Friday, August 29, 2008

Democrats debate the Middle East

Sarah Brown in Denver
Al Jazeera

"Nothing has worked."

That was the blunt assessment of one contributor at a policy forum at the Democratic convention in Denver on the US record in the Middle East. On Wednesday the New America Foundation, a public policy think tank, sponsored a forum dedicated to answering one question: How can the next president make the Middle East irrelevant?

Unsurprisingly, the consensus amongst those attending was that should the Democrats win the White House in November a major overhaul in policy and strategy is needed.

Greg Craig, the senior national security adviser on Barack Obama's campaign, told the forum that Obama's background would prove a strength when dealing with Iran, whose nuclear program has sparked a stand-off with Western powers.

"How will Iran deal with Obama? They will find him hard to demonise or put in a convenient box. I think we would come out in good shape to engage with the situation," he said.

In focus

In-depth coverage of the US election
As for Iraq, Craig reiterated the Obama camp line of strategic withdrawal, arguing "what is needed is energy and intelligence to get out in such a fashion that we don’t leave chaos behind".

John Kerry, senator for the state of Massachusetts and the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, echoed Craig's sentiments in his own keynote speech.

"I have never seen our [US] position this compromised, our credibility tarnished … and a situation as complex as it is now," he said, in a reference to the perceived attitudes of the Bush administration.

"We have a singular capacity to see other countries and their problems through our lens alone. We cannot tell people what to do."

'Global counter-insurgency'

Kerry, who is reported to be angling for a role as secretary of state under Obama, was quick to dismiss the Bush administration's entire concept of the "war on terror", calling it a "gross misnomer" which did not define what he called a "global counter-insurgency".

The US faces a new challenge
from Iran [GALLO/GETTY]
He called for understanding in three key areas – encouraging and fostering religious understanding, understanding the tribal underpinnings of the Middle East, and assuaging the economic crisis gripping the region as unemployment surges and disaffection gives rise to extremism.

Obama, he said, understood the need for a foreign policy "based on values...and to reach out in way that defuses the tinderbox that has been created by this administration".

"We have to be viewed as a fair broker," he said.

But he sounded a note of caution, warning against "exaggerated expectations and naivete" and said a strong stand should be adopted against Iran.

"[We cannot have] namby pamby do-goodism," he said regarding Iran. "There is a standard to be held and there are tougher sanctions to be put in place.

Of course this is nothing new, and many question whether an Obama administration can really offer anything new over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran and the political situation in Lebanon

Out of ideas?

The issue of military action remains thorny for Democrats, many of whom fear they will be perceived as weak or unpatriotic if they do not support such moves in the event of a crisis.

However, Ann-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson school of public and international affairs at Princeton university in New Jersey, told the forum that the US should embrace "non-violent dispute resolution" and reaffirm their commitments to both international law – such as the Geneva conventions – and the UN, arguing that US authority was compromised when redress was not sought through legitimate international channel.

However, despite such weighty promises, the question of whether Obama will deliver on such matters should he win office remains.

Obama's choice of Biden as a vice-presidential running mate was seen by some critics as a tacit admission that he lacked sufficient experience in the area.

And while speakers at Wednesday’s forum were fulsome with grand ideas, bestowing praise for Obama and expressing confidence in a better foreign policy in a Democratic administration, there was a distinct lack of solid, detailed strategy.

Whether or not they are being kept under close wraps for any new administration remains to be seen.

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