The Forces Foreclosing Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy Options

Bush Senior, Bush Jr, Obama, Clinton. Image: The White House. See...
Image: The White House. See… President Bush Welcomes President-Elect Obama

While Barack Obama’s attention has been focused almost entirely on the plight of the US economy, the election outcomes in three key foreign countries will be shaping his foreign policy options this year – once he gets time to consider them. In Israel, the Labor Party of Ehud Barak will decide on Tuesday whether to take up an offer from Benjamin Netanyahu to join his hard right coalition. Then, Iran goes to the polls on June 12, and the term of Afghanistan leader Hamid Karzai runs out on May 21, with fresh elections to be held in August. All pose risks to any Obama inclination to chart a new foreign policy direction.


Benjamin Netanyahu currently heads a motley group of far right allies and extremist religious parties, and he needs Labor to give his government even a semblance of moderation and inclusiveness. In the past, Netanyahu’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has advocated bombing the Aswan Dam – which still rankles with the Egyptians enough for them to be now starting to boycott diplomatic events in the region where Lieberman is present.

Also, as Robert Fisk has just pointed out, Lieberman has urged the drowning of Palestinians in the Dead Sea and the execution of Israeli Palestinians who talked to Hamas. What a guy.

Clearly then, Labor is needed as the figleaf on Netanyahu’s current band of fanatical nutters – and to that end, Barak is being offered the carrot of his old job as Defence Minister and four other ministries as well. The trouble is, he has stitched up this deal with Netanyahu while lying to his party that he was doing so, and the offer is splitting the party down the middle. A petition has just been launched to remove Barak as Labor leader.

Moreover, Labour MP Shelly Yachimovich – who had been offered the Industry and Trade portfolio – has pointed out to the Ha’aretz newspaper that Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party had already refused to be Netanyahu’s stooge, so why should Labor now step into the role :

“Labor members have an iron will, as well as a value system opposed to that of Netanyahu and Lieberman,” she said. “If Kadima was wise enough to steer clear of this government, there is no reason Labor should do otherwise.”

Not that Livni has much else to be proud of. The fallout from the Gaza onslaught in January that she and Barak orchestrated continues, with revelations that the Israeli forces were allowed to kill civilians because of the ‘lax’rules of engagement that were set and followed. The following horrific summary carried by Ha’aretz comes from the testimonies of Israeli soldiers :

“There was a house with a family inside …. We put them in a room. Later we left the house and another platoon entered it, and a few days after that there was an order to release the family. They had set up positions upstairs. There was a sniper position on the roof,” the soldier said.

“The platoon commander let the family go and told them to go to the right. One mother and her two children didn’t understand and went to the left, but they forgot to tell the sharpshooter on the roof they had let them go and it was okay, and he should hold his fire and he … he did what he was supposed to, like he was following his orders.”

According to the squad leader: “The sharpshooter saw a woman and children approaching him, closer than the lines he was told no one should pass. He shot them straight away. In any case, what happened is that in the end he killed them.

“I don’t think he felt too bad about it, because after all, as far as he was concerned, he did his job according to the orders he was given. And the atmosphere in general, from what I understood from most of my men who I talked to … I don’t know how to describe it …. The lives of Palestinians, let’s say, is something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers…”

An atmosphere where the lives of Palestinians are held to be ‘ very, very less important’ than the lives of Israeli soldiers. Not that the lives of those soldiers would seem to have been in danger from a running woman and her two children, or in this situation :

Another squad leader from the same brigade told of an incident where the company commander ordered that an elderly Palestinian woman be shot and killed; she was walking on a road about 100 meters from a house the company had commandeered.

The squad leader said he argued with his commander over the permissive rules of engagement that allowed the clearing out of houses by shooting without warning the residents beforehand. After the orders were changed, the squad leader’s soldiers complained that “we should kill everyone there [in the center of Gaza]. Everyone there is a terrorist.”

So on Tuesday, Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister who oversaw such crimes, will find out whether his party will allow him to become the balancing voice of moderation in the new Israeli government. Plainly, Obama is going to have his work cut out working with this murderous bunch.


Iran goes to the polls on June 12, in a climate where the US is being urged to take military action against it. There are few forces within the Obama administration willing to provide a check on Israel.

