SPIEGEL Interview with Middle East Expert Martin Indyk 'We Americans Have a Wonderful but Frightening Innocence'

Former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk talks to SPIEGEL about how the US's Middle East policy will be different under Barack Obama and why the US needs to reach out to countries such as China and Russia.

Barack Obama, seen here during his visit to Israel in July 2008, has the potential to reach out to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Barack Obama, seen here during his visit to Israel in July 2008, has the potential to reach out to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Indyk, President-elect Obama has so far refused to comment on the Israeli attacks in Gaza. Is that a mistake?

Martin Indyk: Before he assumes the presidency, he can only talk but has no authority to act. Therefore, it is wise to remain silent.

SPIEGEL: What kind of Middle East policy do you expect from him?

Indyk: He will reach out to both sides. America is Israel's closest ally and will remain so. But Obama has the potential to develop much more influence in the region than his predecessors. His narrative as the son of a Kenyan father, his childhood in Muslim Indonesia, his middle name Hussein, his rise to power as the first African-American president on his own merits without wealth or a famous name behind him -- all that deeply impresses the Arabs.

SPIEGEL: But so far, neither Hamas nor Hezbollah seem to give him any credit for this.

Indyk: Their message for many years has been: We establish justice and dignity for the Arab people by resistance, by violence and defiance of the West. They want to quickly brand Obama as being the same as Bush. But immediately upon assumption of the presidency I think he will take the initiative on the Palestinian issue, in part to show that he is not a second Bush.

SPIEGEL: Is he a second Bill Clinton, who tried to mediate between the conflict parties in the Middle East -- but ultimately failed?

Indyk: Bill Clinton was a very empathic president which helped him to become popular in the Arab world and Israel at the same time. He managed to communicate to the Arab people that he felt their pain. In this regard, Obama is very similar to Clinton.

SPIEGEL: Peace in this region of the world still seems very far away, however. Many in the West are tired of these conflicts. America too?

Indyk: There are three reasons why the United States cannot walk away. That part of the world generates the oil that fuels the industries of the West and increasingly China and India as well. America has commitments to the survival and well-being of the Jewish state on one side and the security of our Arab allies on the other.

SPIEGEL: To what extent can Obama change course at all?

Indyk: We Americans have this wonderful but frightening innocence, a belief that we have a mission to transform troubled parts of the world. Even more troubling is that we not only think it is our responsibility but that we can actually remake the Middle East in our own image as a peaceful, democratic place. It is that instinct which George W. Bush and Bill Clinton shared in the Middle East, even though they pursued the objective of transformation in two very different ways -- one by peace-making, one by war making. But they shared that basic naïvety and they both failed. Now we have to be less naïve and more humble. I am sure Obama has understood that.

SPIEGEL: What impact will such new modesty have on US policy?

Indyk: The goal to transform a whole region is wishful thinking. We can't do it. Part of our new humility has to be the understanding that we also cannot do it on our own, that it is not "our way or the highway." If we want to work with like-minded members of the international community, we have to look out for a common objective and take their interests into account.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean the Europeans should get more involved and they are more welcome to do so?

Indyk: The Europeans will have a role in everything that America tries under Obama, even more than during the Clinton years.

SPIEGEL: Why are you so sure about that?

Indyk: The situation is very different. We are no longer the dominant power in that region. We face a challenge from Iran, which is making a claim to dominate the region. We have seriously reduced our hard power capabilities because our military is tied up in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our soft power has been tarnished as a result of the Bush years.

SPIEGEL: Is America's heyday over?

Indyk: Our influence in the region has been reduced significantly. America needs friends and must work with them. And our friends have to include not just the Europeans, but the Russians and the Chinese as well.

SPIEGEL: And what is the price Obama will need to pay?

Indyk: If the Middle East should be a priority -- and I am convinced it will be -- the US needs to be more considerate of the interests of potential allies.

SPIEGEL: You mean: concessions.

Indyk: I don't like the word concessions. But we need to understand something George W. Bush never grasped: We can't have it both ways. Obama quickly needs to sit down with the Russian leadership and try to get a better understanding of their interests. If we want Russian support in the Middle East, we need to reconsider our current strategy on NATO expansion or the missile shield in Eastern Europe. We can't have Russian cooperation on a strategy to prevent Iran's nuclear program and the missile shield at the same time.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz and Gabor Steingart.


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