On 21 January, Barack Obama took the public oath of office in the Capitol to begin his second term as the US president in front of hundreds of thousands of people in Washington DC and witnessed by hundreds of millions of TV viewers cross the world. As he began to leave after the inauguration ceremony was over, Obama suddenly stopped and, turning back to the cheering crowds, said: “I want to take a look, one more time. I’m not going to see this again.”
Perhaps, Mr. Obama was actually looking back on the uneven path he had traveled during the past four years. Flashing across his mind were probably also scenes of turmoil and fighting in western Asia and northern Africa. More problems and missions lie ahead in the next four years. Of all these problems, how much weight will the Middle East issue carry in his strategic consideration? What will he do to deal with the chaotic situation in the region? In his second term of office, he may care more about what an impression he will leave on the world about his performance. If he hopes to secure a niche in the historical temple of fame, he has to include the Middle East issue in his strategic consideration.
The Middle East issue Obama inherited from former president George W. Bush four years ago was nothing but a shambles. Obama pledged in a solemn manner that he would withdraw American troops from Iraq, improve relations with the Islamic world by settling the Palestinian issue, alleviate the confrontation with Iran through contacts and dialogues, and improve the United States’ image through the use of “smart power”.
Four years have passed since then. However, except for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, none of the other promises have been fulfilled. Over the past two years, the “Arab Spring”, originated in Tunis and Egypt, has plunged the Middle East into chaos and uncertainty. While transformation of the regimes failed to proceed as expected, religious forces extended their influence amid simmering hot-spot issues. Armed conflicts in Syria have escalated to become a regional disaster. Struggles between major world powers have intensified in the Middle East with fundamental changes happening to the region’s political structure and institution. These changes have made an enormous impact on the international landscape. The current international order and norms governing international relations are facing serious challenges.
Undoubtedly, the Unites States has been a dominant force in the Middle East over the past few decades, especially since the end of the Cold War. Any change or development in regional affairs has had a direct or indirect connection with the US. A recent survey by the US-based Pew Global found that the American image in the Islamic world continued to deteriorate at the end of Obama’s first term in office with anti-US sentiment running higher and higher. Four years ago, 22 percent of Egyptians viewed the US positively, but now the percentage has dropped to 19. In Jordan, that percentage dropped from 19 to 12. By the end of 2012, 90 percent of Yemenis regarded the US as their enemy while 80 percent of Pakistanis had the same attitude. This is a serious challenge to the US’s “smart power” diplomacy.
When analyzing the situation in the Middle East, some research institutions, such as those from France, pointed out that it was the American funds and NGOs, flaunting the banner of human rights, which were causing instability in countries that Washington regards as hostile. After having made trouble in some of Russia’s neighboring countries, they are now targeting Arab countries, using the same method.
However, the “American values” they try to export to these countries are hardly compatible with the local culture. The consequence is usually a harm of local people’s interests. And in the long run it may not necessarily be in the interest of the United States. Currently, some countries in the region are mired in constant unrest and lost in confusion as what direction they should follow for political, economic and social reconstruction. The people’s basic needs are not met and their basic interests are not protected. Many people have been forced to leave their home. Anyone with a conscience would not remain indifferent to their plight.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Mr. Obama’s speech aroused enthusiasm among American people and inspired them to think. All state leaders hope that every member of society can live a happy and healthy life. However, just when President Obama was delivering his passionate speech, war was raging across a part of Middle East, the strategic hub linking Asia, Europe and Africa. One after another city in Syria was reduced to ruins. Violent protests broke out in Egypt and a few other countries, causing heavy casualties.
All men are born equal. People of all nations pursue nothing but “a stable life and offspring prosperity on the land where we were born.” However, the violence and killing ravaging Middle East is escalating to a humanitarian catastrophe and is causing the spread of extremism and terrorism, which has constituted a major threat to world peace. The hostage crisis in Algeria recently serves as the best warning. It has become imperative to create basic conditions for subsistence for the people in some Middle East countries by taking immediate moves to stabilize the situation there and to reconstruct the political, economic and social systems in the region. That should be a goal the international community strives to attain.
We are fully aware that a peaceful and stable Middle East is in the interest of the people in the region as well as the interest of the international community. This understanding is the starting point on which China bases its treatment of the Middle East issues. Given the complex and sensitive nature of these issues, China has been of the view that they should be settled only by peaceful means.
I noted that in his Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony a few days ago, US Secretary of State John F. Kerry discussed the Middle East as a major topic. Compared with his predecessor, Kerry appeared more practical and less idealistic. For instance, he advocated contacts and dialogues for settling disputes. While emphasizing that the US “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he also said that a “diplomatic solution is still a feasible alternative for reconciling relations with Iran.” On the Palestinian issue, Kerry said he would be “resolutely committed to supporting the two-state solution,” adding that once the peace effort failed, “the consequence would be disastrous.”
On the Syrian crisis, the US government has said clearly that it “calls for political solution and opposes use of military force”. This writer is pleased to note that China and the US have a lot in common in their understanding of the problem. Many observers have expressed optimism about Kerry’s practical work style, saying that the new State Department has demonstrated a sober mind in understanding the Middle East situation. However, many people are more concerned about what the US will actually do.
The unrest in the Middle East region will continue for quite a while. Seeking changes in the unrests and pursuing stability and development in the changes will be the main features of this period. After all, the local people know the local conditions best. The destiny of the Middle East should be in the hands of the locals themselves. What is imperative now is to help them enhance their sense of self-determination, and ability, to handle the local affairs. Only with this accomplished can the Middle East be stabilized and the local economy and society develop in a healthy way.
Wu Sike is a member on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and member on the Foreign Policy Consulting Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affair.