America and the Middle East: The awkward job of managing a region in flux
WHEN Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many in the Middle East and beyond rejoiced. The new president promised to help negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and to reach out to Iran’s intransigent regime. An early, rousing speech in Cairo persuaded many ordinary Muslims that a new chapter in relations between America and the volatile region had begun.
This was sorely needed. Since September 11th 2001, George Bush’s catch-all “war on terror” had led to two conflicts in Muslim nations—Afghanistan and Iraq—which brought misery, mistrust and a hefty bill for America’s ailing economy. A rising Turkey checked America’s power in the region, and Iran’s Shia leadership had spread its tentacles into Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni regime. The Arab-Israeli peace process was on ice.
But now, nearly four years on and as American elections loom, Fawaz Gerges, a professor at the London School of Economics, is critical of Mr Obama’s timidity in the region. Mr Gerges reckons that the American president’s preference for pragmatism has left him open to attacks from all sides. The left, pointing to increased drone strikes and America’s threat to veto a Palestinian bid for statehood, accuses Mr Obama of antagonism towards the Arab world. The right wails that he is too soft on enemy states and has diminished America’s ability to shape the region’s affairs.
Some of this is unfair. By the standards of Washington, DC, which has long viewed the Middle East as a bulwark against Russian influence, Mr Obama’s record has not been too bad. Iraq is no beacon of democracy, but America’s army is no longer stuck in a quagmire there. American troops are gradually leaving Afghanistan too; a further 23,000 exit this year, and all combat troops will depart by 2014. And the region’s oil still flows into the market.