13/03/2009

Dialogue and multilateralism

 » To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. » The U.S. president was speaking at his inauguration on 20 January. Today this « new way forward » takes shape and gets an encouraging welcome in the Middle East.

The foundations of Barack Obama’s Middle East policy appear to be laid. The new U.S. administration is firmly based on the motto of dialogue: dialogue with Iran, with Syria, even with moderate Taliban in Afghanistan. Idealistic or realistic, these policy choices are questionable but seem to fundamentally change the situation.

And as idealist, they only have the appearance because this American demonstration of goodwill involves coercive measures, the United States applying in this what Denis Ross calls policy of « the bigger stick and the bigger carrot. » In brief, the hand to countries in the Middle East is therefore an invitation to take or leave, but the one who refuses to cooperate as to look out.

Barack Obama makes also a return to multilateralism, encouraging Europe to become more involved in the region, particularly in Afghanistan underlying the responsibility of all to end the chaos reigning in that country. But the tone adopted by Joe Biden during his visit to Brussels was more demanding than conciliatory. In response to the region, the European Union has requested the prior proof of a total change of the American strategy.

But Europeans are not alone in being sceptical about the new Middle East policy from the White House. The fact that the American efforts are focused on the axis Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan raised the concerns of the Palestinians about the involvement of the United States in the peace process. This fear is justifiable, even if we could also understand the U.S. strategy as an attempt to stabilize the periphery to establish the context of a sustainable peace process in the Middle East. Attention, however not to succumb to the theory of GW Bush saying that « the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad. »

Dialogue and multilateralism, but also voluntarism therefore characterize the first steps of Barack Obama in the Middle East. But the policy of his predecessor has left deep traces, and the new U.S. administration will have to consider them to go forward.

N.J.O.