The Middle East and the US Presidential Election

Nov 5, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

November 5, 2008
Number 11/08 #01

It is of course too early to offer any significant commentary on Senator Barack Obama’s ground breaking and dramatic victory in the US presidential election. However, this Update does offer some interesting commentary on how the next US president is likely to affect the Middle East, and how some Middle Easterners view the electoral contest, all written before the results were known.

First up, Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that when it comes to the Middle East, whoever the next president is will have to be a “wartime leader.” He explores  the various challenges likely to be faced, from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian and Fatah versus Hamas issues, as well as the ongoing unfinished business between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. He says there will not be time to waste, and the next president will have to hit the ground running in the region to avoid major losses to US interests. For Eisenstadt’s discussion of all these challenges, CLICK HERE.

Next up, the Jerusalem Post editorialises on the electoral race and how the next President can affect the Middle East and Israel in particular. It lays out some of the policy differences on the Middle East between the candidates. But in the end, the paper concludes, “The ‘best president for Israel’ is the man who can best internalise the scale of the Iranian menace, and most effectively persuade Americans – and responsible players in the international community – to stop the mullahs before it’s too late.” For the paper’s complete opinion, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, the Israeli daily Haaretz stopped just short of directly endorsing Obama in its pre-election editorial.

Finally, Roee Nahmias, who writes about Arab affairs for Israel’s largest daily, Yediot Ahronot canvasses Arab opinion about the election and the candidates and identifies essentially two schools of thought. Many favour Obama, including the Syrian government, while others tend to fall back on “they’re both enemies of Islam”. But he points out the “it can’t get any worse” argument frequently made in the region for Obama also was prevalent in 2000 in favour of Bush, and moreover, Obama stands for change, the very thing most Middle Eastern governments fear the most. For the complete piece, CLICK HERE.

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Why the Next U.S. President Will Be a Wartime Leader

By Michael Eisenstadt

PolicyWatch #1420, November 3, 2008

The next U.S. president will be a wartime president. Developments in the Middle East almost ensure that either John McCain or Barack Obama will have to manage one or more wars involving the United States or its allies in the region.

The challenges posed by the Middle East are legion: “fragile and reversible” security in Iraq; military fallout from a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program; the destabilizing consequences of a nuclear breakout by the Islamic Republic; a new round of violence between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) — this time in the West Bank; an Israeli military intervention in Gaza to halt renewed rocket attacks, preempt a Hamas military buildup, or crush the nascent Hamas government there; and the possibility of a second Hizballah-Israeli war. Given these realities, the United States must engage the region to an unprecedented extent in order to avert or deter those wars that are avoidable, and prevail (or ensure the success of its allies) in those that prove inescapable.

Iraq: Still Unresolved

The next administration’s key challenge in Iraq will be to preserve and expand the security gains of the 2007 U.S. military “surge,” and to translate those gains into enduring political achievements through relatively free and fair elections in 2009. Accomplishing this and preserving U.S. influence, while gradually drawing down forces to deal with a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, pose major challenges.

For the next few years, the potential for renewed violence in Iraq is high due to a number of unsettled issues: resentment from Sons of Iraq militias due to their exclusion from Iraq’s security forces; the eventual return of Mahdi Army special groups from abroad; the lifting of the Mahdi Army’s freeze on military operations; and tensions between Kurds and Arabs in Mosul, Kirkuk, and Diyala provinces. Preventing resurgent violence will require continued U.S. engagement at the local, regional, and national levels, and the use of available U.S. leverage to forestall or contain outbreaks of violence.

This leverage will not depend entirely on the size of the U.S. military presence. In fact, the United States will gain leverage through: its ability to maintain working relations with all major political currents and parties in Iraq, including Sadrists; the credibility of threats to withhold critical military support at vital junctures in order to secure key U.S. objectives; its willingness and ability to publicize credible evidence of Iranian interference in Iraq and of collaboration between Iran and prominent Iraqi politicians; and its ability to assist emerging political forces, particularly those supportive of a continued U.S. role in Iraq, such as the Awakening Councils, to secure a formal role in the Iraqi political system in forthcoming elections.

The last point could provide the basis for a blocking coalition in Iraqi parliament involving the Awakening Councils, secular nationalists (such as Ayad Allawi), independents, and perhaps under certain circumstances even the major Kurdish parties. This coalition could check Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s growing power, or provide al-Maliki with the foundation for a new governing coalition if he desires to free himself of his dependence on the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq.

Iran: Two Minutes to Midnight?

