Image Credit: Illustration: Danesh Mohiuddin/©Gulf News

For the past week Washington has been consumed with the tawdry way both the media and the Obama administration treated an obscure Agriculture Department official named Shirley Sherrod.

This might seem like a story with little resonance beyond America's shores, but the truth is that it holds several important lessons for those of us concerned with foreign policy and the Middle East.

These are the basic facts: early last week a grainy video surfaced of Sherrod addressing a meeting of Georgia's chapter of the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Persons — the country's most eminent civil rights organisation). In the two-minute video that travelled around the web Sherrod, who is black, appeared to brag about using her official position to discriminate against a white farmer.

Suspicious source

The video was posted by a conservative blogger known for his go-for-the-jugular approach to politics. Its intended message was obvious: the NAACP says it stands against racism but, in fact, condones discrimination against white people.

Within hours the NAACP denounced Sherrod and called for her resignation. Soon after the Agriculture Department demanded it. For the next 24 hours or so she was pilloried by left and right alike.

Then it emerged that the video had been taken grossly out of context. What had seemed to be bigoted bragging was, in fact, part of Sherrod's story of how she had learned to recognise and overcome her own prejudices and understand that poor people need government assistance whatever their skin colour.

Moreover, the events in her anecdote had taken place 24 years ago — long before she went on the government payroll. To cap it all off, the supposedly-wronged white farmer, now well into his 80s, emerged to tell CNN that far from being a racist Sherrod had more-or-less singlehandedly saved his farm from foreclosure.

By the end of the week Sherrod had received a grovelling public apology — and an offer of a new job — from the agriculture secretary, followed by a remorseful phone call from President Barack Obama himself.

The media quickly pivoted from bashing Sherrod to bashing Obama and his aides, largely ignoring its own role in hyping the story without first bothering to authenticate the tape (an especially egregious sin considering the highly partisan track record of the blogger who originally posted it).

The lesson for those of us whose political attention is usually focused on the Middle East is clear: the Sherrod affair has been a useful reminder that in an election year everything is political.

That might seem like a statement of the obvious, but for the Middle East it holds a deeper truth. It reminds us not to expect the Obama administration to go out on any sort of limb between now and November's mid-term elections.

That means no pressure to speak of on either the Israelis or the Palestinians; no re-examination of policy in either Iraq or Afghanistan; no effort to press Egypt to open up a bit, relieving the tremendous pressures obviously building there as the country prepares for an uncertain post-Mubarak era; no more outreach of any significance to the Muslim world.

Some of this should not be surprising. US administrations, by nature, are always reactive in the way they handle the wider world. People come into government with a sincere desire to focus on careful, long-term planning only to find themselves careening from one crisis to the next. We can all bemoan this state of affairs, but it is how every White House has functioned for the last half century. It is not likely to change any time soon.

With a tough election looming (though he himself is not on the ballot) Obama faces a still-terrible economy, an implacable opposition and a political base that is increasingly unhappy with him. On top of this, the Sherrod saga has been a painful reminder that we now live in a hyper-partisan era in which many media outlets, both old and new, have abandoned old-fashioned fact-checking in favour of speed and sensation.

No-go areas

In such an environment Obama is likely to see foreign affairs in general and the Middle East in particular as problems to be avoided whenever possible, and who can blame him?

Does that mean Obama is ignoring the region? Not exactly. Governing is mainly about making choices and, right now, viewed from Washington, the problems posed by the Middle East do not appear to be the ones most in need of an immediate fix. Events could, of course, alter that equation at a moment's notice. Until they do, however, people in the Middle East should not expect a lot of high-level attention from the White House.

Gordon Robison, a writer and commentator who has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.