July 24, 2011

Obama and the Middle East - Worse than Bush?

To say that the Middle East policies of the Obama Administration are different than that of the previous administration is an understatement. As we used to say in the Air Force, it's "180 out" from one to the other. I say the "policies of the Obama Administration" rather than attributing the policies to the President himself because I assume he is following the guidance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and his other political advisors. If so, he may want to rethink his choices of Cabinet members and advisors should he be re-elected - this current group is not doing so well.

One need only look at public opinion polls being conducted where it counts - in the Middle East. Polls conducted here are meaningless to the people who live in the region and are directly affected by the Obama Administration's policies. One such poll was conducted by the firm of IBOPE Zogby International. The primary pollster for this firm is John Zogby, a Lebanese-American with a keen understanding of Middle East events, and a member of the Democratic Party.

The bottom line - the United States is less popular now in most Arab countries than during the Bush Administration. This must come as a blow to the Obama Administration, who touted its new "engagement" policies as the way to restore American influence and standing in the region in the aftermath of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

With the exception of favorable views in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon of Obama's decision to support the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya earlier this year, public opinion in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates cites no improvement in U.S. relations in the Arab World since Obama took office in 2009. One alarming statistic is that except in Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has higher positive ratings than does the United States under President Barack Obama.

President Obama’s attempts to engage Iran and Syria have not resulted in improved relations or improved perceptions of America. In fact, the opposite is true. President Obama is perceived as a weak leader, unwilling to confront the regimes in Tehran and Damascus, and incapable of resolving any regional issues, including the Palestinian issue, an issue on which the President has expended large amounts of real and political capital. This must be frustrating for the residents of the Middle East who hoped the election of President Obama would usher in a new era of American leadership in the region.

What we find in the region now are American withdrawals from yet undecided conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, an unwillingness by the Administration to put pressure on Syria for its brutal repression of its own people, no plan from Washington for progress on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and a seeming lack of urgency is addressing the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. There also seems to be confusion on how to deal with the popular uprisings - the so-called "Arab Spring" - in the region.

Please do not hold up Libya as the shining example of successful policy. The United States waited until it was almost too late, led some effective operations, but then abdicated its leadership role and assumed this puzzling "lead from behind" strategy. In my almost three decades of military service, I never was exposed to this "lead from behind" concept. That's because it is ridiculous.

Libya should have been over in three weeks. By prolonging the conflict through lack of American leadership, more Libyans have died than were necessary, and the situation is still not resolved. Imposing the no-fly zone was the right thing to do. How this Administration did it was not.

All of this is not lost on the Arab world. The perception that the United States is being led by a weak, indecisive President makes the area more dangerous, not less. Mr. President, please listen to the career Middle East specialists at State and Defense, not the political appointees who are harming American interests in the region. They are not serving you well.