Connect to share and comment

Obama struggles to meet high expectations in the Middle East

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

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.)