Not up to the task

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The Obama administration had no contingency plan for addressing revolutions in the Middle East. Intelligence officials explained that regime changes were possible: this particular country faced dangers of one kind, while that country faced different dangers. But all in all, the likelihood of change was not great and the regimes could be expected to manage with whatever challenges confronted them.

President Barack Obama entered office with the best of intentions. He wanted to end the American presence in Iraq, strike a blow at the Taliban in Afghanistan and then depart, make peace between Israel and its neighbors, improve the human rights situation in the Arab countries and strengthen their inclination toward democracy. If possible.

Obama failed miserably with regard to all aspects of a peace process in our region. Under his presidency, there aren’t even rumors of secret negotiations. Every channel of the process is frozen, with the government of Israel not particularly interested, the Palestinians not particularly capable, and the Americans unable to steer the ship of state. Iraqi democracy is limping, Iran is the big winner of the Iraq war, and the most likely way to get out of Afghanistan honorably is apparently to talk to the Taliban.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the unrest elsewhere in the Arab world surprised the Obama administration as they did everyone else. The first response was bureaucratic: protecting allies and expressing the hope that they would find ways to end the revolt without relying on force. Easy to say, hard to do. Once it was clear the revolution in Tunisia had succeeded and the revolution in Egypt was picking up steam, Obama decided to join the bandwagon and hasten the end of the reign of the ally who until then had been a stable pillar of American influence in the Middle East, President Hosni Mubarak.

Obama’s reaction apparently combined his emotional response to the masses of young Egyptians demanding freedom and an end to a police state, with political cynicism: the desire to be on the winning side. This caused acute distress in the capitals of other veteran Arab regimes that had ensured the stability of the Middle East for years, kept oil prices steady and supported US policy moves. Suddenly, they felt a cold wind at their backs. They understood that they could not expect the Obama administration to support them if they were in danger. They would be tested by their capacity to rebuff or otherwise deal successfully with their citizens’ demands.

Some did so by paying out "bonuses" to their citizenry, and some by using even greater force than they had anticipated. All understood that with the first sign of weakness on their part, Obama would escort them out of office. Obama, in response, was signaling in effect that pragmatic regimes that supported American policies and peace with Israel would not be rewarded when they were in danger. This is certainly not an approach that encourages new actors to join the region’s pro-America club. Syrian President Bashar Assad even bragged that his political resiliency was predicated on his not relying on the Americans and not making peace with Israel.

On top of everything, the veto of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli settlements constituted the height of American folly. At the moment when the US is competing for the core of Arab public opinion–when it is clear the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the issues that unites the Arab street against Washington–the world’s only superpower takes on the entire world and votes against its own policy position, yet without in any way serving Israel’s real interest.

America did not physically block sanctions against Israel. It simply informed the world that it isn’t really serious about the position it has ostensibly held for years regarding this very problematic issue. The administration can of course complain to PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for ignoring the president’s pleas; it can berate the Netanyahu government for refusing to maintain a partial freeze even for three more months; but first it has to confront its own mistakes. And in this particular situation, casting a veto in the Security Council was a dramatic mistake.

The Obama administration does not know what to do in the Middle East. It is headed by a man of great ability and little experience who recruited aides who have proven incapable of carrying the heavy policy load. The Middle East today confronts many dilemmas. It is a crossroads of huge dangers and exciting opportunities. Obama must take himself in hand, replace his policy team and prepare strategically for a situation in which Middle East publics will have far more to say than ever before.

Judging by the experience of the past two years, it doesn’t look like he’s up to the task.

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