Obama Needs to Turn Up the Heat

By George S. Hishmeh

US President Barack Obama’s maiden venture into foreign policy earlier this month earned him high marks from many, but also ruffled the feathers of icons of the American neoconservative movement, which had its heyday during the just-concluded tenure of George W. Bush.

Wherever he went on his first visit overseas, he chose to knock on doors gently and warmly, particularly in Turkey, where he declared that the United States is not at war with the Muslim world.

And on his return to Washington, he turned his attention to his closest Communist neighbor, Cuba, which has been ostracized by Americans for 50 years and, as one paper put it, endured "the most stringent Bush-era restrictions on trade, travel and remittances". Obama immediately lifted some of these restrictions in what The Washington Times saw as "heading off a potential issue of contention" at a major hemispheric summit later this week in Trinidad and Tobago. Cuban-Americans can now visit and send money to their families on the island, but the trade embargo remains – despite its failure to bring down the regime there.

The young president is treading softly and his remarks in Europe, Turkey and Iraq, as well as those referring to Cuba, have raised a glimmer of hope that we will see no more sabre-rattling from the US and ugly talk of an ‘axis of evil’ or that ‘all options are on the table’, implying America’s readiness to wage war if any nation does not succumb to its wishes.

Obama’s pronouncements this month were not earth-shattering, but they were helpful in putting the US on the right track with foreign governments. For example, The New York Times saw him "recalibrating America’s relations with the Islamic world" and steering away "from the poisonous post-9/11 clash of civilizations mythology that drove so much of [Bush’s] rhetoric and disastrous policy".

But before Americans can expect any reciprocal gestures from the governments Obama spoke with, there is no doubt that more positive and immediate action is still needed from Washington. This is the view of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and also that of many Arab leaders. The Iranians are undoubtedly pleased with America’s volte-face, whereby the Obama administration announced its readiness to participate regularly with other major powers in negotiating with Tehran over its nuclear program.

"Pursuing very careful engagement on a range of issues that affect our interests and the interests of the world with Iran makes sense," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had said. "There’s nothing more important than trying to convince Iran to cease its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon."

Ahmadinejad reacted positively, saying the American change "should be in action, not in words".

But the Obama administration has another related and immediate problem on its hands: the "ill-advised" views, as US Vice President John Biden described them, of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which surfaced in a US magazine last month. Netanyahu revealed that his government is weighing a military option against Iran if it pursues development of nuclear weapons. And last week, Israeli President Shimon Peres joined the chorus in an Israeli radio interview.

"Israel, as it has for nearly two decades, is trying to lock in American support and avoid any disadvantageous change in the Middle Eastern balance of power, now overwhelmingly tilted in [Israel’s] favor," wrote Roger Cohen in The New York Times, "by portraying Iran as a monstrous pariah state bent on imminent nuclear war."

Israel’s war-mongering prompted Iran to file a complaint last Tuesday with the UN Security Council to respond firmly to what it called Israel’s "unlawful and insolent" threats against Iranian nuclear installations.

As much as the Iranian situation will likely dominate the talks between Obama and Netanyahu when he visits the US next month, the Israeli prime minister will be beaten to the punch by Jordanian King Abdullah Bin Al Hussain, who is due to meet the American president on Tuesday. The Arab king’s purpose is to focus on efforts to reach a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, as well as comprehensive peace in the region.

Whether Obama can prevent the Israeli government from taking any wild action against Iran remains to be seen. But the Israeli record in this respect is not very reassuring. In 1981, the Israeli air force bombed and heavily damaged Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. Last year, it bombed a suspected Syrian reactor under construction and in January it strafed tribesmen in Sudan it suspected of smuggling weapons to the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Obama has no choice but to turn up the heat.

– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: ghishmeh@gulfnews.com.

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