Middle Eastern leaders have been holding their breath in anticipation of the new US foreign policy under President Barak Obama. Yet, like these leaders, Obama has also been on his toes, trying to measure to what extent should he break with the policy of his predecessor George Bush.
As it stands, America and the regional players are all testing waters and employing backdoor channels to learn on which foot to stand, once the game starts and everyone is in the room.
From the Bush days, Obama has inherited strong alliances with regional players namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. America’s sub allies include Lebanon’s March 14 coalition, and the Palestinian Authority.
America’s opponents include Iran and Syria and their joint satellite groups, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in what looks like the Islamic Republic of Gaza, under Israeli siege.
Turkey and Qatar, both friends of Washington, have been jockeying for a role, often taking the side of Syria, in an effort to get noticed.
Meanwhile France, a tentative ally of the US, has abandoned its role as a semi-superpower, under President Jacques Chirac, and followed in the footsteps of the “notice me mediators,” with little or no success in influencing unfolding events since the election of Nicholas Sarkozy in late 2007.
Amidst this complicated political map, the Obama administration is currently defining its priorities.
Israel and its security will certainly come first, which means America will go to great extents to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons technology, believed to pose existential threat against the Jewish State.
The security of oil sources and their host countries, mainly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and now Iraq, come second to Israel. The stability of Iraq is now achieved, from an American perspective, and countries like Syria can sell nothing to Washington in that regard.
A third, yet less important item, will feature high on Obama’s list: The creation of a Palestinian state. This is more related to Obama’s drive to improve America’s image in the region, and around the world, as more experts than ever now believe that this 61-year old conflict has been an eroding factor for the US and its allies, and accordingly should come to an end.
But even before the Obama team has drafted any concrete plans for the Middle East, misconceptions, especially in Lebanon and Syria, run abound.
In Lebanon, a common illusion among the March 14 coalition has it that Washington will certainly walk down the path of trade with Syria, like in 1991, literally over dead Lebanese bodies of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other independence victims.
But the Lebanese illusion is not totally unfounded. In neighboring Syria, officials and their Syrian, Lebanese and American emissaries to Washington have been lobbying the administration to do just that: Scrap the Special Tribunal for Lebanon and abandon the March 14 coalition, in return for Syrian promises similar to those Damascus gave to Paris, and never kept.
Telling from news leaking from Foggy Bottom, the State Department, Washington seems determined as never before on standing by its allies in Lebanon, thus continuing with the Bush policy in this regard.
However, a general consensus among America’s diplomats has it that the isolation of Syria failed. Why, because the March 14 Coalition never delivered, and maybe was unable to, on any aspect that might prove its resolve toward cementing Lebanese independence and becoming a regional player.
American diplomacy now believes the March 14 Coalition committed a series of errors when it failed to bank on American support to elect a president with the simple majority it commands in parliament, and with Beirut repeatedly refusing to take a stance on peace with Israel by always deferring the issue to the virtual Arab Peace Plan of 2002.