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Middle East

The failure of US Middle East policy

US dithering in the Middle East threatens years of peace work - and is destroying the country's influence in the region. Many are blaming the president, calling him weak and indecisive.

"The US has abdicated its responsibility as an umbrella of security and of dialogue in the Middle East," Hassan Mneimneh, a senior fellow and Mid-East expert at the German Marshall Fund, told DW. US policies in the region have been nothing short of disastrous, he said.

Over just a few years, the Middle East has been transformed into a region overcome by a single highly dangerous crisis. Conflict in Libya, Egypt, Iran and Syria, the bloody fighting tearing apart Iraq and the dramatically re-inflamed Palestinian-Israeli confrontation are back at the focus of world attention.

Following Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli reprisals, the conflict threatens to reach a new level of escalation with a possible large-scale Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip. After the peace initiative promoted by US Secretary of State John Kerry went nowhere, the Americans are now seemingly powerless, their efforts in tatters.

Mneimneh blames President Barack Obama's indecisiveness: "Much of the chaos that we are witnessing in the region comes from the vacuum the US has left behind. Its strategic umbrella and strategic vision are no longer there to serve as anchors for the policy and the strategy of all the local actors who are US allies."

Has Obama lost the Middle East?

Security policy expert Victor Davis Hanson agrees. In a sharply critical article, "How Obama lost the Middle East," in the conservative magazine National Review (03.07.2014), the Stanford University professor accuses the president of putting politics and ideology ahead of preserving hard-won gains in the region.

Shiite fighters in Iraq (Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

Shia Muslims are the majority in Iraq - and many intend to fight against the Sunni ISIS rebels

The liberal Washington Post agrees, saying the fighting in Iraq is a particularly dramatic example of the failure of current US Middle East policy. The paper's Jackson Diehl writes "the Obama administration's strategy of re-creating a unified Iraq under a strong central government will, like its previous Middle East schemes, prove a mirage."

Mneimneh also said it was the administration's indecisiveness that was ultimately responsible for the chaos. "I couldn't otherwise explain why it was possible for Syria to be an incubator for jihadism that is vaster and more dangerous than what we have seen in Afghanistan."

A few years ago it would have been possible to respond to this threat "proactively" at a relatively low cost, he said, but "today, we need to mobilize large resources to curb what is currently happening in Syria and Iraq."

Unrealistic wishful thinking

"The Obama administration has developed a bad habit of founding its Middle East strategies on wishful thinking," Diehl writes. "In the past year, it has supposed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would peacefully agree to cede power at a Geneva peace conference (and) that the Egyptian generals who carried out a military coup would lead the country back to democracy."

Likewise, Mneimneh said the weakness of Obama's Middle East policy is that it is consistently inconsistent. In recent years, he said, there have been three contradictory "Obama Doctrines":

"The first [pertaining to Libya] was about how American exceptionalism dictates that it is values and not just interests that shape US policy. The second was about whether we have to stick to our red line with regard to the Assad regime using chemical weapons. And the third was his West Point address in which he ignored US exeptionalism altogether and went back to the point of stating that the US will act when US interests are at stake and if it is a matter of values we leave it up to the international community."

Middle Eastern peace talks (Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

US-sponsored Mideast peace talks produced no results

This confusion has jeopardized the results of years of US efforts in the region. "It is fair to say that America has somehow managed to alienate friends, embolden enemies, and multiply radical Islamic terrorists," Hanson writes.

The administration's indecisiveness has badly wounded US standing in the region. It is weaker than it has been in a long time. The Obama administration threatened the Egyptian generals with an end to the billions in military aid if they continued human rights violations, only for Secretary of State John Kerry to travel to Cairo a short time later to sheepishly announce the resumption of military aid - only a few days after supporters of former President Morsi were sentenced to death en masse.

Where is the strategic vision?

It is also doubtful that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will agree to American demands to form an inclusive government with representatives of all religions and ethnic groups. He seems to have been able to get over the American military's failure to provide him with air support in the fight against ISIS. Evidently, Iran and other allies are compensating for the lack of American support.

Still, the US could reverse this process in the region, Mneimneh said, and the price would not even be too high.

"The restoration of US leadership does not mean boots on the ground. It does not even mean much in terms of financial expenditures. But it means to show that there is a US commitment that once red lines are drawn, red lines are honored - and to show the allies before the enemy that the US does have a strategic vision in the region. Much of the chaos that we are witnessing in the region comes from the vacuum the US has left behind."

Ultimately, the region needs an outside power to serve as mediator, he said.

"Even if the US is in decline, we are still in a world that has one superpower, and that superpower can serve, not necessarily as the world's policeman, but as the umbrella under which regional arrangements can be achieved."

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