My latest column, which appears in today's print editions of Gulf News and is now available here at MideastAnalysis.com, takes President Obama's coming trip to the Middle East as a starting point and asks Arab readers (and readers who care about the US-Arab relationship) to think what, exactly, they would like to see from the US administration in the next few years.

As I say in the piece, however, there's a caveat: I'm interested in attainable goals - difficult is fine, but attainable - not wish lists. Please don't tell me that the US must alter its entire attitude toward Israel and the Palestinians because that simply is not going to happen (one could further argue that with Netanyahu in power an about-face wouldn't do much good anyway - but that's a separate discussion). Let's think about things the Arab World can ask of America that America might - just might - be willing and politically able to do.

 
 
I’m a Middle East wonk, but watching the final presidential debate one really has to ask… no mention of the economic crisis in Europe? China mentioned only in passing in reference to currency manipulation? No real discussion (a passing reference by Obama aside) of the Obama administration decision to shift America’s overall military priorities toward Asia? No discussion (a passing reference to Mali by Romney aside) of Africa – despite the fact that the US military has been expanding its footprint there throughout the Obama administration (this, to be fair, goes back into the Bush years – but it still needs to be talked about)? No attempt at a serious discussion of Russia? Pakistan discussed only in reference to its nukes – no mention of how that ties into our deepening relationship with India? Burmese Rohingyas? BRICS? Nuclear proliferation not involving Iran? Did anyone even say the words “North Korea”? Latin America in general? How, exactly, was this a foreign policy debate?

I’ve spent most of my career dealing with the Middle East. I appreciated the discussion of the Arab Spring and the fall of Mubarak. Iran got its due (and we learned that Romney is a bit geographically challenged when it comes to Iran), as did Syria. Even if the discussion of both countries never really went beyond boilerplate it at least happened. The who-loves-Israel-best discussion was a bit tiresome, but ultimately par for the course.

Among the topics that actually did get discussed the glaring hole was in Afghanistan. Both candidates avoided the obvious unraveling of our current strategy and paid lip service to the idea that we’re doing an excellent job of training Afghan troops, utterly ignoring the growing problem of those same troops opening fire on their trainers.

The real tragedy, however, was that the Middle East (broadly defined) so utterly dominated these 90 minutes. It’s my patch professionally, and on one level I appreciated the attention. We really, however, needed a broader discussion of so, so many issues tonight that, for some reason or other, simply did not make the cut.

 
 
Hello, and welcome back. After being dormant for far too long it is time to get MideastAnalysis back up and running!

We'll begin with my latest column for Gulf News. This appeared on the newspaper's website a few hours ago and will be in the paper's print editions on Wednesday.

I am, of course, eager for any and all feedback and will work hard to make MideastAnalysis a go-to source for thoughtful commentary on the US and the Middle East.

Again: welcome back.

grr


TASK CUT OUT FOR ROMNEY AND MURSI
By Gordon Robison

Gulf News (Dubai); online 18Sept / print 19Stpe

Let us begin by acknowledging that Mohammad Mursi and Mitt Romney occupy very different places on the power spectrum. Romney merely hopes to become a president. Mursi already is one.

Each politician, however, is being watched closely — both within their respective countries and by the outside world. Each is still trying to convince doubters that he is up to the job. Last week, each found his leadership tested in a crucial, yet predictable, way and each, in turn, failed that test.

First, Romney.

When violence broke out in front of the American Embassy in Cairo and, far more lethally, its Consulate in Benghazi, the correct path for Romney was clear: Express concern and remind reporters pushing for a reaction that it would be inappropriate to comment on a delicate, still unfolding, foreign crisis. It’s not that criticising a sitting president on his handling of overseas troubles is bad, but timing does matter.

Instead, he rushed out a highly critical statement about the Barack Obama administration’s handling of events, even as these were still unfolding. When the statement proved to be wrong about numerous things, Romney refused to retract it and, instead, repeated his false accusations.

Throughout the crisis, it appeared that Romney was thinking only about the immediate news cycle and the opportunity it offered for scoring points on Obama. That he appeared petty and decidedly unpresidential appeared not to cross his mind.

