CAIRO: A panel of foreign relations experts downplayed expectations of newly elected US President Barack Hussein Obama, urging the Middle East to meet him halfway and not rely on him fully to change the world.
At the American University in Cairo, the panel discussed issues affecting the region through the prism of Barack Obama’s election, the state of the world now and the world he wants to create.
“Obama has a long list of things to take care of, far too long for any president to take care of in their first term, the expectations of him are far too great, said panelist and British diplomat, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, who was the UK’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 1998 to 2003.
“His first priority is the economic situation [and there is] a new focus on the Middle East after the legacy his predecessors left him . there is Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Afghanistan, there is the War on Terrorism which has taken the wrong direction, Greenstock explained.
Obama’s election did however restore confidence in policies of super powers after the former administration’s “eight difficult years, which showed that not only does the US not understand the rest of the world, but is not trying to, panelist Ahmed Maher, former Egyptian foreign minister, said.
“There are great expectations of him which he won’t meet for many reasons . [In the US] the president doesn’t act alone, there are lobbies, interests and public opinion, etc, Maher explained.
On the other hand, Maher finds that Obama is encouraging the establishment of real serious dialogue between the Middle East and the US to see “what we can do together, not what the US can do alone for us.
“He is willing to change face, willing to listen and is willing to engage in dialogue which is beneficial to the world and to the US, he added.
No silver lining
Bahgat Korany, professor of International Relations at AUC, was the least optimistic about the changes Obama will create, especially to the Arab World.
“We in the Arab World have to expect the least due to the constraints he faces from the American mindset, the Democratic Party and what his appointment of George Mitchell says, said Korany.
Korany said that while Obama’s election is an embodiment of change in America and the world, he found that he seemed “less optimistic during his inauguration speech when he talked of the challenges facing him.
Greenstock pointed out that in order for change to take place in the Arab world, “the region has to take responsibility and take hold of its future and not rely on the outside world, there needs to be a complete regional strategy.
The panel also tackled other issues in the region, such as the situation in Iraq, the Palestinian conflict and the problem with Iran.
“Iraq has entered a new era and has a window of opportunity to change after Saddam, but it takes time for a country to change and it will take Iraq a generation to become a stable and democratic country, said Greenstock, who served as Britain’s special representative for Iraq from September 2003 to March 2004, during which he worked within the Coalition Provisional Authority.
“It is the responsibility of Iraq to overcome all these obstacles and challenges, he added, referring to issues such as the sectarian rift between the Sunnis and the Shias, which he notes is natural in the road towards democracy.
“Ask yourselves, has any country, whether the Americans, French or British, ever claim that they have reached democracy without civil wars? [It takes a while for people to] accept that there is a majority which must take over and rule for everyone, he explained.
As for the problem with Iran, the panelists unanimously agreed that the issue is extremely difficult and challenging but can be solved through diplomatic negotiations.
“Iran is ambitious but its ambitions are controllable by dialogue, said Maher. “It is scared and wants to feel safe and assured that it won’t be attacked, he added.
“The question which needs to be asked and addressed is: ‘what do you want?’ said Greenstock, “[The US must] ask Iran, the Middle East and Russia: ‘why are you angry?’
Korany pointed out that nothing is to be expected from Iran until the outcome of the elections next year.
On the other hand, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is insolvable unless the leaders and the people take one thing into consideration. “A fundamental requirement for negotiations is that both the Israelis and Palestinians [realize] that a two-state solution is the only answer and is in their long term benefit, said Greenstock.
“What needs to be recognized is that it’s the ordinary people who matter and not the people in power, he added.
The panel discussion was held in memory of Nadia Younes, who made outstanding efforts to further international humanitarian affairs around the world during her 30-year career at the UN until she died on Aug. 13, 2003 in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq.