Gordon Robison is a lecturer in political science at UVM. He has spent more than 20 years living in, writing about and reporting on the Middle East. Robison will speak at the Rutland Free Library on December 2 as part of the Vermont Humanities Council's First Wednesdays lecture series. His talk "A Year after the Election: the Obama Administration and the Middle East" begins at 7pm.
By Gordon Robison
This time last year the mention of Barack Obama's name among defeated and demoralized Republicans often led to cries of 'just you wait and see: he's going to disappoint people." This was always an odd charge. Has there ever been a politician who, at some stage, did not disappoint his or her supporters?
So it is, perhaps, no surprise that since last year's election the Middle East is just one of many areas where a degree of disillusionment about the Obama administration has settled in. Critics like to point out that the last year has brought nothing in the way of Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement. Neither has the rise of Barack Obama made Iran less belligerent, Syria more cooperative or Saudi Arabia and Egypt more democratic. We are also, of course, still deeply mired in Iraq.
In recent weeks, a chorus of presidential critics who have looked at this record concluded that the Obama Middle East record is one of failure. Longtime observers of the region know, however, that things in the Middle East are rarely that clear cut. As it has in so many other areas, the Obama administration has been careful and methodical – refusing to rush into Middle Eastern affairs.
One might also ask whether anyone really expected Mr. Obama, in 10 months, to fix problems that have been decades in the making?
Unfortunately perception in politics can often become reality. One can argue that expectations, particularly in the Arab World, were always too high for Obama to meet, but the fact is that they were there. Now that disillusionment is settling in the danger is that things will swing too far in the opposite direction.
The warning signs have been around for months. While the President's speech in Cairo last June on America's relationship with the Muslim World was well received in many quarters, there were also many who viewed it too narrowly. Though the speech mixed praise with criticism for every major Middle Eastern player, a surprising number of commentators on all sides noted only the criticism directed at themselves and the praise given to their enemies.
The administration's most obvious stumble has been on Israeli-Palestinian issues. Presidential envoy George Mitchell has little to show for months of shuttling back-and-forth between the two sides. The best that can be said may be that the Obama team has not made the mistake of investing too much of the president or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's time and prestige in what often seems like a never-ending slog.
Especially damaging has been the administration's backtracking on the strong stance it initially took against the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Having first come out against Israel's building program and then softened its approach has left the administration with the trust of neither side. Israelis remain wary of the new President while many Arabs have concluded he has no spine.
This gets to the broader question of America's standing in the Middle East and whether an Obama administration has, or can, undo the damage wrought by eight years of George W. Bush.
Mr. Obama came to office seeming, for many in the Arab World, to embody everything his predecessor was not. Expectations always bedevil American leaders in the Middle East. In every regional conflict each side tends to assume that Washington has the ability to make everyone else do its bidding. Modern Middle Eastern history has repeatedly demonstrated that this is not, in fact, true. As an idea, however, it has proven remarkably enduring.
The fact about President Obama that many in the Middle East seem to have been slow to grasp is that while he is, in many ways, a transformative figure he remains an American politician. Yes, he is worldly, sophisticated and sensitive to foreign feelings. But he still lives in Washington, governs through the American system and has a domestic agenda that comes ahead of anything in his foreign policy plate.
That might not make him the leader some in the Middle East were hoping for, but one could argue that the American leader most Middle Easterners want does not exist. What the Middle East has in Mr. Obama is a careful leader who thinks before he acts and is not wedded to any of the ideologies that have dominated the region for so many decades.
That represents real change, and ought to be recognized as such.