Sometimes you get the feeling that Barack Obama would like to turn his back on the Middle East. It is an unrelenting source of trouble. In his first term he had a crash course in the diplomatic and political realities of the world’s most unstable region, and it wasn’t pleasant. A year ago President Obama even announced that America’s big foreign policy priority was going to be the Asia-Pacific region, the best bet to be this century’s global economic powerhouse.
His problem, though, is that the Middle East is too big, too dangerous and too strategically important to the United States to be left alone.
Obama started his first term with ambitions for Middle East peace that matched the soaring rhetoric of his campaign speeches. On only his second full day in office, on 22 January 2009, he declared that the United States would “actively and aggressively” seek peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
In June 2009 he delivered a speech to the world’s Muslims, saying the United States wanted a new beginning. I sat listening to him in the huge auditorium at Cairo University, his audience applauding and cheering as the mercury rose in their barometer of hope, wondering how fast it would fall. Later in the year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. It was, to borrow the President’s own phrase, the audacity of hope.
Four years on, Obama has greyer hair, and has reined in his rhetoric. He sought peace, as he promised, but he could not deliver it.
A new crisis between Israel and the Palestinians is overdue. Even if Obama is tempted to try to fulfil the hopes he raised when he took office, it may now be too late to create a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Like other western leaders, Obama has been more a spectator than an arbiter since the Arab uprisings began to change every calculation about the Middle East. His administration pulled its support from Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak soon after the uprising against him started. But that did not earn them forgiveness from Egyptians, and other Arabs, for the years in which America and its western friends built their Middle East policy around friendly dictators.
In his next term Obama will have to build new relations with Egypt and other Arab states that have elected Islamist political leaders. And he will have to respond if the Arab uprisings continue to spread to US allies in the Gulf.
In his victory speech last week Obama told Americans that ten years of war were ending. But turbulence in the Middle East means that military action, perhaps even new wars, will push their way on to his agenda.
The Syrian war is leaking into neighbouring countries. In his second term Obama is likely to authorise more support of the Syrian rebels, short of direct US military intervention.
An even bigger decision awaits on Iran. If by next summer the US and its key allies still believe that Iran is putting itself in a position to develop a nuclear weapon, despite talks and sanctions, Obama will have to decide whether or not to attack Iran’s nuclear sites, or to give Israel a green light to go to war.
Behind every decision will be the knowledge that, despite its huge military power, America’s political leverage in the Middle East is in decline. Compliant allies have been deposed. A new generation that sees America as an adversary, not a friend, is being empowered.