As Fisk says, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently reacted to the demolition of 1,000 Palestinian homes with the mild observation that such actions are ‘unhelpful.’ The Obama administration has just appointed Dennis Ross to be its special envoy to the Persian Gulf, an appointment that Iran has good reason to view as an unfriendly act:

Professor William Beeman, a specialist in Middle East Studies at the University of Minnesota, thinks Mr. Ross’ anti-Iran background could be an obstacle to initiating constructive talks. “It is widely known that he is unacceptable to Iran, and no one believes that he can advance U.S.-Iranian relations,” Prof. Beeman said, adding that, “He is signatory to the Project for a New American Century, which called for the invasion of Iraq in the 1990s, and a consultant to the AIPAC-supported Washington Institute for Near East Policy.”

The Obama administration contains many such Middle East hawks. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for instance, volunteered to fight for Israel in the first Gulf War, and in 2006, Emanuel denounced the newly elected Iraqi Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki for describing Israel’s attack on Lebanon as an act of aggression, and for that reason, Emanuel called on al-Maliki to abandon his planned address to the US Congress.

In other words, if Obama wants to improve relations with Iran, he will have to ignore and drive around many of his own leading advisers to do so. He may in fact, have to engage directly with Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayotallah Ali Khamenei. There are some hopeful signs. The June 12 election will put the career of the populist Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the line, and could thus remove from power at least one incendiary excuse for waging war in the region.

The campaign has just got tougher for Ahmadinejad. During the past week, the reformist opposition has coalesced behind Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was the former hardline president during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Other liberal contenders, such as the widely respected but ineffectual Mohammed Khatami have withdrawn from the race, to avoid splitting the liberal vote. By not running, Khatami has made it more likely that Ahmadinejad will, at the very least, be forced into a run-off rematch, after the June 12 vote.

Mousavi poses a genuine threat. His past reputation as a hardliner means he could siphon off some of Ahmadinejad’s followers.More to the point, he holds liberal, reformist views on running the economy – which is one area where Ahmadinejad has been roundly criticized by the clerical Establishment.

If elected, Mousavi would resume the relationship he had with Khamenei in the 1980s. He would hwoever, be no more likely than Ahmadinejad to back down on Iran’s nuclear programme. Yet without Ahmadinehad’s fiery rhetoric to provide an excuse, the US and Israel would struggle to portray that programme as a necessary reason for war. Israel, after all, already has nuclear weapons in contravention of the UN’s anti- proliferation goals, and so has highly unstable Pakistan.

Below the radar, there is another Middle East power that is continuing to embark on a huge arms buying spree. The tiny United Arab Emirates have spent over $US11 billion on defence since 2000 – without so much as raising an eyebrow in Washington. As Foreign Policy magazine notes in a recent post:

Though the actual numbers are difficult to pin down… according to this Congressional Research Service report, the Emirates purchased a total of $11.5 billion in defense sales and services from the United States from 2000-2007. A good chunk of this went to the purchase of the F-16s I discussed in yesterday’s post — the 80 F-16s along with the more than 60 Mirage 2000 fighters give the Emirates more advanced fighter planes than Iran.

So…it is our side in the Middle East, and not Iran, that has been spending the really big bucks on armaments. Collectively, the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — are expected to spend around 59 billion dollars on defence in 2009, according to a January report by US consultants Forecast International.

Iran remains the target, though. Unfortunately, Obama is going to have his work cut out to avoid having a war against Iran presented as a fait accompli to him, by his friends and allies.


Reportedly, Hamid Karzai wanted the Afghan election brought forward from August to April, on constitutional grounds – and to allow him to use the perks of office to rig the campaign and the results. Typical of an administration that has frittered away its initial goodwill with a consistent record of corruption, cronyism, and ineptitude.

The election campaign will be conducted against a backdrop of the Obama administration seeking to repeat its Iraqi strategy – that is, of creating a surge of troop numbers and then engaging with the elements of the Taliban insurgency willing to being bought off, and using them against the foreign fighters and the hardliners.

The trouble is, even US military commanders have been saying the Iraq ‘surge’ strategy won’t work in Afghanistan.

