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US retreat from the Middle East is not an option

Threats to bomb Iran and staying out of Syria do not add up to a coherent Middle East policy

Barack Obama
Image Credit: AFP
US President Barack Obama
Gulf News

If Mitt Romney wants to start another war in the Middle East, why doesn’t he just step up and say so? Barack Obama is too busy chasing votes on daytime television to show American leadership at the United Nations.

The US presidential campaign has turned its attention to world affairs. It would be an exaggeration to say that the debate has been uplifting. Behind the mudslinging, however, lie some uncomfortable truths for the winner of November’s election. Threats to bomb Iran and staying out of Syria do not add up to a coherent Middle East policy.

Last week, Obama tipped up briefly in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly. After the killing of US diplomats in Benghazi and anti-America demonstrations across the region, he offered eloquent words about the sometimes uncomfortable balance between freedom of expression and religious bigotry. In defending the former, he spoke to US voters; in condemning the latter he sought to calm the Arab street.

Obama rises to such occasions. The Republican charge, though, was that the president did not find time in New York to talk to other world leaders. A cynic would say the real complaint was that he refused to meet Benjamin Netanyahu. Given that the Israeli Prime Minister is a paid-up member of the Romney team and really does want to start another war by attacking Iran, the president’s reluctance on this score was unsurprising.

For all that, the Republicans are on to something. The administration has tried to put foreign policy on hold for the duration of the campaign. It has a carefully crafted message: Obama has taken the US out of Iraq, killed Osama Bin Laden and decimated Al Qaida, helped to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi — and he will bring home the troops from Afghanistan. Weary of foreign wars, voters like this narrative. The White House is determined that nothing should disturb it.

The strategy, as the latest turmoil has shown, is vulnerable to events. But the judgement last week seemed to have been that the way to shut down controversy was to avoid all encounters with foreign leaders. If the president had met Mohammad Mursi, Egypt’s President, then he would not have been able to refuse Netanyahu. Better to shun both.

There was plenty Obama could have talked about with fellow leaders. The civil war in Syria claims ever more lives and is spilling over into a wider Sunni-Shiite confrontation. The Taliban are on the up in Afghanistan. The Iranian regime sounds as defiant as ever about its nuclear programme. Netanyahu’s West Bank colony issue is rendering impossible a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. With the US absent from the stage, the UN gathering has to be content with hand-wringing.

Russia and China are blamed — and rightly so — for blocking UN measures to halt the murderous repression of Bashar Al Assad’s regime. Diplomats, however, report that none is as determined as the US administration to avoid being drawn into the conflict. The message delivered to Europeans by their US counterparts is that the US does not have sufficient strategic interest to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war. The representative of one close ally of the US has been heard to remark that if Moscow really wanted to discomfit Washington, it would have lifted its veto on international action.

None of this is to say the Republican campaign has come up with answers. Thus far, Romney has subcontracted US’s Iran policy to Netanyahu, a position he would presumably step back from were he to win in November. The presidential contender strikes a chord when he says Obama has given up on the attempt to shape events in the Middle East. But Romney offers few clues as to how he would restore US leadership.

Among foreign policy veterans in Washington — Republicans as well as Democrats — I detect a fair degree of support for Obama’s reluctance to be drawn too deeply into the Middle East maelstrom. The cost of war and the Arab uprisings have changed the American calculus.

There is a broad recognition of the limits of US power. The days have passed when Washington could rely on friendly authoritarian regimes.

These observers are surely right in saying that after more than half a century of messing things up in the Middle East, the US would be wise to show a touch of humility in the region. Anyhow, shale oil and gas have reduced US energy dependence. That said, simple disengagement from the region is not possible.

Hard as Netanyahu likes to pretend otherwise, Obama is committed to the security of Israel. More than that, the president has fallen for the notion that bombing Iran would actually prevent the Iranian regime from getting the bomb. Foolishly, he keeps saying that containment is not an option.

What is needed is an American strategy for the Middle East that does not seem to dictate events, but amounts to more than an effort to minimise direct threats to US interests. The first pillar of such a policy would be the offer of sustained everything-on-the-table bilateral negotiations with Tehran. If North Korea can be given security guarantees, why not Iran? The second would be to put America’s still considerable weight behind a serious international effort to start an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

It is clear enough that a president Romney would not embark on such a course. The option, though, would be open to a re-elected Obama. Alternatively, he could be remembered as the president who ended two wars of choice in the region only to start a third.

— Financial Times