7 November 2009

No we can't?

By Lee Marsden

This time last year the world celebrated the incredible victory of America's first African-American president. Barack Obama mobilised popular support and ran an impressive campaign which promised change. The not-Bush candidate with his soaring rhetoric and youthful good looks charmed American voters and interested onlookers around the world, promising a brighter future, one where internal and external divisions would be healed. One year on the Obama gloss is beginning to wear off as vested interests demonstrate that it is once again business as usual. A Washington Post opinion poll in January gave Obama a 79 percent approval rating, today this has fallen to just 57 percent. In making few guarantees, while encouraging voters to put their hopes in him, unrealistic expectations were generated that Obama is unable to deliver. Increasingly US voters and audiences around the world are beginning to realise what the Nobel Peace Prize selection panel did not, that it is one thing to promise the earth quite another to deliver it.

Obama started off with great gusto, reaching out the hand of friendship to the Muslim world, promising to withdraw from Iraq, close Guantanamo Bay, and work to achieve an Israel-Palestinian peace settlement. The best of intentions have still to produce results and those ambitions are being thwarted by vested interests. The hand of friendship has resulted in a warmer attitude towards America in majority Muslim countries. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Report, Egyptians' favourable attitudes towards the US have risen in the last year from 22 to 27 percent. Turkish favourable attitudes have also grown from 12 percent to 14 percent, not very high for a NATO member. While Pakistani favourable attitudes have actually declined from 19 percent to 16 percent and in the Palestinian Territories 75 percent express no confidence in US policy. Admittedly, Obama himself enjoys greater approval ratings, but a change of president without a significant change in foreign policy does not suggest that the hope for the future emphasised by the Democrat candidate in 2008 will be realised by the Democratic incumbent in the White House.

Taking the battle to Al Qaeda has involved becoming embroiled in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Iraq was Bush's war, Afghanistan and the undeclared war on parts of Pakistan by unmanned drones, is Obama's war of choice. Faced with different opinions by his army advisors, the vice president, state department and the Pentagon, Obama has dithered for two months unable to decide on a clear strategy for Afghanistan, whether to follow his general’s advice and significantly increase troop levels by 40,000 or pursue a counter insurgency strategy aimed solely at Al Qaeda. As part of that strategy he is paying the Pakistan government $7.5 billion over the next five years to wage war on their own citizens in Swat and North Western Province. What is clear is that a strategy for withdrawal is very much off the agenda. The promise to withdraw from Iraq within sixteen months and close Guantanamo Bay by the end of the year will not be achieved, with US troops set to remain in a training capacity in Iraq well into any second term the president may enjoy.

The prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are receding by the day as Benjamin Netanyahu the Israeli prime minister outmanoeuvres the US president at every turn, ignoring Obama's pleas to halt settlement construction, and removing East Jerusalem from any US constraint, with Obama apparently unable, or unwilling due to the Israel Lobby, to constrain his closest ally. Palestinians are losing confidence in Obama's ability to bring Israel to the table and bring about a two-state solution. For all the talk about hope and change in terms of US foreign policy it remains business as usual.

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