Sorry, the President can’t fix the MidEast right now

The Israelis and Palestinians both expect something from Obama. Prepare to be disappointed

By Tim Marshall, January 22, 2009

At a key moment in his speech, the American President looked down the Mall, past the adoring throng, and sent a message to a very different audience. He spoke directly to Osama Bin Laden, to the disciples of Sayyid Qubt, to Mullah Omar, and to the new Zarqawis of the world, and he told them: “We will not apologize for our way of life...for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.”

From the mouth of the 43rd President this might have brought forth charges of arrogance, but coming from the 44th President it passed without comment. His words followed a declaration that: “Our nation is at war”. And thus Barack Obama reminded us that the President can be Red or Blue, Black or White, but American geo-political interests remain.

The President laid out a statement of intent. By saying “you cannot outlast us”, he took on the Islamist theory, outlined by Qubt and others, that history is with them and that as God’s plans unfold, so the world will turn to their version of Islam.

He didn’t pretend it will be easy. He used the word “crisis” four times; and it is the economic crisis which looms over everything. If you want to fight a war, you have to pay for it in a time of “gathering clouds and raging storms”.

Whether from caves in Waziristan or offices in Beijing, the world watched the theatre of Obama’s speech, each player taking from it the relevant parts in their own version of the play.

For the first time, the Islamic Republic of Iran broadcast proceedings live. The subtle signal to the State Department was: tell him we’re listening.

So were the Russians, who had sent their own signal in advance. On Monday, Prime Minister Putin wrote to President Karzai of Afghanistan offering “broad military assistance”. The intended recipient was President Obama and the message was, “Want a deal on Iran? Back off from the resurgent Russia”. Twenty four hours later, President Obama’s speech included the words “With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat”.

The speech threw up little of substance on the Middle East. Many analysts say the issue will be at the top of the President’s in-tray. That may be, but only if he takes the file from beneath those marked Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia and “It’s the economy stupid.”

The next few weeks will see a new Middle East team assembled. Obama will give it a shot but he has bigger issues to deal with.

None of this will stop the Palestinians and Israelis from believing that the first thing an American President wonders when he wakes up in the morning is “Now, how can I sort out the Middle East?”. Nor will it stop each side examining each syllable of each diplomat’s every utterance for bias.

We are already hearing the familiar names: Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk, etc. The conspiracy theory-gripped Arab world takes the names and adds them to Obama’s Chief of Staff, the “suspiciously” titled Rahm Emmanuel, (whose father was in the Irgun). Proof, they cry, that the Jewish lobby is running everything.

On the other side of the security barrier, some Israelis look at the “suspiciously” named Barack Hussein Obama and mutter that sometimes he phones President Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. He even voiced “deep concern” over the civilian casualties in Gaza. Proof, they cry, that Obama is bad for Israel.

He is more likely to be down the line. For the irredentists on either side of the divide, that equates to taking sides. For the rest of us, we can judge on the evidence. And in this first week, there is none.

Tim Marshall is Foreign Editor of Sky News

Last updated: 11:02am, January 22 2009