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Letter from America / Nathaniel Sheppard Jr: Obama’s Perfect Storm

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Despite a basket of new ideas on achieving peace in the Middle East and North Africa, President Barack Obama has not been able to develop a roadmap that would give his ideas traction. Nor has he been able to retain the hearts and minds he won over at the onset of his presidency two years ago with pledges of a new beginning for US-Arab relations.

Instead, he finds himself surrounded by a perfect storm of criticism from friends and foes alike, a hapless hiker without a map in a maze of unmarked trails.

It might be easier and less perilous for the president to do a high wire act over a lava pit blindfolded than venture along the quicksand riddled roads that ostensibly lead to peace in the region but in fact dead end at bridges to nowhere.

At the beginning of this month, there was the row with Pakistan over the unannounced US commando raid in Abbottabad in which Osama Bin Laden was killed.

Praise for the raid that brought down the world’s most wanted fugitive and mastermind of terrorist attacks that killed thousands was overshadowed by recriminations between the two would-be allies.

US officials including the president wondered aloud whether Pakistani security or government officials may have knowingly allowed Bin Laden to live for years in the garrison town not far from the capital, Islamabad, while the world thought he was holed up in a cave somewhere.

An embarrassed Pakistan bristled at the US for violating its sovereignty in carrying out the attack and warned that a repeat of the breach would have dire consequences. Pakistan continued to stew as a previous dispute continued over civilian deaths by unmanned US drone aircraft in tribal areas. Relations hit a new low yesterday when Pakistan reportedly asked the U.S. to remove its military forces from the country.

If there is a flashpoint in the Middle East that unites critics and allies of the US alike in opposition to American policy, it is most certainly the longstanding fight over Palestinian statehood and Arab recognition of Israel.

A week ago, President Obama unveiled a Middle East policy. There was little new in it to impress Arabs, and the section on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian border dispute only inflamed Israel. He had but stated publicly what privately had been considered by previous administrations as a possible starting point for resolving the myriad issues between the two neighbors—going back to internationally recognized 1967 boundaries with land swaps to take account of demographic changes since then.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was hopping mad. He said that he expected the president to withdraw his suggestion by the time they met for already scheduled talks. In an Oval Office photo op following those talks, Mr. Obama diplomatically said friends sometimes differed in opinions on resolving issues. Mr. Netanyahu cast diplomacy aside and lectured the president on what Israel would and would not do, mostly what it would not.

That feud, too, has gone unabated and Mr. Netanyahu has stepped up the rhetoric. When the president went to Europe for a six-day visit last week, Mr. Netanyahu went to Congress and fired up members eager to beat up on the president as the country heads toward another presidential campaign in 2012.

If Israel and the Palestinians are unhappy with US efforts to help resolve the matter, so too are some US allies. Britain and other countries in Europe and elsewhere, fed up with the lack of progress, have signaled they may support an expected Palestinian request that the UN General Assembly pass a declaration creating a Palestinian state if there is no progress by September. The US opposes such a move.

President Obama’s much ballyhooed Middle East speech also failed to achieve a primary goal of persuading Arabs the US would be there for them if they choose the path of democracy. It did not specify how. Moreover, as the Arab Spring revolts against despotic governments swept across the region like brushfire, the US was seen largely as a sidelines booster, reluctant to get involved beyond asking regional strongmen to kindly step down.

Criticism mounted as US policy in the region seemed uneven and unreliable, with the US cherry-picking where it would commit tangible help such as arms and support for using NATO airpower. As Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi cracked down on citizens, mercilessly bombing areas of resistance, President Obama decided to let the French take the lead in setting things right. They failed to do so and the US was drawn in under pressure.

The president addressed the matter during a historic speech before the British Parliament yesterday, the first ever by a US president in Westminster Abbey. He told Parliament that “…as a revolution races through the streets of the Middle East and North Africa, the entire world has a stake in the aspirations of a generation that longs to determine its own destiny.

“While we cannot stop every injustice, there are circumstances that cut through our caution—when a leader is threatening to massacre his people, and the international community is calling for action. That is why we stopped a massacre in Libya. And we will not relent until the people of Libya are protected, and the shadow of tyranny is lifted.”

The situation in Syria appears to meet that standard and is perhaps even worse as a brutal government crackdown that has claimed the lives of hundreds of dissidents continues. Mr. Obama left unclear why there has been no tangible US support beyond economic sanctions against the country’s leaders that so far have shown no signs of working.

“We will proceed with humility, and the knowledge that we cannot dictate outcomes abroad,” President Obama said. “Ultimately, freedom must be won by the people themselves, not imposed from without. But we can and must stand with those who so struggle.”

There was a festering problem of dwindling Arab faith in the president even before this. Two years ago, a newly elected President Obama promised a fresh start in US-Arab relations. His credibility has all but vanished now, however, as there appears little evidence of change other than a spike in Islamophobia in the US.

He spoke of a new world order yesterday in which China, India and Brazil would play key roles as bourgeoning superpowers but he named no Arab nations that would have such standing, again leaving Arabs on the margins.

While enjoying warm receptions and generally high marks for his visit to Europe so far, the president has been largely preaching to the choir. Middle East peace efforts continue to go nowhere as do US efforts to hold onto old Arab friends and cultivate new ones.

(Nathaniel Sheppard Jr. is a veteran foreign correspondent who has worked for the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. He can be reached at: [email protected])