President Barack Obama’s new national security team will contend with a volatile Middle East that’s far removed from his 2009 pledge in Cairo to create “a new beginning” between the U.S. and Muslims around the world.
The Arab Spring revolutions that the administration in 2011 saw as pathways to democracy have traded Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qaddafi, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and, perhaps next, Bashar al-Assad for instability and growing Islamist radicalism in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria.
Anti-American sentiment has grown while Libyan and Syrian weapons have found their way to extremists. A year after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq, al-Qaeda is growing again in the country’s Sunni Muslim areas. The latest fighting in Gaza has boosted the prestige of Hamas, which Israel, the U.S. and the European Union consider a terrorist organization. Iran has been seeking nuclear capability despite economic sanctions.
“There is much more crisis ongoing that can present danger,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. “This has nothing to do with the U.S. and everything to do with domestic and international politics in the region,”
The president may announce his choices to replace outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as soon as this week.
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, is expected to be named as secretary of state while former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, is a leading candidate for the Pentagon, according to two people familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity to discuss personnel matters.
The new team will be charged with helping Obama find a strategic approach to the difficult region.
“We can, I think, do a better job of trying to anticipate where it’s going,” said Mona Yacoubian, senior adviser for the Middle East at the Stimson Center, a policy institute in Washington. “We’re missing that overarching strategy.”
In Syria, the Assad regime has killed more than 41,000 of its own people and displaced another 1.2 million in its effort to remain in power, according to opposition and United Nations estimates. The Obama administration has expressed concern about the possible use of Syria’s chemical weapons. Last week, the U.S. joined other nations in recognizing a rebel coalition, and Russia, a longtime Assad ally and arms supplier, said for the first time that his days may be numbered.
“The most immediate challenge will be Syria,” said Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser and now a counselor with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It borders Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. You can’t ascribe the Las Vegas rules to Syria. What happens to Syria isn’t going to stay there.”
The most persistent challenge may remain Iran, where economic sanctions so far have failed to halt the Islamic republic’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. While the U.S. and its allies are preparing a new push for negotiations, pressure is mounting to consider military action against Iran.
Next year, Ross said, “is going to be a decisive year one way or the other. You’re either going to have a diplomatic outcome before the end of the year or you’re going to end up seeing the use of force.”
In Egypt, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohamed Mursi’s attempt to claim unchecked power and pursuit of Islamic law led to deadly clashes and unrest. Obama has worked with Mursi -- White House officials thanked Mursi for helping broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Yet the Egyptian leader emerged as more of a dilemma than a partner.
The U.S. Congress has focused on the administration’s failures in Libya. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state last week to spare Obama a political fight.
Rice was targeted by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham over statements she made after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
The Benghazi attack also raised fresh questions about the success of U.S. efforts to support the rebels who overthrew and killed Qaddafi.
The recent fighting between Hamas and Israel, meanwhile, did nothing to improve the already dim prospects for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Nor did Israel’s recent announcement that it’s considering building new Jewish settlements in a sensitive area of the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center, said Obama has lost trust among Muslims after setting expectations high early in his administration.
“We don’t feel the U.S. is a credible partner in the region,” Alani said. “We don’t see a defined policy here.”
Obama, Alani said, is perceived to have prioritized Asia over the Mideast, sided with Israel over the Palestinians, responded too slowly to the Syrian revolution and disappointed secularists in Egypt by withholding criticism of Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s anti-democratic tactics.
“He is very late to support the Syrian revolution,” Alani said.
Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington policy group, said Obama has “run a pretty competent foreign policy,” given the complexity of the challenges in the region and the limitations of the U.S. economy and a war-weary public.
While Obama made missteps on trying to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Miller said, the sanctions on Iran are having an impact, and on Syria, “He’s exercised restraint.”
Mostly, Miller said, Obama’s failing has been that his Cairo speech and Nobel peace prize “raised expectations to a level that he could not possibly meet, and the gap between our rhetoric and ability to deliver became wider still. His personal approval ratings in the Arab world plummeted.”
“The mess that greets him in the second term is largely the function of an unraveling of an old order,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington policy group. “I don’t see this as a situation that he could have handled fundamentally any differently than he did.”
“There is not yet a comprehensive vision of how we move forward on doing the political work at home to educate Americans to here’s what we have to do to make the Cairo speech become real,” Zogby said.