The Toll – 6/14/09 – and “The Obama Effect”

by Dave McGill

From the U.K.’s Guardian to San Francisco’s Chronicle, and beyond, the media is attributing good and bad events to “the Obama effect.”

In the process, the election and performance of the Obama administration is being credited with influencing everything from the recent domestic terrorist attacks by the lunatic fringe of the right wing to the apparent improvement in conditions along “Wall Street.”

There may or may not be some justification for these claims but nowhere does “the Obama effect” seem to have had a greater impact than with respect to the vibrant activities resonating throughout the Middle East.

On the heels of the new, unconfrontational strategy emanating out of Washington and the U.S. president’s bridge-building speech in Cairo, the Muslim world has suddenly become energized beyond anyone’s expectations.

The first evidence of this turnaround, circumstantial as it may be, was the unanticipated victory by the pro-west coalition in Lebanon’s election on June 7.  This stunning defeat of a majority of the Hezbollah-backed candidates seems to represent a significant turning point for a nation that was on the verge of civil war just one year ago.  Hezbollah is considered by the U.S. and Israel to be a terrorist organization and is often described as being a proxy of Iran.

And now, in Iran itself, we see the sudden and, again, unexpected surge in the support for an opposition candidate in Friday’s election.  This surprising turn of events involved millions of people becoming actively involved in the political process and it evidently only gathered its tremendous head of steam in the last few weeks.

The world may never know the true results of the election that brought out more than 80% of Iran’s eligible voters, but, officially, the announced winner is the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  The unspent energy of the backers of the principle opponent, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, is now being utilized to vent the group’s frustrations.  The resulting demonstrations and riots have created a situation described by on-site CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour as “tense.”  At the same time, Mousavi is characterizing the election as “a dangerous charade.”

Ahmadinejad’s victory will not make things any easier for the Obama administration, as was evident by the defiant tone of the winner’s post-election speech.  The U.S. administration’s reaction to the election was voiced by Vice President Biden.

Appearing on “Meet the Press” this morning, Biden said:  “I have doubts but we’re going to withhold comment until we have a thorough review of the whole process and (see) how they react in the aftermath.”  He added “We have to accept (the official results) for the time being. But there’s an awful lot of question about how this election was run.  We don’t have enough facts to make a firm judgment.”

Despite the resulting international complications and the current clampdown on the civil rights of Iranians, the real, long-term significance here may be the reawakening of hope among Iran’s reformists.

Evidence of “the Obama effect” can also be seen in Pakistan where the government has finally become fully engaged in battling the domestic insurgency.  As warplanes attacked the stronghold of a Taliban leader this weekend, President Asif Ali Zardari vowed to wage war against the militancy “to the end.”

In a more direct way, President Obama has had an obvious impact on our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His strict adherence to the terms of the withdrawal agreement is currently resulting in the removal of U.S. combat troops from the cities and towns of Iraq.  The effect on the casualty count seems to have already been felt.  Last week was one of the few weeks in the past six years that the Department of Defense released no obituaries related to the Iraq campaign.

With respect to Afghanistan, the media is reporting on two trends, both of which carry the Obama stamp.  One, of course, is the buildup in our troop strength from 30,000 to 60,000.  The other, and the one that may be more revealing, is that, based on reports from the war zone, American forces are giving greater emphasis to strengthening relations with the local civilian populations.

An unfortunate series of civilian deaths from wayward U.S. air attacks has set back these efforts somewhat.  However, the trends suggest that the effect Obama would like to create in the region may well be a stronger negotiating position for the U.S. vis-a-vis the moderate elements of the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense, last week, released the obituaries of four military personnel killed in Afghanistan, ranging in age from 20 to 50.

Total U.S. deaths now amount to 704 in Afghanistan and 4,312 in Iraq according to the website

The one area where “the Obama effect” has yet to be instrumental is with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that is not for lack of effort.  Obama has said he does not intend to force-feed a peace plan to the participants but that he believes progress can only be made if Israel stops constructing new settlements on Palestinian soil and if Israel accepts a two-state solution.

In a speech today, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would only accept a Palestinian state that would be demilitarized, knowing that such would be totally unacceptable to the Palestinians.  He also said Israel would not completely halt the controversial construction of new settlements and he added that Palestinian refugees cannot return back to their homeland in Israel.

With respect to this long-festering problem, it appears that the “Obama effect” may have more than met its match, but only time will tell.

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