Many Americans, in fact, many people in the world, have been under the impression that Obama's approach to foreign policy, especially as it pertains to the Middle East, would be the antithesis of that of the Bush administration. This dichotomy, however, is increasingly questionable as the professed advocate of change looks more like a proponent of continuation.
In fact, even during the Presidential campaign Obama did not present a consistently peaceful foreign policy. For example, immediately after becoming the de facto Democratic presidential nominee he addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel lobby. He not only pledged full support to Israel but also expressed strong words against Iran – promising to do everything in his power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and demanding an end to Iranian support for Hezbollah and Hamas, the militant enemies of Israel, as the price for ending American economic warfare.
All of this can reasonably lead to the question: Will Obama's Middle East policy differ significantly from that of the neoconservatives who were the driving force for the war on Iraq and have fashioned a broader Israelocentric Middle East war agenda? (The neoconservatives are the subject of my recent book: The Transparent Cabal: The Neoconservative Agenda, War in the Middle East, and the National Interest of Israel). Obama himself does not appear to be completely aligned with the neocon position as was John McCain. However, the President's close advisors, such as David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Dennis Ross, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton, tend to be ardently pro-Israel and hawkish, reflecting a neocon orientation, even though none of these individuals are actually neocons.
If there were one antiwar pledge Obama seemed bound to honor, it was that of withdrawing troops from Iraq. However, since his election, he has spoken of keeping a "residual force" in that country, which now seems to be morphing into a long-term strategic relationship. And Obama is increasing Americans forces by 50 percent in Afghanistan to deal with a "deteriorating situation," which portends to get the United States bogged down in an unwinnable war for years.
But the gravest issue facing Obama is Iran, where any American attack is apt to bring about a conflagration in the entire Gulf region, seriously hampering the flow of oil. Israel has been targeting Iran and stated that the world community – the United States – must use any means to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. If the requisite action is not taken, Israel threatens to take matters into its own hands and strike at Iran.
While Israel is rattling sabers, Obama says that he will be looking for areas where the United States can "directly engage" with Iran in face-to-face talks. Despite this pro-diplomacy rhetoric, however, Obama is putting strong barriers in the way of any real diplomacy. He emphatically states that Iran must cease funding "terrorist" groups (i.e., groups that militantly oppose Israel), and that a nuclear-armed Iran would be totally unacceptable to the United States. While a U.S. intelligence assessment released in December 2007 concluded that Iran had stopped trying to develop a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration has expressed with absolute certainty that Iran is doing so. For example, CIA director Leon E. Panetta testified to Congress, "There is no question that they are seeking that [nuclear] capability."
While making these demands, there is no indication of any comparable quid pro quo that the United States intends to offer Iran. There is no promise that the United States will stop its covert efforts to undermine the Islamic government. There is no promise that the United States could guarantee a non-nuclear Iran from an attack by Israel or its other nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan and India. It is not apparent how Iran is expected to feel secure when its neighbors maintain nuclear arsenals with nary a complaint from the United States.
Moreover, while the United States demands that Iran stop supporting any group that is militarily resisting Israel, there is no comparable promises that Israel will be required to obey international law and pull out of its settlements on the West Bank and allow the Palestinians a viable state, and that Israel will not invade Lebanon again.
Will Obama opt for war with Iran? The Obama administration's primary concern so far has been on the economy. However, when all the business/financial bailouts and stimulus packages fail to achieve the economic rejuvenation (the likely result which should be noticed long before the end of Obama's first term), then will be time to move into the war business. In fact, war, at least war expenditures, can be presented as the ultimate Keynesian stimulus package – as many Americans believe that World War II solved the Great Depression.
Obama, with the image of being a man of peace, would have greater credibility with the American people in taking an aggressively hardline policy toward Iran than either Bush II or McCain. This especially would be the case after his pursuit of diplomacy, which has little chance of success without a quid pro quo to Iran. Once diplomacy breaks down, tougher measures would be portrayed as the only alternative in dealing with an allegedly intransigent foe.
And Obama would undoubtedly be pushed in this belligerent direction by the neoconservatives outside his administration and the hawks within, as well as by Congress under the sway of the Israel Lobby. Given Obama's record so far, it seems highly unlikely that he would resist. American hardline policies such as a naval blockade or the bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities would inevitably spiral into a full-scale war.