At the current reported rate of enrichment, Iran might have enough low enriched uranium by late 2009 necessary for its first bomb (although the uranium would require further enrichment and would have to go through several additional steps before it could be turned into a weapon). Given Israeli concerns about the Iranian threat and doubts about diplomacy, Israel might act before then to order a preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear installations to set back Tehran’s program. The next administration must consider the possibility that Israel might act contrary to Washington’s apparent wishes by striking at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, just as it did when it bombed Syria’s nuclear reactor at al-Kibar in September 2007. Accordingly, the next administration should prepare a public response that neither explicitly disavows nor identifies itself with the Israeli action. Washington should also be prepared to take measures to contain a violent Iranian response and to deter retaliatory strikes against U.S. interests.

Iran’s progress toward acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities is already transforming the regional security environment in ways inimical to U.S. interests. Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperative Council states have all indicated that they are considering building up their civilian nuclear infrastructure, which is a possible first step toward developing a weapons capability. And Iran’s acquisition of “the bomb,” which could well occur during the tenure of the next president, could profoundly destabilize the region, enhancing the potential for miscalculation and conflict.

The next administration should therefore exploit the “presidential honeymoon” and the favorable conditions created by low oil prices (which are putting pressure on the Iranian economy) to place the highest priority on multilateral diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff. Although time is of the essence, the United States should avoid public advances toward Iran prior to the country’s June 2009 presidential elections because Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad might claim credit for any diplomatic progress, thus increasing his electoral prospects. As such, Washington should quietly approach intermediaries to sound out Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, prior to Iran’s presidential elections to determine if there is any basis for serious, public contacts or negotiations in the immediate aftermath of the elections, and if Iran would be willing to suspend enrichment for the duration of these talks.

Meanwhile, the United States should once again try to marshal a broader coalition, and wield bigger carrots and sticks, in support of a new diplomatic initiative or, if diplomacy fails, to further ratchet up the pressure on Iran. Finally, if diplomacy fails, Washington needs to revisit its own military options and review plans for containing the political and military fallout from an Israeli preventive strike. The United States should also roll out plans for a regional security framework to contain and deter a nuclear Iran, which will make the point that acquiring nuclear weapons will harm, rather than help, Iran’s security.

Palestinian Civil War: Round Two?

Upon taking office, the next administration may well find itself in the midst of a Palestinian political crisis, and perhaps even a new round of Palestinian civil violence. The term of PA president Mahmoud Abbas expires on January 9, 2009, and he has indicated that he plans to stay on for another year, basing his position on an amendment to the Palestinian elections law that requires presidential and parliamentary elections to occur at the same time (the latter are not scheduled until January 2010). Hamas, however, claims that according to the PA’s basic law, the speaker of parliament should succeed Abbas when his term runs out. Although Hamas and the PA may find a way to resolve this matter peacefully by January 9, it is also possible that if Abbas does not step down, Hamas might engage in assassinations, kidnappings, or violent demonstrations to loosen the PA’s grip in the West Bank.

Accordingly, the new administration must be prepared to support PA and Israeli efforts to quash Hamas-inspired violence in the West Bank. Providing political support to the PA and Israel, and bolstering U.S. efforts to build a professional and effective Palestinian security force, will be vital to keep Hamas at bay in the West Bank in the short-run, and to bolster PA influence in the long-run. In addition, ongoing efforts to define the general parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement are still important, even if implementation of such an agreement has to be deferred to some indefinite future date.

Back to Gaza?

Another Arab-Israeli war is a near certainty in the next four years. The current Israeli-Hamas ceasefire is unlikely to last indefinitely, and Israel eventually will reenter Gaza to remove the rocket threat or dismantle Hamas’s terror and governmental infrastructure. The priority now is to continue to enhance the capacity of the PA’s military and civilian institutions in order prevent a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. This will also be important if Israel does reenter Gaza to crush Hamas, since it would be desirable if Israel could then hand over security responsibilities to the PA prior to its withdrawal.

The reform of Fatah (Abbas’s party) and the PA will be a protracted process, and there is no guarantee of success. But if there is to be peace, it will be the result of bottom-up efforts to rebuild Fatah and the PA and to restore some degree of trust between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as top-down efforts to tackle the major stumbling blocks to a final status agreement. Disengagement from the conflict, however, is not an option, because if the United States is not actively laying the groundwork for peaceful coexistence between the two sides, Hamas and Iran will work to preclude such an outcome.

Hizballah and Israel: Round Two?

