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Sun 26 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

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Who do we want in the White House?

What Obama and McCain mean for the Mideast and how the next president could transform the region.

How the 44th President of the United States could transform the Middle East.

Lena fenton, a dubai-based catalogues editor, voted by FedEx early in October. She is a US citizen, and hopes that her ballot - cast for senator Barack Obama - will make a difference both back in the US, and in her adopted country, where she often finds it easier to tell people that she is Canadian.

"There are times when you pick and choose how honest you are about where you're from," she laughs. "Hopefully Obama will become the president; I believe he has a different way of looking at things."

On Fenton's desk sits an ‘Obama 08' sticker, sent to her by her father, a card-carrying Republican who voted for George W Bush both times, but who is now an enthusiastic Obama supporter.

"If he can win over my father I think he can win over a lot of people who are rather cynical at this point," she says of the Democratic nominee. So far, the senator from Illinois has won over a lot of people. Obama is maintaining a lead in national and state polls as he and Republican candidate John McCain focus on a handful of states that will be crucial in deciding the Nov 4 presidential election.

With less than two weeks to go before Election Day, Obama was ahead of McCain by five percentage points in the average of polls compiled by the website Realclearpolitics.com, last week.

The rest of the world is keeping a close eye on proceedings, not least the Middle East, which figures highly in the rhetoric and policymaking of both candidates. In July Obama travelled to Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, the West Bank and Israel, as part of an official visit to the Middle East and Europe. McCain, meanwhile, was in Baghdad in March to speak with US and Iraqi officials - his eighth trip to the country since the US-led invasion began in 2003.

"The US cares about three things in the region: oil, protecting Israel, and addressing security issues whether it be Iran, terrorism, or WMDs. Everything else is secondary," says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.

Many consider that George W Bush will be defined - and perhaps damned - by his dealings within the region during his eight year stay in the White House. And with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the Iran nuclear issue, to the US dependence on Gulf oil, from the battlefield to the boardroom, the Middle East will impact heavily on the foreign and domestic policy of the 44th President of the United States. At the same time, the choices the next administration makes are likely to shape the future of this region.

Obama has stated that Washington has to "get [its] balance of payments in order", and one key element of his bid to achieve this is the crafting of an energy policy that reduces American dependence on foreign oil - particularly that from the Middle East.

Three months ago, politicians in the US and around the world were blaming Gulf oil producers for the surging price of oil, which hit $147-a-barrel in July, arguing that a lack of supply was holding oil consumers to ransom. Today, with oil back under $70, it is the speculators not the suppliers in the firing line.

While the Gulf's oil producers may have been vindicated on that charge, both candidates have nevertheless put energy policy towards the top of their agendas, taking to the stump with a series of pledges to move away from fossil fuels and towards environmentally-friendly renewable sources - and in McCain's case, nuclear power.

"Nothing is more important than us no longer borrowing $700bn or more from China and sending it to Saudi Arabia - it's mortgaging our children's future," Obama said earlier this month. "I think that in 10 years, we can reduce our dependence so that we no longer have to import oil from the Middle East. I think that's about a realistic timeframe."

Obama's proposal would require that all transportation fuels sold in the US contain 5 percent less carbon by 2015 and 10 percent less carbon by 2020. The estimated impact of the Obama proposal would be dramatic, both in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing dependence on foreign oil. According to one estimate, it would reduce the annual consumption of gasoline derived from foreign oil imports by about 30 billion gallons in 2020.

McCain, meanwhile, is firmly committed to opening up areas of the US where there are believed to be remaining oil deposits, and advocates the building of more nuclear power plants across the country.

"McCain isn't going to revoke the tax break for people who buy hybrid cars," says Adhip Chaudhuri, assistant professor of Economics at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. "But then he's not going to give government subsidies and tax breaks to wind farms and installation of solar power. Obama will do that, in a big way."

Obama's commitment is likely to begin with more money towards research on all non-fossil forms of energy, as well as further action on clean coal.

"The two are committed in principle to the same thing, but Barack Obama is much stronger in his commitment and his announcements of what he will do are much more specific," says Jerry Leach, director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud Centre for American Studies at The American University in Cairo. "Still, both candidates realise that there is going to be a dependence on oil for a long, long time."

Iraq: A country in perilObama on Iraq

"John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You were wrong"

Immediately upon taking office, Barack Obama would give his Secretary of Defense and military commanders a new mission in Iraq: ending the war. The removal of troops would be phased, redeploying combat brigades from Iraq at a pace of one to two brigades a month.

That would remove them in 16 months, so by the summer of 2010 only a residual force would remain in Iraq to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against Al-Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel.

McCain onIraq

"Senator Obama would have brought our troops home in defeat. I'll bring them home with victory and with honour and that is a fundamental difference"

John McCain has been a leading advocate of the "surge" and the counterinsurgency strategy carried out by General David Petraeus. He argues that the strategy has paid off - from June 2007 through March 2008, sectarian and ethnic violence in Iraq was reduced by 90 percent, while civilian deaths and deaths of coalition forces fell by 70 percent. Senator McCain advocates continuing the counterinsurgency strategy, decrying Senator Obama's plan as similar to the unsuccessful withdrawal strategy of 2006.

