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Obama struggles to meet high expectations in the Middle East

Arab policymakers hope that the fledgling administration can still succeed where predecessors failed.

Saudi King Abdullah and U.S. President Barack Obama are greeted by a guard of honor upon Obama's arrival at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, June 3, 2009. (Fahad Shadeed/Reuters)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies have achieved little so far and increasingly appear similar to those of the Bush administration, generating widespread disappointment in the region, according to Arab and U.S. analysts.

The disillusionment is not universal, and some Arab policymakers express hope that the one-year-old Obama administration will eventually succeed where previous U.S. presidents have failed, especially in the pivotal issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

(Read about Saudis' anticipation over Obama one year ago.)

But the high expectations created by Obama’s election, his conciliatory inaugural address a year ago this week, and his promise of a new relationship with the Muslim world in a Cairo speech last June have been seriously eroded.

“It’s very dangerous because he has raised a lot of expectations when he delivered that speech in Cairo. A lot of people are saying it was wonderful but there is no follow up,” said Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

“In less than a year in office, Obama is beginning to sound and act more and more like the cowboy president,” Aijaz Syed, opinion editor of Khaleej Times in Dubai, wrote in a recent column.

Syed, an early and enthusiastic admirer of Obama, added that his administration’s response to the Al Qaeda-orchestrated attempt to blow up a U.S jetliner on Christmas Day, “sounds so eerily similar to that of the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. The same jingoistic ‘Us Versus Them’ rhetoric and attitude that have been at the heart of America’s ... dangerous confrontation with the Islamic world persists.”

Many observers say they have seen little change in U.S. policy toward Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And while they are relieved that the specter of a military strike against Iran has subsided under the Obama administration, they note that Iran has not yet been deterred from its covert nuclear weapons program.

“My biggest disappointment,” added Masmoudi, “is how little this administration is talking about human rights and democracy.”

But the paramount issue for most Arabs is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the lack of progress there, along with the perceived U.S. acquiescence in Israel’s continuing economic blockade of the Gaza Strip, “are hurting Obama’s reputation in the area,” said Mohammed H. Al Qunaibet, a member of Saudi Arabia’s government-appointed Human Rights Commission.

Initially, many Arabs and other Muslims were cheered by Obama’s quick appointment of former U.S. senator George J. Mitchell as special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and by Washington’s open call for a complete halt to Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

But the administration’s perceived retreat when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected this demand, and its embrace instead of a 10-month Israeli moratorium on settlement expansion — only in the West Bank — has dampened Arab hopes that Obama will extract from Israel the concessions needed for creating a viable Palestinian state.

Mark Perry, a Washington-based independent military and foreign policy analyst, said the Obama administration’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has faltered because the president “is surrounded by people ... who don’t get the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They think they do ... but they don’t.”

There is, he added, “no evidence whatsoever that there’s any kind of original creative, interesting thinking going on on this issue.”

Perry, whose forthcoming book, “Talking to Terrorists,” examines the U.S. Marine Corps’ partnership with Iraqi insurgents in Anbar Province, said the Obama administration fails to “understand that there are two parts to this conflict” or to appreciate “what the Palestinians are going through.”