There are just under two weeks until Barack Obama finally takes his seat in the White House. Until then, it seems he is steadfastly committed to the US policy of one-President-at-a-time. In other words, he is keeping schtum. But with each new attack on the Gaza strip, Obama’s silence becomes more and more deafening.
The death toll in Gaza has risen to almost 600 in the past 11 days, and the only noises from the Obama camp other than the president-elect’s expression of “concern” have been from senior advisors and spokespeople.
This sudden silence seems odd. Obama has previously joined Bush in voicing opinion on the civilian killings in Mumbai in November, a fact which has not escaped Palestinian Minister Salam Fayyad who questioned his silence on Monday. Other critics refer to his comments on the global economic crisis, which only serve to highlight his silence on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and raise concerns over a lack of policy.
Obama is leaving Bush to make statements for now, saying : “There is one President of the United States… let the Bush administration talk about it.”
Even if this is a show of neutrality, this lack of engagement from Obama has been treated by many as unacceptable, including commentator Simon Tisdall, who sees Obama losing a battle of perceptions in the Middle East. Although he is toeing the line on domestic presidential policy, can a continued silence realistically be accepted on a global level?
It may well have to be. As international pressure to cease fighting increases and Israel’s goal of dealing the heaviest of blows to Hamas is being acheived, hopes are that the turmoil will be under some sort of control by the time Obama takes presidency on January 20. Then it will be Obama’s role to pick up the pieces from the conflict. His best way of doing so is with a clean slate in the Middle East, which may explain his reluctance to make a statement.
President Bush has given rock solid support to Israel. Similar support was also shown by Obama in the run-up to the presidential election, most notably in Sderot when he openly justified a defence from Israel:
“If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.”
In the Middle East, Obama’s sudden silence on the matter has been interpreted as a lack of concern. Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi, speaking to the Chicago Tribune, said: “People recall his campaign slogan of change and hoped that it would apply to the Palestinian situation.They think he is condoning what happened in Gaza because he’s not expressing any opinion”
The Middle East may well be losing confidence in Obama, even before he has even taken the presidential seat. Obama may be a thinking man, but his inner monologue will them tell little about his policy of how to break the deadlock.
Bronwen Maddox, in The Times commented that his silence could “never be taken as neutral by the region, where officials pore over every phrase – or the absence of them”. They are waiting for news from Obama on the future US policy.
Realistically though, any statement he makes is going to be at the heart of analysis and yet he can actually ‘change’ very little before January 20. Effectively he is stuck between a rock and a hard place. US interests are torn and it seems as though keeping quiet is the best option, until he can use his power effectively.
This silence could leave Obama on the back foot in two weeks, when the time comes for him to speak up and deal with the Middle East. However, this is clearly a risk Obama is willing to take as he waits his turn quietly to take centre-stage.