The ‘surge' has been hailed as a success, but doubts still remain over the long-term security of the country, as well as the ability of the Iraqi government to keep the peace in a nation rife with violence.

Indeed, some argue that the US will never be able to operate without Middle East oil, and that the two candidates, knowing this, are playing to the gallery - promising a world they'll never deliver, while simultaneously pandering to the baser elements within their respective party faithfuls.

"I don't think it's a realistic policy; I think it's a realistic political line," says Khouri in Beirut. "They use it to gain votes, but I don't think there's a real will to do it either - the Americans have been talking about it since the days of Jimmy Carter in the 1970s.

"Now that oil is down to $70 a barrel they're very comfortable, but then politically they see the Arabs - and particularly the Saudis - as whipping boys," he adds.

The memory of $5 gas is still fresh in the minds of both the candidates and the voters, and with the global economic crisis hitting everyday Americans hard in the wallet, Middle East oil producers still act as a convenient lightning rod for anger at America's current financial plight.

"Everybody tries to scapegoat foreigners and the US is no different in that regard," adds Khouri. "Most Americans are not racist, but most Americans don't know anything about the Arab world, nor are they interested. They only care about the price of gas, and not being attacked by terrorists."

The two issues have been linked implicitly by both candidates in recent weeks. "We are sending $700bn a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much. Some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organisations," McCain told the American people in the first Presidential Debate on Sept 27.

McCain's rhetoric is reminiscent of the mood in January 2006, when the sale of port management businesses in six major US seaports to a company owned by the UAE Government, became the subject of a national security debate. Politicians from both sides of the house attacked the Dubai Ports World takeover of P&O, arguing that the security of the nation was threatened by ports owned by foreign governments.

Two years later, and McCain has stated repeatedly that he is against trade restrictions or any form of protectionism. Obama, though, has admitted that he is uneasy with the political leverage that could be gained by Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) that take significant stakes in the key assets of other nations.

SWFs, which are owned primarily by Middle Eastern oil exporters and Asian countries running huge trade surpluses, are estimated to hold $2.5 trillion in assets and forecast to grow to $12 trillion over the next eight years. Already this year, the SWFs of Gulf countries have snapped up US icons such as the Chrysler Building in New York, and taken stakes in Citigroup and Carlyle Group, among others.

"If they are buying big chunks of financial institutions and their boards of directors influence how credit flows in this country and they may be swayed by political considerations or foreign policy considerations, I think that is... a concern," Obama said in February.

Nevertheless, some observers suggest that an Obama administration might be less likely to be swayed by nationalistic fervour, and Obama has said he does not have a problem with foreign investment in the US as such.

"For Obama, [imposing any restrictions] would have a lot more to do with economics, whereas for McCain it would be more about national security," says Chaudhuri. "If Obama opposes a foreign investment or an import, you will always find economics behind it; that it's costing jobs or something.

"In terms of SWFs, for example, I think Obama will be more open," he continues. "SWFs will definitely help the US economy - if the Abu Dhabi wealth fund buys 10 percent in a failing bank, Obama is intelligent enough to see that."

Leach notes that the rhetoric launched against SWFs has been muted compared to that aimed at the DP World takeover. If a similar takeover was proposed today, he says, the response could be very different to 2006.

"I don't think the public reaction nor the government's role in it would occur in the same way," says Leach. "The US people would be less nationalistic than before. And an Obama government would be less nationalistic than a McCain one."

While he may be considered the less impulsive candidate, Obama is an unabashed hawk on the war on terror, as well as on further building up the US military. He has said he wants to add 65,000 soldiers to the army and 27,000 marines. However, he is quick to remind anyone who will listen that he did not support Congress' 2002 authorisation of war on Iraq.

McCain did support the war, but after the invasion took place, argued that insufficient troops had been committed and inefficient tactics were being used. He remained a Republican critic of the war, but not a person who had opposed it.

"When it came to the surge, John McCain was actually one of the few people in both parties who supported the surge and argued that it could in fact stabilise the situation," says Leach at the American University in Cairo. "He regards himself as vindicated by the results of the surge and believes that the surge is likely to lead to a stable Iraq with territorial integrity.

"The difference between the two at this moment in time is that Obama is much more strongly committed to the withdrawal of American troops."

Iran: Nuclear threatObama on Iran

"I believe that we should have direct talks - not just with our friends, but also with our enemies - to deliver a tough, direct message to Iran that, if you don't change your behaviour, there will be dire consequences"

Barack Obama supports an increase in sanctions against Iran, but also calls for "tough, direct diplomacy" with the Islamic state. While he will not discount the use of military force, and would not cede veto power to the UN or any other umbrella organisation, Senator Obama is nevertheless adamant that the best way forward is to try to open a dialogue with Tehran, and has said he would sit down with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Moreover, if Iran abandons its nuclear programme and support for terrorism, Senator Obama would offer incentives like membership in the World Trade Organisation, economic investments, and a move toward normal diplomatic relations.

