Middle East studies in the News
Analysis: Obama's Tone Welcome in the Middle East, Change Needs Time [incl. Rashid Khalidi]
by Jonathan Wright
CAIRO, Nov 6 (Reuters) - The incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will make a welcome mark on the Middle East early with a new tone of dialogue and commitment to multilateral action, analysts and diplomats say.
But real change in U.S. foreign policy towards the region will take months or even years to come about as Obama feels his way through the complex conflicts which the outgoing Bush administration has created or allowed to fester.
While Arab governments see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the gravest underlying source of instability, the Obama administration is likely to put that low on its list of priorities, below Iraq and Iran for example, they said.
The Middle East as a whole will come way behind Obama's more pressing concerns at home -- stimulating the economy and unravelling the tangle of bad debt which helped create the worst global financial crisis in 80 years.
"People (in the Middle East) will have to measure their expectations... If your expectations are complete change then you are setting yourself up for disappointment," said Ezzedine Choukri-Fishere of the International Crisis Group think tank.
Walid Kazziha, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, said Obama's unusual childhood -- having an African father and living in Indonesia -- should make him more responsive to the concerns of non-Americans.
"He is more likely to be humanistic in his approach. (Republican presidential candidate John) McCain was tense and confrontational. Obama is more open," he added.
Moroccan university professor Mahdi Elmandjra said: "We can see it (the election of Obama) as a certain evolution in favour of peace as an ideal for all humanity, without discrimination of race or religion." But he added: "We must not have illusions and expect drastic change in one go."
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Centre in Beirut, said Obama, the first African-American president, brought "an initial cultural symbolic shift".
"The relationship that has developed into a very ugly and tense one between the Islamic world and the United States, that shifted just by having a person like Obama on his way to the White House," he told Reuters.
But he added: "In terms of actual policies, the changes will probably not be very quick."
In 21 months of campaigning for the presidency, Obama made very few commitments on the Middle East, other than promising to reduce the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and offering dialogue without preconditions with Iran and Syria.
In his three campaign debates with John McCain, no one ever asked them about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which turned out to be central to the foreign policy of the two previous Democratic presidents -- Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
But his policy advisers include Dennis Ross, Clinton's main Middle East mediator, whom the Palestinian side in peace talks saw as excessively pro-Israeli.
Obama's earlier political life also sheds little light on his attitudes to Middle East conflicts.
But as a leftist activist in Chicago, Obama had contacts with two prominent members of the Palestinian-American community, late comparative literature professor Edward Said and historian Rashid Khalidi -- unusual for a U.S. politician.
The Los Angeles Times in April quoted Obama as saying that his talks with these academics had been "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases".
Kazziha said: "I think the guy (Obama) deep inside, between him and himself, recognises that there is some injustice, and people like Rashid (Khalidi) have helped him to see the light."
"But he is also a first-rate politician and he is not going to burn his political base to maintain a just cause. He will have to consider his second term and who supports him in the United States domestically," he added.
The analysts said that in talks with Iraqis on U.S. withdrawal, Obama's position could mesh to some extent with the aspirations of the Iraqi government, which is seeking a withdrawal over a slightly longer timescale.
In talks with Iran over its controversial nuclear programme, Obama will face much the same dilemma as the Bush administration, which has failed to persuade the Iranians to suspend their uranium enrichment activities.
"On Iran, certainly they will wait for the Iranian elections of June 2009. I don't think they will consider anything before that," said Salem of the Carnegie Endowment.
Serious negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are likely to stay on hold at least until Israeli elections in February and the subsequent talks on forming a coalition, which can take months. The Palestinian scene is also fragmented, with presidential and parliamentary elections looming. (Additional reporting by the Reuters bureaus in Beirut, Tehran and Morocco; Editing by Dominic Evans)Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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