Obama needs personal touch in diverse Mideast

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, August 8, 2010

President Obama's Middle East initiatives are moored in clear and just principles, soul-lifting oratory and a vastly charitable reading of human nature. Unfortunately, they are not anchored in an equally steady understanding of -- or feeling for -- the fractious, grasping, always fascinating people of the region.

No single prescription or set of principles can cope simultaneously with the needs, desires or fantasies of the Arabs, Jews, Persians, Kurds, Turks, Berbers and others who are slotted, for policy and journalistic purposes, into one regional designation. The president's effort to put his outreach to "the Islamic world" at the center of U.S. foreign policy fails to take account of the intriguing and frequently murderous diversity within that world.

That is a personal and political loss for Obama, a talented young leader whose other accomplishments are impressive. Failure to connect at the human level deprives him of effective policies and the fun that can come in dealing with the nations we lump together as the Middle East. The volatility and extremes of personal relations -- people who lavish hospitality and warmth one moment can form a lifelong grudge the next -- stir an adrenalin rush not present in relations with other parts of the world.

Take the unproductive zigs and zags of Obama's efforts on Israeli-Palestinian peace. They might have been avoided, or at least unbent, had he formed his principles by getting to know the protagonists better, rather than insisting on them adopting his principles first. Obama is due to pass the second anniversary of his election without having set foot in Israel or the West Bank.

Or take Iran, where Obama's words and deeds still fail to reflect the desperate heroism of the resistance movement or the rulers' fanaticism and tyrannical character. It does a disservice to the humanity of Iran's simmering revolt to cite sanctions as the cause of unrest there, as the administration did last week. Sanctions play a role, but not the dominant role in the popular uprising.

Or read his emotionally inert speech last week on the end of the U.S. combat role in Iraq this month. It lacks any feel for the human successes or horrors that Iraqis, Americans and others have scored or suffered since the 2003 invasion. It misses even the suspense hanging over an Iraqi future without significant U.S. involvement.

Nowhere is the lack of personal dimension in U.S. diplomacy more evident than in the strategic neglect of northern Iraq's Kurds, a people Americans can proudly claim to have liberated from Saddam Hussein's genocidal fury. The gloomy government and journalistic retrospectives being churned out largely neglect the economic progress and relative political stability that the 5 million to 6 million people of Kurdistan have fashioned out of Hussein's overthrow.

It is not simply good news being no news. The Kurds are a non-Arab minority, making up about 17 percent of Iraq's population. Rather than anger chauvinistic Arab governments (including the fractured one in Baghdad), Washington has ignored quiet Kurdish overtures to establish strong and direct security relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government headed by Massoud Barzani in the wake of this summer's drawdown. The Obama team, reflecting an inherent American preference for centralized federal governance, has also shown little sympathy for Barzani's desire to establish greater local authority over oil and other natural resources.

"Now is the time for the U.S. to tell us what it means by a long-term relationship with the Kurds," Fuad Hussein, Barzani's chief of staff, said during a recent visit to Washington. "We have made clear our ideas. Now it is for the U.S. to decide."

There are also strategic reasons for the United States to show greater interest in and understanding of the Kurds' commendable efforts to control their future. As Hussein told an audience at the Atlantic Council here, Turkey's business and political elites have established strong ties to Barzani's regional government after years of conflict. Iraq's Kurds have also worked out a peaceful modus vivendi with their Iranian neighbors to the east and could be of help if Obama's pursuit of dialogue with Tehran is to get on track.

The emergence of a stable, largely detached Iraqi Kurdistan wedged between Turkey and Iran establishes a geographic belt of non-Arab Islamic leaderships who increasingly share interests. U.S. ability to influence Iran's government seems to be nonexistent, and its influence is waning in Turkey. It is a good time, Mr. President, to get to know the Kurds -- and their ambitions. Israel and the West Bank are not the only spots in the Middle East worth a visit next year.

The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is jimhoagland@washpost.com.

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