Gulliver’s Troubles: Obama and the Middle East in 2012

Jan 13, 2012
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Commentary from Aaron David Miller

President Obama begins 2012 like a modern day foreign policy Gulliver, tied up by tiny tribes, determined to carry out their own agenda at the expense of his.  Should he be reelected in November, the three headaches that constitute his key Middle Eastern priorities will still be throbbing, most likely at the migraine level.

Iran:  Unless the mullahocracy in Tehran commits a major blunder by provoking   a potentially devastating attack by the United States, the Iranian game of bob and weave toward developing a nuclear weapons capacity is going to continue. Tehran has convinced itself that only weaponization can provide  insurance against regime change by the west; and neither  diplomacy nor sanctions is likely to stop its nuclear ambitions. Paradoxically, the current cold war between Iran, Israel , and America – cyber-attacks,  verbal bluster,  sanctions, political pressure and assassinations may defuse the need  and pressure for an imminent hot one.

Arab Spring/Winter: The Arab leadership structure that America knew for half a century is fundamentally transformed.  The adversarial authoritarians (Saddam. Qadhafi, Assad) are gone or fundamentally weakened; the acquiescent authoritarians (Mubarak, Ben Ali, Abdullah Saleh), the same.  The Kings (Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan) are faring better; but the space for America and its unpopular policies will continue to shrink significantly as Arab public opinion plays a more influential role in shaping their countries policies. The US will no longer have Arab strongmen willing or able to acquiesce, let   alone support, its policies.

Arab-Israeli Peace: 2012 will be the year of the three Nos:  no serious negotiations; no Israeli-Palestinian  agreement;  no improvement  in  the US-Israeli  relationship or in America’s credibility with the Palestinians. The Netanyahu-Obama relationship remains a poisonous one papered over by the political requirements of both men. It might improve temporarily if the Iranian issue goes to crisis, and Iran responds against Israel, particularly in an election year. But this is likely to be temporary. Come November, the tensions in the relationship, specifically on the absence of progress on the Arab-Israeli issue will continue.

Rarely in an election year has the combination of policy and politics aligned so poorly for the United States. Politics could force the US to respond even more harshly to an Iranian crisis even as those same politics constrains what America is willing to do on the Israeli-Palestinian  issue.  And America’s leverage to affect the Arab spring (Egypt) and winter (Syria) will remain limited. Tied up and down, 2012 is likely to be one tough year  for the president and his middle eastern policies.