Between Obama, McCain how Washington will view the Middle East

By Joe Macaron, KUNA,

Washington : The Middle East awaits with anticipation the outcome of the US presidential elections to learn more about the foreign policy features of the next administration that will decide how Washington would approach challenges overseas.

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Democratic candidate Barack Obama offers a break from the policy of the incumbent President George W. Bush on major international issues, relaying a vision for a multilateral global system that would revive US diplomacy, mainly in the Middle East where the challenges remain the strategy in Iraq, how to deal with Irans nuclear ambitions and the way to approach the Arab Israel conflict.

“If an Obama administration comes to office there would certainly be a change of tone in the administration moving forward in the Middle East in the spirit of partnership,” said the senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Steven Cook in a briefing at the Foreign Press Center.

Obamas circle of advisors of foreign policy and national security includes around 300 expert, many of them were once part of former President Bill Clintons team. The roster includes names like former Secretary of State Madelaine Albright, former State Department official Susan Rice, former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and former US envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross.

Obama calls for a “responsible” gradual withdrawal from Iraq within 16 months of his potential administration and transfer security operations to Iraqi forces. One of his top advisors, Anthony Lake, wrote about Iraq in an op-ed in Boston Globe in January 2007 saying “you cannot fix another countrys politics and resolve its internal fractures primarily through military means.” “I think you would find more continuity with the McCain administration,” said Cook about how the Republican candidate John McCain would differ from the Bush administration.

Indeed, McCain seems to follow the same path in the Middle East, though he did break away before from the White House on non Middle Eastern issues like climate change, immigration and torture but he also pushed the Bush Administration to adapt in early 2007 the surge strategy in Iraq, a country he perceives as a “battleground against radical Islamists.” McCain’s team of advisors is split between moderate republicans like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former State Department official Richard Armitage in contrast with conservative hardliners such as William Kristol, Randy Scheunemann and Robert Kagan. “Iraq continues to be less and less important to our preoccupations in the Middle East but of course it is far from over,” said William Quandt, a former White House official in remarks at George Washington University and added that the United States should not play anymore the role of “arbitrator” in Iraq.

Cook argued that the next President should figure out how to deal with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the two main Arab interlocutors that “have been disoriented” in the last seven years, Cairo by its own internal developments and Riyadh by Iraqs invasion and Irans rise. He also said that the next administration should observe how the global financial crisis is going to affect the Gulf economies since “it is no secret that American financial institutions have gone to sovereign wealth funds and banks in the Gulf countries.” The lingering question is whether the next Administration would embrace early on the Arab Israeli peace process. Cook said that it is unlikely to happen, since the focus would be on Iraq and Iran instead, noting that this would also depend on the outcome of the Israeli parliamentary elections in few months that might produce a weak government.

“Arab Israeli conflict is a tricky topic for the next administration,” said Quandt, a professor at the University of Virginia who was previously involved in the Camp David peace process.

He noted that Washington must use “tough love” with Israel and “draw the line” on building settlements inside Palestinian territories. Obama made no secret his intentions to explore negotiations with Iran before shoring up any further sanctions, while McCain suggested the idea of “League of Democracies,” a forum for US allies to impose further sanctions outside the United Nations Security Council on Iran and to face up Russia.

Quandt said there was no serious discussion so far about Iran in the presidential elections and observed that even the Bush administration reached the conclusion that some sort of diplomatic channel is needed with Iran since it is reportedly ready to open an “interests section” in Tehran this month.

“We should convey a credible message to Iranian officials that regime change is not a US policy anymore,” said Quandt while arguing that Washington and Tehran share “common interests” in restoring stability in Kabul and Baghdad since both of them support the current Iraqi government.

Quandt advised that this bilateral dialogue should be “secret diplomacy” and stated that “it is not an easy conversation to have but it is possible.” Whoever is the next president, Obama or McCain, the next administration will face a Middle East with changing dynamics or unexpected problems and opportunities but a constant US strategic involvement in the region.

“The United States has very specific interests in the region that remain largely fixed: the free flow of oil out of the region, helping to ensure Israels security, confronting rogue states and countering terrorism,” noted Cook while Quandt concluded that “the president will have to work on gradual change not radical transformation” in the Middle East.