Barack Obama is losing the Middle East


US President Barack Obama makes remarks from the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, Oct. 20, 2011.


Jim Watson

CAIRO, Egypt — During a month of travel in the Middle East and North Africa, a constant refrain has been disappointment with the United States in general, and with President Barack Obama in particular.

Obama’s threat to veto Palestinian national aspirations at the United Nations has damaged his image. Many in the Arab world consider it a betrayal of the inspiring speech he made here in Cairo at the beginning of his administration, a speech that seemed to promise a turning of the page toward a new policy.

“We are very, very, very disappointed,” said Amr Mousa, a former secretary general of the Arab League, and the favorite to be the next president of Egypt.

In that memorable Cairo address of 2009, Obama said: "America will not turn its back on the legitimate Palestinian aspirations for dignity, opportunity and a state of their own.”

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A year later, at the UN, he said: “When we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” To many here these words are anything but consistent with Obama’s actions.

A magazine in Jordan spoke about Obama “back-tracking on his commitment to the Palestinians.” The result, no doubt, of “domestic pressure.”

A sheikh from the Persian Gulf took me aside at the World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan and told me in no uncertain terms that Obama’s stance on the Palestinians was making it very difficult to be pro-American, and that America’s position regionally and its interests were being damaged.

Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s Nobel Laureate and another candidate for Egypt’s presidency , put it more mildly. He told me that he thought Obama was too mired in domestic politics to be able to concentrate on the Middle East.

I tried to explain to interlocutors across the region that Obama was no less committed to achieving a solution between Israel and the Palestinians, but he thought that going to the UN instead of direct negotiations with the Israelis was a tactical mistake, and would only serve as a “distraction.”

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That subtlety was lost on even the most sophisticated Arabs with whom I spoke. The symbolism of the Palestinian Authority, whose roots came out of the terrorism of 30 years ago, going down the peaceful path of appealing to the UN for recognition is very powerful here.

Nor did I find much sympathy for Obama in Israel. The right thinks of him as a naïf who can easily be out-maneuvered, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has consistently done. The left is disappointed in him for the same reason: that Obama let Netanyahu push him around.

The spectacle of members of Congress leaping to their feet to clap after almost every sentence of Nethanyahu’s address gave comfort to the right that America could always be manipulated. To the Israeli left it was pathetic. “Netanyahu could have been reading from the telephone book,” said author and journalist, Yuval Elizur.

As for the Palestinians themselves, when I went to visit the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, they insisted that going to the UN was not a substitute for direct negotiations, but a prelude; a move to jar the needle on the skipping record that had produced nothing in 20 years. The Palestinians, as you might expect, feel the most let-down by Obama’s position on their UN bid.

Of course the US is still a major force and influence in the region. But the promise that Obama seemed to bring when he spoke at American University here has drained away after a lack of follow-through from Washington. “It would have been better if he had never spoken,” said a Western diplomat.

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The Israeli-Palestinian issue is not a major driving force in the Arab Spring. It is not what sent the young out on the streets of Tunis and Cairo, and it is not the issue for which Syrians oppose their government. But the remarkable thing is that the Palestinian issue is always there. It won’t go away. Maybe it is issue number six or seven on everybody’s list of concerns, but it is on everybody’s list.

Of course some of the criticism of America is damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Esraa Abdel Fatah is a young woman of the Facebook-Twitter generation that was out early in Tahrir Square to bring down the government of Hosni Mubarak. Her beef with the US is that it hung on to Mubarak too long.

“I was very disappointed when Hilary Clinton said that Mubarak will keep the stability of the country,” she said. She fears that “the US has not learned the lesson of the Arab Spring.”

But if you talk to Saudis or Israelis, you will hear that Washington was too quick to throw Mubarak to the wolves.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, known as SCAF, that now rules Egypt as it prepares for elections later this month, has kept its close relationship with the United States that goes back to Anwar Sadat’s historic turn to the West and his peace with Israel. At the same time, SCAF occasionally plays the anti-American card to prove its independence to its newly-proud population.

If there is one certainty rising out of all of the uncertainties of the Arab Spring and its future it is that the people are going to have more voice in how things are done than before when autocrats ruled. And public opinion is not running in favor of the United States.