In Lebanon, Hizballah, with the help of Syria and Iran, has rebuilt its rocket forces — it had 13,000 on the eve of the 2006 war and has more than 30,000 now — in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Hizballah also blames Israel for the February 2008 assassination of terror chief Imad Mughniyah in Damascus, and has promised revenge, perhaps by kidnapping or killing senior Israeli security officials or politicians at home or overseas. In addition, Hizballah has indicated that it might challenge Israeli reconnaissance flights over Lebanon, and once again abduct Israeli soldiers along the border.

These developments suggest that another — even more destructive — war is possible. Senior Israeli military officials have threatened, in accordance with what they call the “Dahiyah Doctrine” — after the suburbs of southern Beirut that were flattened by Israeli air power during the 2006 war — to wage a scorched earth campaign next time around. In the event of another war, the United States needs to coordinate with Israel better than it did during the last war, so that the next war is much shorter, and succeeds in significantly weakening Hizballah, and undermining the interests of its Syrian and Iranian patrons.


The next U.S. president will face unprecedented challenges and dangers in the Middle East, with few good options and precious little time to waste. He will have to hit the ground running, since the United States cannot afford a protracted transition between administrations. If the next president is to succeed in advancing American interests, he will need to engage the Middle East to an unprecedented degree, avert or deter the wars that can be avoided, and skillfully manage the one or more wars that are almost certain to occur on his watch.

Michael Eisenstadt is a senior fellow and director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute.

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Editorial: America decides


The power of an American president, the late political historian Richard E. Neustadt wrote, is not the power to command, but the power to persuade.

As American voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect their country’s 44th president, they may want to consider the temperament, character and emotional intelligence of the candidates. How well would either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. John McCain persuade average citizens, the Congress, media, as well as America’s friends abroad, to follow where he leads.

The presidency, as Theodore Roosevelt noted, is a “bully pulpit” – a superb platform from which to advocate an agenda, but not for a president who loses popularity or lacks credibility. Such a president will get little done, notwithstanding his constitutional powers.

That said, there are substantive differences between the candidates. Voters will be galvanized more by the economy and a range of domestic issues than foreign policy.

For instance, Obama would appoint justices to the Supreme Court committed to upholding Roe v. Wade, which essentially decriminalized abortion. McCain promises to work to overturn the 1973 landmark decision. And Republican vice presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin opposes abortion in all cases including rape and incest, except when a mother’s life is in danger.

Obama opposes gay marriage, but also a California proposition to ban it; McCain opposes gay marriage but supports the California effort. On taxes, Obama favors tax cuts for the middle-class workers and would increases taxes for higher earners. McCain pledges to reduce the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25%.

On foreign policy, Obama opposed the invasion of Iraq and the surge. McCain championed both. Obama pledges to “end the Iraq war responsibly.” McCain says US forces have dealt “devastating blows to al-Qaida in Iraq” and would pursue victory. Both would send more troops to Afghanistan.

On Iran, Obama views the regime as a threat to the US and would employ direct diplomacy to persuade Teheran to change its policies. If that didn’t work, he says, all options are on the table.

McCain promises to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, has pushed for restricting Teheran’s ability to import refined petroleum, and pledges not to talk to the regime without pre-conditions. He’s criticized Obama for his willingness to enter into unconditional negotiations.

With regard to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Obama would take an activist approach to help reach an agreement, but would not dictate the terms of peace. He says Israel must emerge with secure borders, but has refused to explicitly support the 1967-plus formula which would have Israel retain strategic settlement blocs. Obama says Jerusalem should not be divided and urges the Palestinians to “reinterpret” the “right of return” so that “Israel’s identity as Jewish state” is preserved. He supports the security fence.

McCain, like Obama, supports the creation of a Palestinian state. He says he would never force Israel into concessions with anyone that seeks its destruction. He has made no statement on the 1967-plus formula. He’s promised to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

OPINION surveys show Obama leading roughly 52%-46%. Obama could win 291 electoral votes to McCain’s 163. To turn the situation around, McCain will need to win every state George W. Bush won in 2004 – plus one.

To his everlasting credit, McCain steadfastly refused to play the race card (though, unauthorized, some of his supporters have).
Meanwhile, Americans will also be electing the entire 435-seat House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate. Democrats hold 235 seats and Republicans 199. (One place is vacant.) Thirty-eight races are tossups and could go to the Democrats.

Over in the Senate, both parties hold 49 seats. (Two independents, Joseph Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, caucus with the Democrats.) Democrats are anticipating an outcome that will give them a majority of 56 – or more.

AMERICANS now decide whether to vote “Country First” or “Change We Need.” Those who would factor Israel into their decision understand that our preeminent strategic concern is the Iranian threat.

