Do Obama’s mixed signals mark a policy shift?

WASHINGTON (IPS) - The British government has announced it will hold talks with the political wing of Lebanon’s Hizballah. The US President Barack Obama administration sent two envoys to Syria to discuss steps to improve relations. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has invited Iran to take part in a conference on the future of Afghanistan.

It looks as though the United States and Britain are trying to end the policy of exclusion and — where possible — regime change that the Bush administration and its allies once vigorously pursued against Iran and its regional allies. But how far-reaching have these changes actually been, and what do they mean for the Middle East in the months ahead?

The picture is still mixed. There are many signs that the Obama administration has not yet taken any clear decisions on Middle Eastern issues other than the important decision, announced on 27 February, that all US troops would indeed — in line with last November’s Status of Forces Agreement — be out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

But on Iran, on Syria, Hizballah, Hamas, and the Palestinian issue in general, no firm direction is yet discernible in Washington. Indeed, mixed signals continue to be heard on these issues from different portions of the Obama administration.

The existence — and some of the dynamics — of these disagreements were visible in the tussle over whether Charles (“Chas”) Freeman would be appointed director of the National Intelligence Council. Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a talented analyst of global affairs, fell afoul of the Israel lobby for criticisms he had made of Israeli policies. When lobby-influenced members of Congress challenged his appointment, the White House chose not to back him.

On Tuesday, when the White House said and did nothing to respond to his critics, Freeman withdrew from consideration for the job.

This week, too, unnamed “senior administration officials” in Washington were a lot more critical of London’s decision to engage cautiously with Hizballah than some of their — also anonymous — counterparts had been, when British Foreign Secretary David Miliband first announced the move last week.

Similarly mixed signals have emerged from within the Obama administration on the attempt to include Hamas in the Palestinians’ governing coalition. Back on 19 February, US envoy George Mitchell told US Jewish leaders that reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah would be helpful for his upcoming mediation Palestinian-Israeli mediation effort.

But at the conference held in Egypt on 2 March on rebuilding Gaza, Clinton stressed that US reconstruction aid would be delivered only to the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.

On Wednesday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs underlined that both Hamas and Hizballah would have to explicitly recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce what he termed “terrorist activities” before the administration would conduct even low-level contacts with them.

Smart diplomats could certainly find ways to square these circles — if the President wanted them to. (US Secretary of State George Schultz engaged in just such a process with the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) back in late 1988. The quiet pre-negotiation Schultz conducted then allowed Washington to start its first valuable, though short-lived, dialogue with the PLO.)

Meantime, even just the absence of any clear policy from Washington marks a shift from the stridently clear policy of exclusion that the Bush administration previously maintained against Iran and its perceived allies. This shift has allowed several key US allies in the Arab world to pursue new, more diplomatically nuanced policies toward their compatriots and neighbors.

Egypt, a large-scale recipient of US aid, has pressed ahead with its attempt to broker the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak traveled to Saudi Arabia Wednesday to take part, along with the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, in a reconciliation meeting with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad that marked a clear shift from the isolation that the strongly pro-US rulers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait tried to impose on Assad in recent years.

Already, many commentators in Lebanon are welcoming the fact that a new entente between Syria and Saudi Arabia can help ease tensions inside their own country, which holds parliamentary elections in June. Iranian-allied Hizballah has run in all of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections since 1992 and now holds 14 of the 128 seats. Hizballah and its numerous allies are expected to do well in the June elections. (Thus, Britain’s shift to political engagement makes a lot of sense.)

Much of what is driving the new moves by pro-US Arab governments to use diplomacy rather than confrontation in their dealings with members of the pro-Iranian camp is a recognition that the anti-Israeli resistance activities of Hamas or Hizballah are much more popular, including among their own citizens, than the policy of endlessly waiting for Washington to “deliver” a long-awaited peace with Israel that seems never to occur.

Hamas won considerable sympathy in the Arab world — including from Egyptians, Saudis, and Kuwaitis — for the steadfastness it showed during Israel’s recent assault on Gaza. And in 2006, Lebanon’s Hizballah won similar support from people in many Arab countries for its survival under Israeli fire.

The current moves toward inter-Arab reconciliation are also motivated by concern over the challenges the Arab world now faces from both Israel and Iran.

In Israel, the staunchly nationalistic right-wing parties won big in last month’s election. Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to announce his governing coalition within the coming days.

Analysts well-connected to the regimes in Egypt and Jordan told IPS recently that the prospect of a Netanyahu government that receives continued backing from Washington will make their own governments’ positions, as known US allies in the Arab world, very hard indeed.

Meanwhile some, but not all, Arab rulers have great concern about the increase in Iranian influence in their region. (Some concern about Tehran’s nuclear program exists, but it is far less pronounced than that entertained by Israel or the US government.)

Iran’s influence throughout the region expanded hugely the moment the US military destroyed Saddam Hussein’s virulently anti-Tehran regime in Iraq, in 2003. Since then, most pro-US Arab rulers in the Gulf region — though not Egypt, which is more distant — have come to terms with that new reality by routinely including Iran in many Gulf-wide gatherings and activities.

Thus, in recent years there has been a lot more diplomacy going on in the Muslim parts of the Middle East than the simplistic narratives of “moderates versus extremists” crafted by the Bush administration ever indicated.

But the region’s complex political system still faces pressing challenges, especially on the Palestinian issue. Will Washington support the Palestinian parties if they reach a new governing agreement? How will Washington react if Netanyahu, as expected, announces the formation of a hard-right government?

The governments and peoples of the heavily US-influenced Middle East will be watching Washington’s actions closely.

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.