On January 20, 2010, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Ibrahim Helal, director of editorial development at the Al Jazeera Network, Ambassador Martin Indyk, vice president and director of Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings, Ahmed Moussalli, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, and Kenneth Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings to assess the Obama administration’s policy toward Muslim-majority states and communities a year to the day that President Obama entered office. The speakers—two American Brookings scholars and two prominent Arab thought-leaders—presented a range of views on pressing issues such as al Qaeda, the Arab-Israeli peace process, the war in Afghanistan, the future of Iran and Iraq, and prospects for democratic reform in the region. The event, which was followed by a question and answer session, was moderated by Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and was attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic and media communities.
Martin Indyk opened the sessions with remarks on the status of the peace process. He noted that “President Obama got off to a good start in the Middle East” with his historic June speech in Cairo, which was well received in the Arab world. The President also came into office with an appreciation for how important the Palestinian question is to the relationship between the United States and the Muslim-majority states and communities. Additionally, Indyk pointed out that the appointment of George Mitchell (an Arab American)_ as special envoy for Middle East peace gave the administration credibility. However, he argued that President Obama had been “mugged by reality” on the ground: the election of a right wing Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a deeply divided Palestinian polity with weak leadership, and Arab leaders unwilling to advance the Arab Initiative. A year into the administration, final status negotiations are nowhere in sight. Although Netanyahu conceded a freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank in December, settlement activity in Jerusalem continues.
Indyk held that at the mark of the Obama administration’s one year anniversary, Arabs are disappointed with the United States. However, despite the myriad issues facing the region and the various challenges that confront President Obama, Indyk remained optimistic about the future, noting some forward movement including Netanyahu’s endorsement of “the objective of an independent Palestinian state” and stated that “The terms of reference for…the final status negotiations, have been all but agreed by both sides.” Indyk remarked that the Obama administration experienced a steep learning curve during its first year but has managed to lay the groundwork for progress; thus, it is too early to dismiss the administration’s efforts to repair relations with the Muslim-majority states and communities.
Ken Pollack provided an overview of the U.S. administration’s policies toward Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. He began by crediting Obama with adopting a more positive tone toward the Muslims around the world and engaging in robust diplomacy globally, in particular China, Russia, and Iran. Pollack noted that Iran has so far repudiated diplomatic overtures; while China and Russia are clamping down on Iran, the likelihood of the United Nations imposing “meaningful sanctions” on Iran is low. Pollack indicated that there is a by some that the administration is sacrificing support of the Iranian opposition in hopes of a nuclear deal with the regime. Meanwhile, in Iraq, there has been significant progress with Obama drawing down troop levels and Iraqis passing a long awaited election law passed. That said, the administration’s approach to Iraq remains inconsistent, reserving involvement for times of crisis, which could alienate Iraqis who depend on U.S. support. On the “war on terrorism,” Pollack observed that the Obama administration, to its credit, has diverged from its predecessor in its handling of the terrorist threat; but it has not yet articulated a comprehensive and effective strategy to do so. With regard to the emergent issues in Yemen, Pollack said “complex internal problems have created a space in which… terrorist groups have been able to take root and are now starting to export terrorism abroad. ”
Declaring that he was representing an Arab point of view and not Al Jazeera, Ibrahim Helal said that Arabs are largely disappointed with the Obama administration. Helal prefaced his critique by commending the Administration’s change in rhetoric, such as shifting from a “war against terrorism” to a “war against terrorists” as well as “the commitment from Obama himself to put American values before American interests.” Nevertheless, Helal expressed deep skepticism about the administration’s tangible inroads in the Muslim world. In the minds of Arabs and Muslims, two issues seem to come up regarding the U.S. administration: the first is the escalation in the “war against Muslims” in Pakistan with increased drone activity and, secondly, a deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Helal bemoaned the fact that even after George Mitchell’s eight visits in the region, the peace process remains at a standstill. He also warned that al Qaeda is winning the war on terrorism by gaining more recruits and fighting on more fronts.
Ahmad Moussalli added that though President Obama appears well-intentioned, he faces structural problems that hinder the implementation of his foreign policy agenda. He noted that the President must first find a way to manage the banking system, powerful lobbies, corporations, and the military industrial complex before he can carry out his vision for change. Moussalli cited internal strife in Iraq, Palestinian state that had become more “militarized,” and the strong and resilient tribal system in Yemen as major barriers that stand in the way of peace and stability in the region. Echoing Helal, Moussalli also declared the war on al Qaeda a failure, because al Qaeda was expanding. In the end, Moussalli pointed out that President Obama is still only a “freshman” and that his overall vision of a more peaceful Middle East remains a possibility. Moussalli concluded on an interesting note: “Questions like why can Israel have nuclear weapons and not Iran may sound idealistic in DC, but these questions turn into movements on the ground [in the Middle East].”
Following the panel’s remarks, a lively question and answer period covered a range of topics from democratization in the Middle East to the potential for a new American isolationism. For example, one questioner inquired why the Obama Administration has failed to more actively support democratic reform, citing that Obama elected to address the Muslim around the world from Egypt—a state which has made limited democratic advances. In response, Ken Pollack explained that the Obama administration was trying to distance itself from the Bush administration’s approach to emphasizing democracy promotion was a major theme during the Bush era, the Obama administration wished to distance itself from such an approach; this, he argued, is not a good course of action. Indyk added that, despite a drop in democracy rhetoric, the Obama administration increased civil society funding by about 20 percent. Another audience member asked about the possibility of the United States drawing inward to focus on major domestic issues; the panelists agreed that U.S. isolationism is not practical nor a viable option.