Caught in a domestic bind

Caught in a domestic bind

When President Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009, he pledged to cultivate good relations with the Muslim world by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, securing the emergence of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and engaging in a dialogue with Iran. Unfortunately, he has been unable to deliver because actors in these countries and politicians in Washington have not cooperated.

The Republican mid-term election victory in the House of Representatives means that Obama will face even greater obstacles. Obama faces Republicans who believe there is a new cold war involving confrontation between the Christian West and the Muslim world. Some of these lawmakers and many of their constituents regard Obama as a ‘secret Muslim’ because his father was a Muslim from Kenya and as a child the president spent several years in Indonesia.

The incoming House speaker John Boehner has vowed to make the president change course and roll back his legislative achievements. The Republican majority can do this by calling hearings on Obama’s foreign policies and refusing to provide finance. Republican legislators also are taking over chairmanship of the powerful House foreign affairs, armed services and appropriations committees.

Iraq pull-out doubtful

The Republican-controlled House could try to prevent Obama from carrying out his plan to pull US troops out of Iraq. It must not be forgotten that Iraq was invaded and occupied by a Republican administration which intended to establish permanent military bases in Iraq and secure advantageous agreements for US multinationals to exploit Iraq’s oil resources.

Republicans are likely to back Obama’s military ‘surge’ strategy in Afghanistan in the expectation that this will either defeat or tame the Taliban and eliminate al-Qaeda. But Republicans have expressed opposition to his plan to begin the draw-down of US troops by July 2011. Republicans will, however, have to camouflage their opposition to withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan because the US voters want the troops to return home.

Pro-Israel Republicans and Democrats have promised to improve US relations with Israel which have come under strain because Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refuses agree to Obama’s demands. He seeks a halt to Israel’s colonisation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Palestinians want for their state, and serious negotiations on a territorial deal with the Palestinian Authority. The right-wing of the Republican party has close connections with Netanyahu’s Likud bloc and pro-Israeli evangelical Christians.
The new House majority leader Eric Cantor, a Jewish congressman with strong ties to Israel, observed that a Republican victory would “have a tangible impact on improving the US-Israel relationship”. He advocates placing the $3 billion in annual US military aid to Israel under the US defence budget to make it all the more difficult to cut this aid or use it to exert pressure on Israel.  Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another vehement supporter of Israel, is to head the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Republicans could join forces with Netanyahu to press Obama to take a more aggressive line toward Tehran because it refuses to abandon its nuclear programme. Tel Aviv would like to secure from Obama a US pledge to back up Israel if it attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities. Iran could retaliate by striking US military bases and interests in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf, risking all out war. The Republicans could also urge Obama to open up a new war front against al-Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia. Defence costs are soaring and Republicans are calling for budget cuts because of the economic crisis in the US.

Due to the greater Republican challenge, Obama will have to focus on preserving the domestic legislation he fought so hard to pass during his first two years in office. He will also have to expend his energies in launching his 2012 re-election campaign and trying to secure Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Obama does not want to emulate Jimmy Carter or George H W Bush who were both one-term presidents.

If the Republicans manage to slow US withdrawal from Iraq, maintain US forces in Afghanistan, sabotage the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and embroil the US in a conflict with Iran, Muslim governments will distance themselves from Washington while Muslim youths could flock to al-Qaeda and other radical movements with the aim of punishing the US, Europe and their allies. Due to its rapprochement with Washington, India would remain a target. Air, sea and land travel and trade could be severely disrupted by suicide bombers and parcel bomb plots while commando-style attacks like that on Mumbai in 2008 could be mounted in other major cities.

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