What made it worse was that it was all so predictable. Foreign crises happen often enough that any sensible opposition presidential candidate needs to be prepared to react to them and the script (offer vague support now, criticise once the storm has passed) is a well-established part of US politics.

To be clear: I am not saying that Obama’s handling of last week’s events is beyond criticism; merely that, as a political matter, challengers ought to withhold their criticism until after a foreign crisis has passed. Their ability to do so is an important test of whether they possess the temperament and maturity that the presidency requires.

That brings us to Mursi.

Like challengers seeking to replace incumbents, representatives of long-repressed political movements, suddenly thrust into power, bear some special burdens. They need to demonstrate to the wider world that they are aware of the rules governing relations among nations and are willing to abide by them.

This is not an indictment of Islamists or the Muslim Brotherhood per se. Evo Morales’ peasant-based political movement faced many of the same questions when it took power in Bolivia in 2006. So did Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in 1994.

Obviously, Mursi’s first concern is Egypt. At home, he must work to keep his promises to voters while facing political challenges from a military he does not really control and from Salafists who, unburdened by the responsibilities of government, have little to lose by embarrassing him.

Still, as Egypt’s first elected leader, Mursi also needs to prove to the wider world that he understands the obligations of office and takes them seriously.

This goes beyond protecting embassies (as important as that is). It is about building and maintaining credibility. Mursi’s worst moment last week came when his subordinates were caught tweeting words of reassurance to the Americans in English while using the Brotherhood’s Arabic twitter feed to encourage more protests in front of the US Embassy.

Just as Romney should have anticipated that a foreign crisis would test his ability to demonstrate statesmanlike restraint, so Mursi should have foreseen that violence on Cairo’s streets would, sooner or later, test his resolve. Since Hosni Mubarak’s fall, there have been several outbursts of popular anger directed at embassies and foreign businesses in Cairo. Some of these have been stoked by people who also support Mursi. It was inevitable that this would happen again and, in the process, that Mursi’s willingness to enforce international norms, even against his own supporters, would be tested.

Later this month, Mursi is expected in New York where he will address the United Nations, meet Obama and, in many ways, will have his coming out on the international stage. His main task will be to put the international community at ease, convincing a sometimes sceptical world that Egypt is a safe place to visit and invest and that its government is a good credit risk. If his actions clash with his words that will be a very hard-sell indeed.

Romney is still trying to make the sale with American voters. Having won over voters at home, Mursi now needs to sell himself and his government to the international community. Both tasks require a kind of leadership neither man displayed last week. Undoing that damage is not impossible, but through action and inaction Romney and Mursi have made their own jobs noticeably harder.

Gordon Robison, a long-time Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.

 
 
In a political climate where Republicans can find fault with the most innocent statement by President Obama you might think that there would be more debate in Washington over the unfolding Middle East revolutions. Strangely, this has not been the case. My latest column, which is online now and will appear in print editions of Gulf News on Wednesday, looks at this phenomenon, and suggests that Obama would do well to use the breathing space his opponents have given him - because it won't be there forever.

Click here to read the full column, return to this page to leave comments.
 
 
Tunisia presents President Obama with the opportunity to show that, unlike Bush and his other predecessors, he will put the long-term interests of Arab people ahead of the short-term interests of Arab governments.

Click here to read my latest column from Gulf News. Please return to the home page to leave comments.


 
 
My latest column from Gulf News looks at the coming midterm election. The conventional wisdom is that a debacle looms for Democrats. It certainly is not going to be a good Fall for Obama's party but maybe - just maybe - it won't be as bad as many people think. Here's why.
 
 
Gordon's latest column - published today in Gulf News - looks at the new Middle East peace process launched in Washington last week. Why is Obama investing credibility in negotiations that almost every informed observer believes are doomed to failure? The column considers several possible reasons.
 
 
Click here to see this evening's NECN (New England Cable News) report on President Obama's speech to the U.N., featuring analysis from Gordon Robison.
 
 
Gordon's column from Wednesday's Gulf News:

One might think the health care debate is a purely domestic issue - holding no importance for the Middle East. Nothing could be further from the truth.
 
 
Gordon's column from today's Gulf News, published in Dubai:

The US president is probably best described as a figure of the centre-left who believes the country is drifting in his direction.