McCain on Iran

"I'll sit down with anybody, but there's got to be preconditions. Those preconditions would apply that we wouldn't legitimise with a face-to-face meeting, a person like Ahmadinejad.

John McCain has said he would not sit down with Ahmadinejad without precondition, but instead seek to create "real-world pressures" to change Iran's behaviour.

He points to his co-authoring of the 1992 Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act as evidence of his experience in such issues, and is calling for the imposition of "significant" multilateral sanctions. These would include restrictions on Iran's import of refined petroleum products, the freezing of assets and visas, and a worldwide divestment campaign.

Senator Barack Obama has said that he would sit down to talk with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad - a stance that has been heavily criticised by McCain and his Republican Party colleagues.

"The range of advisors that Obama has on the Middle East and foreign policy is rather different to the range of advisors that McCain has," says Khouri in Beirut.

"McCain's advisers are much more traditional, conservative, neo-conservative, while Obama has a much wider range of people advising him who have a more open, and more reasonable approach to the region.

"They're both equally supportive of Israel - everybody in American politics has to be or they lose their jobs - but they obviously have a more nuanced position, especially people like [former US ambassador to Israel] Daniel Kurtzer, [senior foreign policy advisor] Susan Rice and [former National Security advisor under US president Bill Clinton] Tony Lake," he continues.

There are other reasons why much of the Middle East is pulling for an Obama presidency. Obama's middle name, which means "the good, handsome one," is of Arab origin, making him the only presidential candidate even remotely connected to anything Middle Eastern or Arab - although his father is actually Kenyan.

More than that, the Republican presidency of George W Bush means that millions across the Middle East are looking to a Democratic victory; to Obama's promise of change.

"I personally think America needs new vision and attitude. If the Republicans continue, I cannot see that happening," says Abdulrahman Al-Zamil, chairman of Saudi operations at Zamil Group, one of the largest industrial groups in Saudi Arabia.

"Most of the issues relate to the [Republicans'] view of Arabs or Muslims," Al-Zamil continues. "We are hoping that a new administration will have fresh ideas and might consider listening to their friends in Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt."

Last month, a BBC World Service poll found that respondents in Lebanon, Egypt and the UAE all had a strong preference for Obama over his competitor. That disillusionment is rife not just in the Middle East, but also among people from the Middle East now living in the US.

"Historically Arabs in the US were more Republican than Democrat, but that changed with Bush and a lot of Arabs and Muslims have become more inclined towards the Democrats, partly through disenchantment with the Bush policies," says Khouri.

"In almost every field, policies undertaken in the Middle East by the Bush administration have generated great disappointment throughout the Middle East and among Middle Easterners in the US," he continues. "So there is a backlash against that. McCain is suffering because of his association with Bush, and people are reacting negatively to his conservative policies."

Still, while the man in the souk may be hoping for an Obama victory, there remains the sneaking suspicion that a Democrat in the White House would represent a symbolic change, rather than one that would necessarily improve everyday life in the region.

"The Middle East is more favourable to an Obama presidency than a McCain one, but the reality is that most people are skeptical and don't expect any significant change to happen whoever wins next month," says Khouri.

"Their experience is that American presidents come and go, while American policy stays the same or becomes more destructive."

It will be up to the 44th President - whoever that may be - to prove them wrong.

Afghanistan: The war on terrorObama on Afghanistan

"If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden; we will crush Al-Qaeda"

Some of the most heated moments of the recent presidential debates focused on the future of Afghanistan. Barack Obama argues that the US must redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to combat Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, arrest the resurgent poppy trade in the region, and deal with terrorist "safe havens" in Pakistan.

Indeed, Senator Obama has said that he would advocate US troops attacking high-level targets inside Pakistan, if Pakistan was unwilling to act of its own accord. He has said that the region represents the "central front on terrorism", and is the nation's "biggest" national security priority.

McCain on Afghanistan

"When you announce that you're going to launch an attack into another country, it's pretty obvious that you have the effect that it had in Pakistan: it turns public opinion against us"

John McCain argues that the "surge" strategy that appears to have worked in Iraq, should next be applied in Afghanistan. And he argues that the right man for the job is already in place - General David Petraeus recently took over as head of the US Central Command, and will oversee a region including Afghanistan, Pakistan and 25 other countries, following a successful stint in command in Iraq.

Moreover, senator McCain has attacked his rival's public declaration that the US could launch military strikes into Pakistan, criticising it as counterproductive and arguing that senator Obama has "telegraphed his punches".

Since the US shifted its focus to Iraq, lawlessness has soared in Afghanistan, where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are resurgent and Osama bin Laden is still evading capture.

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Jihad Al Jaber 11 years ago

Democracy is all about leaving the local people of the midle east decide how they would transform their own region.

Tanib 11 years ago

Obama will be a breath of fresh air...I only wish I was an American citizen so I could vote for him!!!!