And the Iraqi ‘success’ in this respect is highly dubious, in any case. Juan Cole, on his excellent site, has just summarized the “success’ that Dick Cheney recently claimed to have achieved in Iraq and it does not make for pretty reading.

Politically, as Cole indicates, the Iraqi invasion in March 2003 has installed a puppet regime in Baghdad that is dependent on the Shi’ite clerics in Teheran. Socially, massive ethnic cleansing has been carried out in Baghdad. An estimated four million people out of a population of 27 million have been left homeless either inside Iraq, or as increasingly destitute refugees in Jordan and Syria.

Upwards of a million Iraqis are estimated to have been killed in the past six years, making widows of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women, and leaving them without any means of support. The Iraqi economy is in ruins. Oh, and some $32 billion in reconstruction aid seems to have simply disappeared without trace – incidentally, leaving the water in Baghdad still undrinkable, six years on.

But back to Afghanistan, where the election is likely to be used as the excuse to draw more foreign countries and their troops into the morass. New Zealand can expect to be included on the invitation list. Already, the UN is calling for more foreign troops to assist the election process in Afghanistan.

Australia has just offered to donate $3 million to help make the elections a success, and wished them the best of luck. It has also conceded that it has been asked to send more troops so that request to New Zealand cannot be far behind. In all likelihood, little Johnny Key is already polishing his boots.

Obama’s tentative offers to negotiate with the Taliban marks an attempt to split off some of the four different “Taliban’ factions – one of which includes the veteran warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyr – and use them against the ‘old” Taliban of the Pashtuns, headed by Mullah Omar. Which only underlines the fact that the Pashtun grievances against the Kabul government will not abate, even if Karzai is replaced in August by another figurehead.

The underlying reality is that a political solution cannot be imposed on Afghanistan by foreign forces – history proves that – and Obama will soon have to decide what exactly is the limited and winnable military goal that he is pursuing in Afghanistan, and how quickly he can declare victory over it, and leave.

Locke and the SIS

Finally, No Right Turn has provided a highly useful conclusion to the sorry saga of the SIS spying on Greens MP Keith Locke. As NRT points out, Paul Neazor, the SIS Inspector – General, did not exactly over-exert himself in his recent investigation into the SIS files, and in his subsequent report to Prime Minister John Key.

Here is the relevant quote, from the Neazor report:

“It would be idle to suggest that there is not information held by the Service in respect of some people who may have become Members of Parliament. The file or collection may exist for various reasons – because the Member was once considered to be of security interest, or was subject to vetting…. I have not looked at any apart from what was released to Mr Locke, so I do not know how many such files there are, how old they are, or what stage of the Member’s life they might relate to. Mr Locke has suggested that a number of questions about these files should be considered. I do not think it is necessary to go into them to deal with the terms of reference I have been given. If a member wants to know if there is a file relating to him or her, the same recourse Mr Locke had is available.

That is incredibly, incredibly weak. It goes to show, as NRT indicates, how little enthusiasm the public’s watchdog on the SIS felt for the task at hand. “ Neazor was unwilling to investigate further to determine whether the surveillance was innocent or justified, or even how widespread it was (or is). And this guy is meant to be our check and balance on the SIS? This “watchdog” isn’t just blind – they’re in bed with the people they’re supposed to be watching! “

Right on the money. Neazor is no different in that respect to his predecessor. In late 2003, I did an interview with the previous SIS Inspector-General Laurie Greig, and a very similar exchange occurred:

Greig has a watchdog role in this process. How does he maintain his arm’s length distance from the security services? How does he avoid capture?

“I don’t know,” Greig replies, again apparently nonplussed. “How do you avoid capture? I don’t know. I’m very conscious of [the risk of] being captured, as it were.” …The agencies have always been very open with him, he finds. Perhaps, I suggest, this is where having some staff might help. Has the impulse or need ever arisen to initiate his own investigation, to try to corroborate the evidence on the SIS file? “No, it hasn’t. I have never felt that was ever … y’know, necessary at any stage….”

Hopefully, the advent of Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman onto the parliamentary committee that oversees security and intelligence matters will put some bite into the process. The trouble is, Norman will be muzzled and bound by secrecy on intelligence matters from now on, so we’ll never know.


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