Obama struggles to meet high expectations in the Middle East

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.”

U.S. policymakers also mistakenly put the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in the same category as Al Qaeda, Perry said, adding that their refusal to deal with Hamas makes reaching an Israeli-Palestinian settlement impossible.

Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist group, won the 2006 Palestinian national elections and controls the Gaza Strip.

Rob Malley, head of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program in Washington, said that while the Obama administration has “a different predisposition, different instincts and a different mindset” from its predecessor, it has pretty much continued Bush policies in the belief that if those policies are better implemented, they will get results.

“There is still a tendency to view the region through a prism that has become outmoded,” said Malley, with Obama policymakers thinking “that the Bush administration’s mistake was one of implementation rather than one of first assumptions.”

That approach “is inevitably going run into a wall and ... already has in the Israeli-Palestinian context,” added Malley, a former special assistant to President Bill Clinton and member of the U.S. team that attempted to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement at the 2000 Camp David Summit.

The “real test” of the administration, he said, “will be how it reacts when it finds that the policies it’s put into place don’t succeed. When it finds out that it’s not just a matter of doing better what others did poorly but of doing them differently. That’s going to be the real challenge.”

One of the administration’s major challenges, some analysts say, is that conditions in the Middle East have gotten increasingly intractable since Obama’s election.

“Unfortunately, the problems of the region have become a lot more complex since he came into office and that has included what’s happening with Israel, with Iran, the future trajectory of Iraq ... the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran [and] what’s happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

“The region has moved from bad to worse and ... it’s quite possible that policy is not keeping up with events on the ground,” he added.

The Obama administration wanted to be different, “but it’s beginning to look the same, getting stuck in the same corner as the Bush administration … . I’m not pointing fingers, it’s just that the situation has gotten more complex.”

Despite falling short in results, Obama is widely credited with important changes in rhetoric and atmosphere.

“The change in tone, in rhetoric, and the change from unilateralism to a willingness to engage ... those are two important changes,” said Joost R. Hiltermann, deputy head of the International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa division.

In one instance, these changes have yielded positive results, according to Mustafa Alani, head of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

“We are witnessing more cooperation [against Al Qaeda] from the Yemen side,” he noted.

“During Bush, the Yemenis were feeling very embarrassed to admit they are cooperating with the [U.S.] administration. Now, because of Obama, the mood in [the Yemeni capital of] Sanaa is changing and they are ready for more cooperation ... . So in this sense, we have a positive outcome for his presidency.”

Hady Amr, director of Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, insists that it is too soon to judge Obama’s Middle East policies.

“I don’t think there’s a verdict that’s come in yet,” said Amr, who contends that Obama has made “a 180-degree turn” in the direction of U.S. policies in the Middle East. “There’s a tremendous change in the environment.”

Amr cited Obama’s more conciliatory rhetoric, his “engaging rather than ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and his efforts to build “a stronger international coalition to pressure Iran, which reduces the possibility of a military strike.”

Some Saudis also are not yet ready to give up on Obama. While results are sparse, they say, the administration is making efforts in the right direction.

“Expectations were high. They are still high. And the hope is there,’” said Osama Al Kurdi, a member of the kingdom’s advisory quasi-parliament, the Shura Council. “Accomplishments can come at a later date, but the process is very important. And that’s why the mood is positive.”

(Read an overview of how the world views Obama one year later.)