US foreign policy amid shifting sands of ME

US foreign policy amid shifting sands of ME

US foreign policy amid shifting sands of ME
ACCORDING to President Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the White House is adopting a revised foreign policy on the Middle East, one that was described by the New York Times as “more modest” and “scaled back.”
The policy review was reflected in Obama’s recent speech at the UN General Assembly. He laid out America’s priorities and objectives in the region: Negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, brokering peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians and ending the strife in Syria.
The Arab Spring and the transition to democracy were not mentioned. Rice told the The Times recently that the president’s goal is to avoid having events in the Middle East swallow his foreign policy agenda.
This scaling back will also reflect on US dealing with other regional crises such as Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen. Analysts believe the administration was forced to re-engage the Israelis and Palestinians only because Secretary of State John Kerry launched his initiative before the new policy was developed. Obama’s earlier attempts to invite the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume peace negotiations were rebuffed, mainly by Israel.
And since both sides resumed talks little has come out. But the Palestinian side had complained of sustained Israeli plans to build new settlements and fatten the existing ones. In recent weeks threats against the Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem by Israeli settlers has amplified tension. While few believe that a political deal is still possible, only the US appears to be committed to the talks. Of the three main foreign policy objectives in the region this will prove to be the most difficult to achieve.
It is also the only one that the US is following unilaterally. Obama has shown that when it comes to confronting challenges in the Middle East his choice is almost always for multilateral cooperation.
This is what he opted for in Libya, and more recently on Syria. On Iran’s nuclear program Washington is working closely with the P5+1, although it often consults with Israel on the issue. The thinking in Washington is that the US cannot invest more time and resources in the Middle East. The latest shift ends years of direct involvement by the US in the region, which saw military intervention followed by occupation of Iraq for almost a decade. It also puts to rest the “freedom agenda” of President Bush, which Obama adopted in the early days of the Arab Spring.
The new policy recognizes that the United States ability to extend democracy in the region is limited. For decades the Middle East was at the center of America’s foreign policy doctrines. Certainly the US will continue to play a major role in the Gulf — to protect the world’s supply of oil from that region — and will intervene militarily against direct threats from extremists. But the war on terror will have to be fought in different ways now; relying more on drone attacks rather than direct military intervention.
In a recent essay published in Foreign Policy magazine, Aaron David Miller suggested a number of reasons for what he called the shrinking importance of the Middle East for the United States.
Among them: The fact that there is no Cold War anymore and that Russia’s influence in the Middle East is limited, and that even the direct terrorist threat to America from the region is exaggerated (he mentions that last year only 10 Americans died in terrorist attacks). In addition, the writer says that Americans are fed up with trying to fix the region and he points to the chaos that rages on now in Libya and Iraq. One additional reason is that new energy resources will reduce America’s dependence on Arab oil, noting that by 2020, US production could get close to 10 million barrels a day.
The writer goes on to say that in the post-Arab Spring Middle East most of Washington’s traditional Arab allies are gone. And those who remain do not like America’s policies. And finally the writer believes that Israel today is stronger and more independent than any time before. He suggests that this is due to three factors — Israel’s formidable capacity; steadfast support from the US; and stunning Arab incapacity.
Of course no policy can foresee the future and as history has shown the US presidents were forced in the past to abandon previous positions and react to unfolding events in the region. Obama may have chosen to scale back his Mideast policy objectives and goals, but even the ones that still matter to him now will pose considerable challenges.

• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
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