “war on terror”. Envoy Holbrooke himself said so, in a Foreign Affairs article published before the US presidential election: “The situation in Afghanistan is far from hopeless. But as the war enters its eighth year, Americans should be told the truth: it will last a long time – longer than the United States’ longest war to date, the 14-year conflict [1961-75] in Vietnam.”
A new Vietnam? No wonder progressive America is having a collective heart attack. This means, among other things, that Holbrooke will not talk to the Taliban – or the neo-Taliban in Pakistan. He will go all the way for Obama’s surge – more US troops, more NATO troops and hardcore Vietnam-style counter-insurgency across the Hindu Kush.
Obama needed only three days in office to already draw his first blood inside the Pakistani tribal areas – in his defense some may say he was sucked in by inexorable Pentagon logic. Drones fired Hellfire missiles and killed 22 people in both North and South Waziristan, including at least four children, but not a single al-Qaeda jihadi.
Vice President Biden was unmistakable: this type of action – which happens to be a repeated violation of sovereign national territory – will go on, non-stop.
Which leads us back to the same infernal narrative. Inevitable blowback. Tons of “collateral damage”. The neo-Taliban growing even more powerful inside Pakistan. The jihadi way becoming even more appealing.
Announcing his new State Department, Obama promised, “Let there be no doubt … of America’s commitment to lead.” But lead where? Where’s the boldness, the real change of mindset? The Pentagon’s “arc of instability” hovers over Obama’s “Clinton-3” State Department like a ghostly self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unless, of course, the Obama White House really kicks out ideology and steers the US back to politics.