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15 January 2009

Far too great expectations

Obama and foreign policy

By Katherine Butler

Talking on crackly phone lines to Palestinians trapped in Gaza brings a depressing realisation: that, from the Israeli offensive to Bush’s unconditional support for Israel, Egypt’s ambiguity and the impotence of the “international community”, almost nothing about the current crisis came as a surprise to those bearing the brunt of the suffering.

The exception was Barack Obama. Mentioning the US president-elect’s name added a new note of dejection to the voices of Gazans. “We’d hoped he would be different,” they said, trailing off as yet more Israeli missiles exploded in the background.

Before the US election, expectations were high that the first black US president, a man who spent some of his childhood in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, would transform US foreign policy – and, in the Middle East, shift it away from the Bush administration’s pro-Israeli stance. Those expectations were always going to be too high.

Clearly, Obama’s inclination until Gaza blew up had been to prioritise the economic mess at home. Yet he is now being tested by a foreign crisis with potentially calamitous regional, if not global, implications. And it is far from the only pressing foreign policy issue that demands his attention. Afghanistan must be stabilised urgently. The resurgence of the Taliban requires a sustained push by his administration, in tandem with fresh thinking on Pakistan. Both are fraught with difficulty, as is Iraq. Obama faces manifold challenges in unpicking the damage wreaked by the Bush administration on transatlantic relations, as well as figuring ways of handling a resurgent and unpredictable Russia.

But Gaza has made it imperative that Obama flesh out in detail his thinking on achieving his foreign policy goals. He must also begin the search for Middle East solutions as soon as he takes office. The longer the fighting continues before he sits down in the Oval Office, the graver the risk he runs of finding attitudes in all camps hardening, and of the crisis spreading.

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In his only, and belated, statement on the crisis, Obama spoke of the “heartbreaking” deaths of civilians on both sides. If there is now to be, as he hinted, a more even-handed US approach, then that would signal a big shift, one that could earn him credibility with both sides. But with time running out for a two-state settlement, it is difficult to see what can be achieved if Obama continues with the Bush policy of refusing dialogue with the leadership of Hamas, the movement that, however unpalatable it may be, was democratically elected to run Gaza.

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Any initiative on an eventual Middle East settlement must also be part of a regional approach including engagement with Iran and encouragement of a return to direct negotiations between Israel and Syria.

Ultimately what Obama’s foreign policy ought to usher in is a long-overdue shift in tone. In the eyes of some who looked for hope, in the light of his change agenda and the extraordinary narrative of his own life, he may already be tarnished. He has already lowered expectations; now he will need to move with urgency if his foreign policy is not to end up as discredited as that of his predecessor.

Katherine Butler is foreign editor of the Independent