Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A rudderless Obama is poorly equipped for new Middle East

There is hope among many that the Obama administration during its second term will reverse its attitude of relative detachment toward the Middle East that was evident during the first term. That may well happen, but attitudes in Washington, not to say the nature of the crises the US faces, do not make this very likely.

There is, first, the dubious outlook of administration officials to contend with. They have been reluctant to give the Middle East the attention it has merited in the past year. Instead, the focus is on a "pivot toward Asia". That President Barack Obama should have made his first post-election trip to Asia spoke volumes. This represents a strategic choice that will endure. For Mr Obama, the Middle East has merely sapped America's energies and treasure since September 11.

Perhaps he is right, but for the first time in decades, much is changing in the Arab world. Mr Obama's unwillingness to exploit this, his tendency to address current matters with yesterday's mindset, means opportunities are being missed. It often seems that the president is still fighting George W Bush's legacy, and that his convictions when addressing America's challenges abroad are not very profound.

But if that is true, there is also the reality that in the coming years there will be much to discourage a risk-averse administration from taking fresh directions in the Middle East. Whether we are talking about Syria, Egypt, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or Iran, to mention only the most salient issues, there is not much room to act successfully, and good reason to avoid involvement.

Syria first. The war there has gone on with little American intervention since March last year. Mr Obama has created a dilemma of major proportions: he has refused to accelerate President Bashar Al Assad's downfall, fearing that exacerbating the conflict in Syria would destabilise the neighbourhood. Yet by allowing the killing to continue unabated, he has only heightened instability and radicalisation, allowing religious extremists to gain credibility among Syria's opposition.

Worse, the Obama administration has not seriously considered how Mr Al Assad's exit might weaken America's main regional rival, Iran, and its Lebanese ally Hizbollah. This is beginning to sink in, but as yet there is no clear policy on Syria, beyond baby steps to organise the opposition and lend some assistance to its combatants.

Mr Obama and his advisers have not been impressed by Syria's opposition. That's reasonable, but policy rarely awaits perfect circumstances. Things will not soon ameliorate. The extremist shift to Syria will continue to stymie an American rapprochement with the opposition, as will fear of sectarian chaos once Mr Al Assad leaves. This requires attention of the kind Washington hesitates to give.

In Egypt, too, the United States has gone with a flow it doesn't control. The cooperation with President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been new for Mr Obama, but he has had no choice. Egypt is too important. The Americans are right not to enter into the minutiae of Egyptian politics, but they are, plainly, unsure of their objectives if they were to do so. Democratisation is not a word used by the administration, which has been low-key on Mr Morsi's recent effort to place presidential decisions above the law.

The administration's self-neutralising view is that when America takes sides in Arab states, those whom it supports lose. That has meant that perceptions of public opinion in places such as Egypt can determine American behaviour. No wonder Mr Obama's default setting is to avoid rocking the boat, since the boat seems perpetually tilted against America. That alone will mean further hesitation by the administration to shape events in Cairo in ways it finds desirable.

On Palestinian-Israeli peace, Mr Obama has been clumsy. After promising to push negotiations forward during his 2008 election campaign, the president did nothing. He made the freezing of settlement building a condition for talks, but soon backtracked in the face of a withering Israeli counterattack, which involved turning Congress against Mr Obama. Settlements are a central problem, but the president boxed himself into a corner even as he was unwilling to go all the way in compelling Israelis to abandon them.

It's hard to see much changing now that Palestinians and Israelis are further apart than ever. The administration was in a minority when it opposed the Palestinian decision to seek recognition as an observer state at the UN. And it was embarrassed soon thereafter when the Israeli government approved new settlement building in Jerusalem, which could cut Palestinian areas off from the city. The administration emerged from this fiasco looking utterly ineffective.

Finally, on Iran the administration has pursued sanctions, hoping that this will derail movement toward war. That's a good thing. However, given reports that Iran is still moving ahead with its nuclear programme and Mr Obama's promise that Iran will not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon, America could be trapped again by its declared policy. Iran believes that Mr Obama's priority is to avert war, which hardly strengthens the president's leverage.

This is bound to lead to a prolonged standoff, until Mr Obama finds himself with fewer options. No one in Washington is amenable to a radically new path with Tehran, so the president won't test the waters. Yet he must sense that there is no certainty that sanctions will bring Iran to the table. He needs a backup plan for if sanctions fail, but for now he doesn't seem to have one.

Mr Obama is not a man of diplomatic surprises, and the Middle East doesn't provide easy returns, but favours stalemate. Regional dynamics are volatile enough to dissuade the president from gambling. A re-elected Mr Obama may not be very different than the guarded man we've come to know.

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