Pity the President. Barack Obama is caught in a massive foreign policy mess. The aftermath of the vote at the United Nations on Palestinian statehood will incur a heavy political cost on the President and mark one of the first symptoms of America’s Declining Syndrome in the region.
Mahmood Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), pushed the question of Palestinian statehood into the United Nations General Assembly. American and Israeli diplomats have failed in their attempts to dissuade the PA from bringing the vote forward and in discouraging other nations’ support for the vote. The issue will now be escalated by American vetoes and expected funding cuts to the PA.
The merits of Palestinian statehood or support for Israel will not be discussed in this article. However, the wider implications of the September 20 vote will be examined. The vote, veto and expected U.S. funding cut to the PA will open the gates of history as a new world takes shape in the 21st century and mark the beginning of the end of clear American leadership in the region.
Obama’s political cost
Obama’s problem lies in his relatively centrist approach to a highly polarized and domestic foreign policy issue. Obama’s weakness on the matter is no secret: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows it, the GOP knows it, and the world knows it. The combination of Obama’s inheritance of Bush 43’s legacy of unfailing support for Israel and Likud’s current motley coalition government do not leave Obama with many options.
Obama’s vulnerability was exposed by two notable incidents. The first was the announcement of settlement expansion right before Vice President Biden was about to visit Israel. The second incident was Netanyahu’s speech to Congress (while the President was out of the country) after Obama suggested using the 1967 borders as a starting point for peace negotiations. The Israeli Prime Minister’s speech was widely regarded as playing into American domestic politics and as a major marker in the ever-increasing “domestification” of the issue in America.
The President will never be seen as “pro-Israel” enough by the right and could never build up a strong enough coalition on the political left to push the Israelis into stopping a settlement expansion, let alone a peace settlement. Obama’s fragility becomes apparent when considering that many Evangelical voters will never support him even if he is seen as “pro-Israel” because of their opposition to Democrats’ social policies. The coalition of Obama supporters on the left prove to be shifting sands: a number of voters in key districts see Israel as a key voting issue. The election of Republican Bob Turner in New York’s 9th District, the first Republican to hold the seat since the 1920s, demonstrates the fragility of democratic support in areas like Florida and New York. The Republicans know they can win big in these areas by running solidly pro-Israel candidates.
The inability of any U.S. Administration to chart a truly independent foreign policy in the regions will constrain any realist analysis of U.S. national interest in the region. When a foreign policy issue gets drawn into the ideological brawl that is domestic U.S. politics a politician’s choices become limited to producing politically expedient sound bites and sexy photo ops.
America’s Declining Syndrome:
The “domestification” of the Israel-Palestine issue in America when combined with the recently blooming Arab Spring will hasten the decline of American influence in the Middle East. The United States will lose credibility amongst many new governments in the region who are unwilling to overlook as much as past regimes; she will also become a less-effective mediator. The Arab Spring of 2011 has proved a game-changer in the region and being seen as firmly in one camp may throw a stumbling block in front of American efforts to court the new governments.
Emerging Players: The Neo-Non-Aligned Movement (NNAM)
The Non-Aligned Movement is back. This time it is a credible challenger to the international heavyweights. The last few years have witnessed the emergence of the BRICs, now better termed the “Neo-Non-Aligned Movement” with the inclusion of South Africa and Turkey. These players now possess much diplomatic capital with increasing amounts of human and financial capital to act as major investors.
The NNAM have three main elements: pragmatism over ideology or religion, investment-led development with strong national policies and a hope of charting a pragmatic and independent path to success. In the Middle East, they have the luxury of being viewed independent of western-led expeditions, and they are pragmatic and willing to negotiate with everyone. Their preoccupation with stability and less-than-perfect (or non-existent) democratic systems make them a natural fit with emerging governments sharing many of the same concerns.
The examples of Turkey and China should serve as harbingers of things to come for all NNAM members. In the last five years, these emerging titans have expanded their influence in the region exponentially as their companies go abroad and invest. Their diplomats sign security deals and their governments fund infrastructure projects. The emerging security alliance between Egypt and Turkey may likely mean that the United States and Israel find themselves someday surrounded by a ‘BRIC’ wall.
Prospects for the future:
Right or wrong increase of American support for Israel will have its costs. The Arab Spring is changing the last of the Cold-War game in the region. Meanwhile, American defence budgets will eventually be slashed, while U.S. companies and diplomats, if not unwelcome, will become lesser players in many new regimes in the region. In short, American leadership in the Middle East is in decline leaving a vacuum of influence ready for the NNAM to fill.