Analysis: 4 more years from a Middle Eastern angle

Despite Obama's best efforts, never has America been so reviled in the Arab world.

US President Obama speaks with PM Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza)
US President Obama speaks with PM Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Obama’s Middle East policy was not a factor in his reelection.
Despite his best efforts, from his Cairo and Ankara speeches to his wholehearted support of the Arab Spring, let alone his massive assistance to the military operations which brought down Gaddafi, never has America been so reviled in the Arab world. And that includes Egypt, in spite of the fact that Obama had turned his back on his long time ally Mubarak and told him in no uncertain terms to “go, go now” in the first days of the revolution. American institutions have been attacked in Libya, Tunisia and in Egypt while anti-American rhetoric is at an all-time high.
Obama did fulfill a pledge made by George Bush and “brought the boys” home from Iraq but he left the war-torn country in disarray, with al-Qaida terror on the rise and bitter infighting between Shi’ite and Sunni factions.
The central government may never regain control of all pre-war Iraq. In Afghanistan, American troops and their allies are engaged in what looks more and more like a hopeless fight against the Taliban since they have announced that they will leave the country in 2014.
This eastern area of the Middle East will now open to a stronger Iranian influence.
Turning to Iran, Obama refrained from encouraging the masses who had taken to the streets to protest the fraudulent presidential election of 2009 and were subject to violent repression from security forces. Instead of contributing to the fall of the ayatollahs, he led to the decline of the opposition. His position on the issue of nuclear weapons remained vague for a long time and though economic sanctions are exacting a heavy price, they haven’t deterred the Iranians.
Nor has his declaration that “all options are on the table.” It was obvious to all that the American president, facing a difficult reelection campaign with his soldiers still in Iraq and Afghanistan was not keen on opening yet another front. This in turn led to barely hidden tensions between Washington and Jerusalem. Then there was a built-in ambiguity in his policy.
On the one hand, he proclaimed that there was no Islamic terror and asked that all references to it be erased from CIA manuals; on the other, he fought al-Qaida and its satellite groups with all his might. He upgraded intelligence services, sent in special forces and used drones to target terrorist leaders; finding and killing Osama bin Laden was his greatest achievement. Yet he persisted in calling his targets rogue enemies of the United States who were in no way representing Islam, though the so-called rogues claim they are fighting in the name of Islam and are never condemned by Islamic countries. In fact, the death of bin Laden triggered an outpouring of condemnations in Arab media.
What now? Can a strong policy deter American enemies, without having to send in the troops? Can proactive diplomacy backed by a broad coalition solve the problems of the Middle East?
What about Iran? Obama appears determined to halt its nuclear program through negotiations and some kind of a deal – an end to sanctions and to Iran’s isolation coupled with economic assistance and a renewal of diplomatic relations. The danger here is that under the cover of protracted negotiations, Iran could keep on furthering its program and bring it so close to fruition that Israel might be tempted to act. Will cooperation between Obama and Netanyahu be strong enough to avoid such a scenario? And what about America’s traditional allies – Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who rely on America’s might and see in Iran a threat to their independence?
And what about the Palestinian issue? Will Obama again urge Israel to make concessions – such as a building freeze in the settlements and accepting the so-called pre- ’67 borders, which are in fact the cease-fire lines of Israel’s War of Independence of 1948? Will he ask the Palestinians to adopt a more realistic attitude and to come back to the negotiation table in good faith?
Regarding Syria, will the American president be able to convince Russia and China to join a coalition that will force Bashar Assad to accept a compromise? And if not, will he be ready to act alone and impose a no-fly zone to protect civilians, or to arm the rebels at the risk of having weapons and ammunition fall into the hands of Salafist or al-Qaida militants working inside Syria?
There are no easy answers and yet Obama will have to make tough choices if he does not want America to lose whatever credit it still has in the region.
Obama is no doubt preoccupied by the way the Arab Spring turned out. The Muslim Brotherhood has taken over Tunisia and Egypt and its influence is on the rise in Syria, Jordan and Libya – where the regime is in danger of losing control. Witness the attack on the consulate in Benghazi.
Though the Obama administration had initiated a dialogue with the Brotherhood before the fall of Mubarak, there is little in common between a country that exemplifies the values of democracy and the system of Shari’a law which the Brotherhood seeks to impose. Will Egypt still be America’s ally in the Middle East – and keep the peace with Israel?
In his victory speech, the newly reelected president stressed that his first priority would be the economy of the country. It does not mean that America will go back to its pre-war isolationist policy. Today both the security and the economy of the country are heavily impacted by what goes on in the rest of the world and in the Middle East in particular. Obama said that the US army would remain the strongest the world has ever known but that he would seek to achieve peace based on freedom and human rights.
Though Arab media is still unanimous in berating Obama for his “pro-Zionist” positions and his “bias” in favor of Israel, Arab leaders as a whole did congratulate the American president, adding that they hoped he would act to bring peace to the Middle East, and an “end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state.”
Palestinian leaders have called on him to support their bid for recognition in the UN General Assembly. Their representative in the United Nations turned down the request of Susan Rice to wait a little longer, a clear indication of the waning influence of the United States. It is not the only one.
The Taliban are asking Obama to admit his failure and withdraw his troops from Afghanistan immediately; the Sudanese minister of foreign affairs asked him to cancel the sanctions imposed on his country because of the Darfur genocide.
Will Obama be able to chart a course out of this minefield? One can only hope...
The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.