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Obama – is he ready for change?

17 January 2009, by Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Dato’ Dr. Lim Kok Wing

Anyone who harbours hopes of incoming US President Barack Hussein Obama breaking with America’s pro-Israeli policies doesn’t need to hold his breath.

Like all his predecessors in the White House since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, Obama will give Israel nothing less than unconditional support.

Some analysts already fear that the Obama Administration may tilt even more towards the Israelis than previous administrations.

For proof, they point to Obama’s decision to pick Rahm Israel Emanuel as his White House Chief of Staff, a post often labelled the second most powerful office in the executive branch after the president.

Emanuel, who was Obama’s first high-level appointment after the November 2008 election, once worked for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has served in the Israeli army, and allegedly holds dual US and Israeli citizenship.

The Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv hailed his appointment by calling him “our man in the White House”.

Assisting Emanuel as senior adviser to the president will be his close friend David Axelrod, Obama’s presidential campaign chief strategist and a Jew.

Elected on a platform of “Change” to replace the unpopular Bush Administration, Obama is entering the White House with a great deal of international goodwill.

Much is made of his personal story, which has captivated people around the world, in particular the Muslims.

Although a Christian, Obama is the son of a white American woman and a Kenyan man who was born a Muslim.

He also spent part of his childhood living in Indonesia after his mother’s divorce and second marriage to an Indonesian Muslim man.

These are experiences that might have shaped a more open-minded worldview in the new president, but the early indications of the likely course of his foreign priorities are not promising.

Apart from his appointments to his inner circle, Obama has remained silent on Israel’s invasion of Gaza on the excuse that he was deferring to President Bush as the sitting head of the US government.

He chose not to comment on the 1,100 deaths in Gaza, nearly half of them women and children, and the massive destruction of Palestinian homes and properties.

Instead, he thought it urgent enough to say he believed al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden remained the biggest threat to the security of the US.

Surely, Obama and his advisers must be aware that the Middle East is the most explosive region in the world and Israel’s savage attack on the defenceless people of Gaza has sent tens of thousands of angry anti-war demonstrators on to the streets in cities across the world.

Osama and al-Qaeda are not the causes of the conflicts in the Middle East. They were born from the region’s wars and terror. They are pustules of an inflamed region stretching from Palestine through Iraq to Afghanistan.

The US should have listened when former British prime minister Tony Blair told Congress in July 2003 – four months after the US-British invasion of Iraq – that “terrorism will not be defeated without peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine. Here it is that the poison is incubated.”

That poison has been extremely deadly, and attacked a large area of the planet.

Since the Israeli war of independence that began in 1947 until the present, more than 63,000 people have been killed in Israeli-Arab conflicts – 40,000 Arabs and 22,000 Israelis.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq by US-led forces was largely aimed at removing the perceived threat to Israel’s security posed by Saddam Hussein’s belligerence.

An estimated 1.4 million people have been killed in the wars launched by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan so far, including nearly 5,000 American and 800 allied troops.

Besides the cost in human lives, American tax payers had wasted US$3 trillion to support the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan since 2003.

For Israel, in 2007 alone, the US gave US$2.5 billion. The same year, the Palestinians received US$109 million from the US.

Whether Americans like it or not, each and every one of them is directly connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And all of them are imperilled by Israel’s ruthless aggression.

It is time for the US to listen harder to voices like Blair’s that the achievement of stability, peace and security of the Middle East must begin with resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although Obama is surrounded by staunch Israel supporters, paradoxically he may be better positioned to resolve this protracted political tragedy once and for all.

Unlike officials in previous administrations who saw Israel’s role as the American “policeman” in the Middle East to keep troublesome Arab regimes in line, the pro-Israel advisers with Obama would be more inclined to pursue the ultimate goal – Arab recognition of Israel’s right of existence within secured borders.

Obama’s officials, like Emanuel, are Israeli patriots. That is why they retain Israeli citizenship. Israel’s long-term survival as a viable nation at peace with its neighbours would be uppermost on their minds rather than using the Jewish state solely to serve the hegemonic interests of the US government and to fight America’s wars in the Middle East.

In Obama’s presidency, the US has a golden opportunity to start anew in the quest for peace in the Middle East and to change the global political map.

Few American presidents have entered the White House enjoying as much goodwill and hope from the international community as Obama has.

Obama’s message of change and hope, his youth and his eloquence are resonating with people across the world.

The time is right for a leader of change as great events are unfolding across the world, with the crash of the US financial system roiling the global economy; with the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan destabilising global politics by setting the Islamic world against the Christian West.

Greatness awaits Obama if he succeeds in leading and shaping the events to change the world.

That change should begin with dropping the Bush era’s policy of unilateralism and embracing multilateralism in resolving global problems.

The reality of global collaboration has been acknowledged by Obama’s incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said “America cannot solve the most pressing problems on our own but the world cannot solve them without America”.

If that is the new principle of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, then he must begin the search for peace in the Middle East by working with all the stakeholders – which include Iran and Syria besides Russia and the European Union.

That would be the change that the Middle East needs to bring an end to the suffering its people have endured.

But is Obama the change that the world seeks?

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