Obama faces new Mideast challenges in his second term
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, left, walks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second from left, President Barack Obama, second from right, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the Middle East peace talks at White House in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, September 1, 2010.
CAIRO — President Barack Obama faces a more volatile Middle East than the one he brought a sense of promise to nearly four years ago when he delivered his seminal “new beginnings” speech here to an intrigued, if suspicious, Muslim world.
Unpopular Western-friendly autocrats no longer run Egypt and Tunisia, and in Libya, the mercurial Moammar Gadhafi is dead and gone. But the White House has to contend with an aggressive political Islam that rose from “Arab Spring” movements even as it grapples with ongoing bloodshed in Syria, terrorist attacks on Americans and the persistent tinderbox that is Iran.
Obama is likely to encounter many such sober realities during his second term. But there is a pervading belief in the region that he was a wiser choice than the hawkish Mitt Romney when it comes to dealing with a dangerous new era of shifting alliances and a restive young generation of Arabs seeking to balance Western-inspired aspirations with Islamic sensibilities.
“There’s a sense of relief in the Middle East. People feel Obama understands the region at a much higher level than Romney,” said Randa Habib, a writer and political analyst in Jordan. “But his re-election does not have the great excitement of four years ago.”
Obama faces the fluid contours of an Arab world with an emerging political Islam sharply divided between moderates and ultraconservatives. This struggle is central to the region’s identity and stability and has forced the U.S. to make wary bargains with Islamist pragmatists, such as Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who need foreign investment and aid to rescue faltering economies.
Pragmatism versus extremism is the potent undercurrent in a part of the world that continues to mistrust America and bristles at Obama’s perceived shortcomings. The U.S., which has thinned the ranks of al-Qaida’s leadership in Yemen and Pakistan with much-criticized drone strikes, fears a resurgence of radicalism in countries such as Libya, where in September, militants attacked the U.S. mission in Benghazi, killing Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
In less-restive Egypt, there is ongoing worry over the voices of hard-line Islamists. The Obama administration has been supporting — its critics say placating — Morsi and the dominant Muslim Brotherhood in what it sees as an effort to stem extremism that could endanger the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty and tug the region farther away from Washington’s influence.
Also more tenuous than four years ago is the bond between Washington and Israel. The longtime allies are at odds over how best to deal with the potential nuclear threat from Iran. The Obama administration’s aim of curtailing Tehran’s atomic development program by intensifying economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure remains unpopular in much of Israel.
Israel has threatened military strikes on Iran but has, at least publicly, tempered its language. The possibility remains, however, that the U.S., with Israel’s urging, may be drawn into military action if Iran continues to enrich uranium. But that prospect did not appear immediate on Wednesday.
“I feel relieved, at least there is no imminent war,” said a building janitor in Tehran who would give only his first name, Ahmad, after hearing of Obama’s reelection. “I think the Iranian government ought to be happy.”
In Israel, there is also a sense that Obama, with an eye toward his legacy, will redouble efforts at peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, a move that would help restore Arabs’ faith in him.
A central question, though, is the future of what has been a frosty relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many in Israel and the U.S. accused Netanyahu of working quietly to support Romney and some now worry about a political blowback if Obama supports the center-left bloc and undermines the prime minister’s re-election bid.
“There is undoubtedly disappointment on the part of Netanyahu and his circle,” said Stuart Schoffman, a fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jerusalem-based Jewish studies think tank. “I don’t think they are going to be any fonder of Obama, but they will have to deal with the fact that they don’t have any chance of deposing him as they hoped.”
Such political intrigue is at a play in a region where bloodshed is already a norm.
The conflict in Syria foreshadows how sectarian animosities between Shiite and Sunni Muslims could spill across borders and ignite unrest in Lebanon and Iraq. The Arab monarchies in the Persian Gulf, notably Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, are close U.S. allies but are under intensifying pressure to allow freer societies. And Yemen has become a base from which Al Qaeda can threaten U.S. interests at the crossroads of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
These scenarios were accelerated by or born of the uprisings that erupted in late 2010 when a fruit seller in Tunisia set himself on fire. But the Arab Spring also disrupted generations-old narratives and exacerbated deeply embedded political and religious tensions in countries such as Syria.
Obama has been criticized for not providing overt military support to Syrian rebels in a war that has claimed at least 30,000 lives. The conflict has attracted Islamic militants from Iraq and other countries that will complicate a scramble for power if the government of President Bashar Assad falls. Analysts suggest that as in Libya, where the U.S. backed international airstrikes against Kadafi, Obama may be forced to quicken Assad’s fall by aiding certain rebel groups.
“There is a new belief that as the struggle (in Syria) becomes longer al-Qaida will grow stronger,” said Mohammed Abu Rumman, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman. “The U.S. and Jordan will not accept al-Qaida gains. I believe ... there will be a shift in strategy. Something will happen on the ground in Syria with Obama.”
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