Nicolaus Mills: Obama and the Middle East

By Nicolaus Mills

In trying to imagine how a Marshall Plan for the Middle East might look 25 years from now, I naturally did a lot of guessing in my essay for World Policy Journal‘s 25th anniversary issue. We don’t, as yet, have a clear idea of the help and advice that the Arab states in the Middle East are prepared to accept from the West, let alone the United States.

But the election of Barack Obama shows that under the right circumstances change can come faster than we imagine. Obama’s belief in a sixteen-month schedule for withdrawing American combat brigades from Iraq, a timetable twice as fast as that provided for in the current draft of the American and Iraqi accord, is already paying dividends in how America is seen. “Before the Iraqis were thinking that if they sign the pact, there will be no schedule of troop withdrawal by December 31, 2011,” Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, told The New York Times three days after Obama’s election victory. “This is a positive step to have the same theories about the timetable as Mr. Obama.”

Obama demonstrates that it is possible to change the tarnished image the Bush administration has given the country—without losing sight of American interests. On a personal level, Obama shows that if America gets its own internal social problems in order, it can pay in foreign policy dividends. Obama’s personal appeal to the Muslim world as a result of his color and ancestry is not just symbolic. It makes clear that the widespread stereotypes about racism in American society need to be seen with much more subtlety than they traditionally have. American democracy—and by extension racial American attitudes—are capable of genuine change.

Even more important, Obama’s commitment to a foreign policy based on political realism rather than ideology illustrates America’s capacity for approaching the Middle East as a thoughtful partner rather than a dominant superpower. Obama is no softy.

“I’m not opposed to all wars,” he said in his memorable 2002 speech against the invasion of Iraq. “I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Obama will, when it is necessary, use force, but clearly force is not a first step for him, and in that sense of proportion he harkens back to the diplomatic values of post-World War II America. The pragmatism he promises to bring to American foreign policy suggests the route by which a future Marshall Plan for the Middle East might not be such a dream after all.

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Nicolaus Mills, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, is author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower. His article, “A Marshall Plan for the Middle East,” can be found in World Policy Journal’s 25th anniversary issue, on newsstands now.

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