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.

 
 
We are now only a few hours away from Presidential Debate #2. Unlike the first debate two weeks ago this debate will use a town hall format and foreign as well as domestic policy will be on the agenda. With that in mind, please take a look at my latest column for Gulf News, which looks at the ongoing controversy surrounding the attack on the Benghazi consulate and the way both Obama and Romney have handled it.

Also noteworthy: this piece, published yesterday by Bloomberg noting that Morsi's administration in Egypt is now considering new measures to outlaw "political thuggery' - a term which appears to start with blocking traffic and takes off from there.
 
 
My latest column, which appears in today's print editions of Gulf News, looks at the international intervention in Libya. Careful readers of my previous column on this subject will have noted that my objection was less to the idea of intervening in Libya than it was to the fact that we seemed not to know exactly why we were intervening or on whose behalf. This essay explores my other - frankly, bigger - fear: that we are embarking on this despite the fact that neither the West nor the Arab nations supporting the action are really prepared to accept the consequences of hat they have begun. If we are going to do this we need to be prepared to see it through to the finish. Frankly, I see little evidence of that so far.

Click here to read the entire column. Please return to this page to leave comments.
 
 
The rising humanitarian crisis in Libya is leading a lot of people to advocate a Western-imposed 'no-fly' zone over the country. As I note in my latest column for Gulf News, it is easy to understand the appeal of this idea, but on closer consideration it raises as many problems as it potentially solves.

Click here to read the entire column.
 
 
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.
 
 
Expats who have spent time in the tiny Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain have probably spent the last week or so in a state of shock. Bahrain has always been a live-and-let-live sort of place. The violence of the last few days is unprecedented.

Except that it’s not.

Without wanting to go off on too much of a tangent here, few people in my experience are more isolated from the cultures around them than western expatriates living in the Persian Gulf and Bahrain, in this regard, has always been something of an extreme example.

Most Americans or Europeans who have visited will remember a small, socially relaxed city. Bahrain Island is about 30 miles north-to-south and 11 miles east-to-west at its widest. The southern half of the island, however, is mostly uninhabited. The country’s population of 1.1 million (about half of whom are actually Bahrainis) is mostly crammed into the northern end of the main island (in the capital, Manama, and in various small towns and villages to its south and west) and onto the neighboring island of Muharraq, where the airport is located. The US navy base you may have read about – the home port for the Fifth Fleet – is just south of downtown Manama in an area called Juffair (though there is also a huge military airfield in the southeast corner of Bahrain Island, the exact function of which neither American nor Bahraini officials are much inclined to talk about). The protests of the last few days have been taking place at the Pearl Roundabout, about two miles west of the base (i.e. at the other end of the city center).

In an irony of history, Bahrain was once the richest place on the Arab side of the Gulf but is now, arguably, the poorest. Britain established a protectorate over Bahrain in the mid-19th century. After WWI the island became the UK’s administrative headquarters for all Gulf affairs. As a result, Bahrain, in the 1920s and 30s, offered far more advanced infrastructure, better schools and better medical care than any place else in the Gulf. American missionaries built a hospital in Bahrain as far back as 1903 (to this day it carries the mailing address: PO Box 1, Manama, Bahrain). Bahrain was even the first place on the Arab side of the Gulf where oil was discovered a fact that, in the 30s, added even more to its prosperity. The oil did much to mitigate the collapse of the pearl industry in the early 30s, following the Japanese invention of cultured pearls (the importation of which is still banned in Bahrain).

After WWII, however, when the Gulf oil industry really took off, it quickly became clear that Bahrain had far less oil or gas than any of its neighbors. The British pulled out in 1971 and when oil prices skyrocketed a few years later, in the wake of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Bahrain, with its well-developed infrastructure, was well-positioned to serve as the commercial and communications hub for the region. In later years it also emerged as a banking center and developed a lucrative shipyard repair industry.

Overseeing all of this were/are the Al-Khalifa family, Bahrain’s rulers since the mid-18th century (by far the longest tenure of any of the Gulf’s ruling families). The Al-Khalifas are Sunni Muslims. The bulk of Bahrain’s population (about 70%), however, are Shiites, many of whom are at least partly of Persian ancestry. The Shiites believe, with more than a little justification, that the ruling family and the rest of Bahrain’s elite – virtually all Sunnis – have cornered both political power and the national wealth.

The result has been consistent political unrest since the early 90s – a fact of which even many expats living in Bahrain have often been unaware. Ignorance was an easy thing to cultivate. This was partly because past protests were never anything like those of the last few days and partly because the expat community lives in a bubble far removed from the dirt poor villages west of Manama.

The result has been a generation of rising political tension in Bahrain – one that, this week, has finally boiled over.

More on that tomorrow.

 
 
Last night I appeared on WCAX TV in Burlington, Vermont to discuss the uprising in Egypt and its possible repercussions around the region.

 
 
This week's column for Gulf News looks recent events in the US - notably the Shirley Sherrod fiasco - and explains the lesson this mess holds for those of us focused on foreign policy: expect little from the administration beyond crisis management until after November's elections.
 
 
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.