The “best president for Israel” is the man who can best internalize the scale of the Iranian menace, and most effectively persuade Americans – and responsible players in the international community – to stop the mullahs before it’s too late.

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Arabs waiting for Obama

Roee Nahmias presents Arab world’s view on American elections, Mideastern hopes for change

04.11.08, 00:5

On the eve of the US elections, the Arab world is also focusing on developments across the Atlantic. The views within the Arab world are well known, firm, and clear: The overwhelming majority aspires for the victory of Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Random online polls attest to this, the talkbackers declare this openly, and official spokespeople stress this explicitly.
One of them is Syria’s Information Minister Mohsen Bilal. In an interview with official Syrian television last week, Bilal did not hide his country’s clear stance. “After November 4th, we hope to see a change in the US. We hope to see the new America, the different America,” he said. The interviewer asked which candidate he was referring to, and Bilal responded: “The candidate that will bring change.” His intention was clear.

If anyone had any doubts, it would be enough to see the coverage of the two candidates by Syria’s media. Obama’s lead in the polls is prominently presented, alongside reports of McCain’s failures. This is the essence of the message. The Arab Middle East, and this is particularly true in respect to Mideastern leaders, aspires for an Obama victory.
The true fear of those regimes during the tenure of outgoing President George W. Bush stemmed from that very same word: Change – yet in a different context. These leaders heard President Bush formulating and promoting a vigorous foreign policy in the wake of September 11th. The aim of this neo-conservative policy was to reorder the Middle East and bring Western-style democracy to it, as this was seen as the only way to resolve the root of all problems.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq proved to Arab leaders that the White House is determined to carry out this policy, even by force. Saddam Hussein’s toppling within a few days was truly stunning. Arab leaders feared this would be the faith of the next Arab president who dares challenge America’s plans. Presidents and kings started to sweat.

Ever since then, the American army became entangled in the Iraqi quagmire, the threats of striking Iran were replaced (for the time being) by sanctions and diplomacy, and Bush convened the Annapolis Conference and moderated his tone – yet the fears persisted. John McCain is perceived as someone who may continue Bush’s policy, and possibly even boost it.
Arab leaders were of course revolted by the idea that an external element will teach them about democracy while using force, thereby boosting all radical movements – just as happened in the Palestinian Authority with Hamas. Egypt was quick to use this example and challenge the Americans on several occasions: Do you want a new and democratic Middle East? This is what you’ll get in our place. This, in essence, is the main reason for the Arab leaders’ reservations vis-à-vis McCain and support for Obama.
‘All of them are enemies of Islam’

However, not everyone backs Obama, even when it comes to opinion pieces. Columnist Saad Bin Tafla did not hide these sentiments in an article published by the London-based al-Sharq al-Awsat. He wrote that McCain is better for the Arabs than Obama for several reasons: McCain is older, and would be interested in leaving his mark on history in his first term in office, by ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Obama, who is only in his 40s, will mostly be concerned with being reelected; this may even prompt him to favor Israel, in order to dismiss reports about his Islamic roots and woo the Jewish vote en route to reelection.

However, these articles are rare, and Obama enjoys broad support for various reasons. First, the Arab world feels that the situation cannot get any worse, and that any president would be better than Bush, who led a crusade against the Arab Mideast. Curiously enough, similar sentiments surfaced eight years ago as well. Back then, the sense was that no president can be more sympathetic to Israel than Bill Clinton, and therefore it would be better to see the isolationist George W. Bush elected. Does anyone even remember this now?
Another reason for the support for Obama is sociological-emotional: Barak Hussein Obama, who cannot hide his skin color and origins, is perceived as someone who may be able to understand the distress faced by the Arab world and African nations, both in humane and cultural terms. He is perceived as someone who “saw the Third World” and would therefore be better than “General McCain,” who is perceived as a military leader and Bush’s successor.
However, there is also a fairly large camp of anxious Arabs, who do not believe the post-Bush America, and fear that all the vague declarations made during the elections campaign do not reflect what’s in store. This camp believes that there is no significant difference between Obama and McCain, and that no genuine change is expected, at least in respect to America’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East. “All of them are enemies of the Arabs and Islam,” countless talkbackers write.
One way or another, nobody will remain indifferent to Tuesday’s elections. The major satellite channels have already embarked on special broadcasts, websites and the press have been extensively covering the campaign for a while now, and it appears that the excitement grows as the hours go by. Will Obama bring change? Millions of people in the Middle East cannot wait for an answer.

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