We will find out in coming months whether the second term of the Obama administration will herald any significant changes in United States policies in the Middle East. Four main issues should be monitored for any signs of change: the Palestine-Israel and wider Arab-Israeli conflicts; tensions with Iran; the Arab uprisings, revolutions, and constitutional transformations; and socio-economic conditions across the region.
Each of these issues is important in itself. However, viewed from Washington they often get conflated and confused, so American government responses to the various Arab uprisings, for example, often are shaped by officials’ concerns about Iran and Israel.
On a short visit to Washington this week where I had discussions with specialists on the Middle East, my sense is that little has changed in the U.S. capital in the past two years. While the ordinary men and women of the Arab world have launched the most dramatic and consequential change ever in the political configuration of their region, officials and experts in Washington appear to be living in the past, intellectually and politically immobilized, pursuing more or less the same policies of the past several decades.
For example, the bizarre performance of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing last week suggests that Israeli concerns will often assume greater importance among many American congressmen and women than American concerns – an unusual reality, for sure, but also a consistent one in American political life.
We must wait to discern any adjustments in Obama administration attitudes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, which I do not expect to materialize. Attitudes to, and negotiations with, Iran are likely to change gradually this year, with perhaps direct U.S.-Iranian negotiations complementing the existing P5+1 talks that have inched along without any real agreements or de-escalation of tensions. But progress in negotiations with Iran is expected now that the American elections are over, and both sides have absorbed the failure of their previous positions.
So the most important issue for now is whether Washington will evolve its responses to the ongoing Arab uprisings and constitutional transformations. There is no evidence for any significant changes ahead, which would be a great pity, because the profound nature, extent and duration of the continuing uprisings and transformations offer the best opportunity for a constructive reconfiguration of American-Arab relations since Woodrow Wilson in 1918 articulated his 14 Points and the American commitment to promoting democracy and national self-determination.
That is because the values, behavior, and aspirations of the millions of Arabs fighting for their freedom and democracy provide a rare opportunity for an unprecedented and close alignment between the values and policies of both the American and Arab people. Constitutionalism, the rule of law, republicanism, respect for human rights, pluralism and other such core elements in ongoing Arab political reconfigurations should resonate deeply with Americans, who claim that their country seeks to promote these democratic values around the world.
We do not have clear evidence that the American people and government actually believe that the principle of “the consent of the governed” that is so eloquently enshrined in their Declaration of Independence and Constitution is a God-given right of all peoples across the world. That is because American policies in some foreign countries do not promote the consent of the governed, but rather the rule of oligarchs and dictators. Were the people and government of the United States to put their policy where their mouth is, they would respond to the Arab uprisings more forcefully and consistently.
This in turn would spark a new set of mutually constructive American-Arab relationships that would not only benefit both sides. It could instigate enormous changes in global political and socio-economic conditions, if, say, American-Arab comity were to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, reduce tensions with Iran, and potentially launch a mind-boggling historic recalibration of Turkish-Arab-Iranian-Israeli ties, for the benefit of all.
My suggestion for starting to move in this direction at the start of the second Obama administration is for the United States to engage with democratizing Arab populations by adopting policies that are driven by three core principles: (a) mutual respect that truly allows governments to hear the views of others and act on the basis of core strategic interests that respond to all sides’ concerns, rights and aspirations; (b) the application of the rule to all in the region, which mainly includes international law as it pertains to the behavior of Arabs, Israelis, Iranians, and Anglo-American armies and drones; and, (c) engaging indigenous actors in the Middle East first and foremost on the basis of their legitimacy in the eyes of their own citizenry and prevailing global norms, rather than deciding whom to engage on the basis of pro-Israeli and anti-Islamic frenzy among a small circle of Washington wild men and women.
I am dreaming, I know, but America is a land where many dreams come true, and great things happen when sovereignty is vested in the citizenry.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. You can follow him on twitter @RamiKhouri.