Wednesday, May 04, 2011

With bin Laden dead, Obama has to turn to the Mideast

Nothing will help the American right wing, the Israeli right wing or Fox News now; the assassination of Osama bin Laden has given U.S. President Barack Obama a decided boost.

Now that bin Laden is dead, Obama is seen not as a geek but as a killer, not as a softy but as a fairly tough leader. The young man has successfully completed his coming-of-age ceremony. Combined with the burgeoning recovery of the economy and the president’s movement toward the political center, bin Laden’s death has turned Obama into a strong and authoritative leader. If he doesn’t make any big mistakes in the coming year, chances are good that he’ll continue living in the White House until 2016.

But Obama insists on making big mistakes. His Middle East policy is inconsistent and incoherent. His guiding principles are obtuse and bizarre. He supported the removal of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak from office but grants immunity to Syria’s Bashar Assad. He went to war to avoid a bloodbath in Libya, but won’t raise a finger to stop the massacres in Syria.

Weak leadership and a lack of moral clarity continue to characterize Obama. Instead of leading the Arab world to a good place, he’s being dragged along with it to a bad one.

One problem is Iran. The Arab spring has caused a situation in which no Sunni power except for Saudi Arabia now stands in the way of the ayatollahs. The revolutions in Arab countries have also improved the economic situation in Tehran by pushing up the price of oil. Improved strategic and economic positioning allow Iran to rush toward a nuclear reactor and erode America’s hegemony in the region.

Turkey poses another problem. In mid-June, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to win reelection in a landslide victory. Right after that, the temporary respite he’s granted himself will end. Encouraged by the scope of his mandate to govern, this ambitious Islamist will try to build a neo-Ottoman Empire. He’ll work with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Iran to undermine the U.S. foothold in the Middle East.

The third problem is Palestine. As everyone knows, another Black September is in the offing. Palestinian Authority President Mohammed Abbas is provoking Obama by his plan to undermine Israeli stability with the expected international recognition of a Palestinian state and his reconciliation with bin Laden’s supporters in Gaza. If a Hamas-Fatah government leads to PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s disappearance from the scene, the result will be the collapse of American’s peace policy.

The fourth problem, Egypt, is the most severe of all. Egypt is likely to go bankrupt by the end of the year because of the loss of income from tourism, the strengthening of the army’s monopoly and the new government’s inability to be anything other than populist. Mubarak was bad? The White House will be longing for him way before Christmas. The economic growth he created will contract. Poverty will turn into shortages, shortages into despair, despair into protest. The army will not be able to withstand the disappointment and rage.

Egypt will become a black hole.

There are no simple solutions to these four problems, none of which are Obama’s doing. Perhaps he hasn’t offered a genuine answer to any of these strategic problems because he did not understand that when he opened the Pandora’s box of the Middle East, he became responsible for what emerged from it. While Obama exhibited professional determination in taking care of Osama, he was hesitant and amateurish when it came to the fundamental problems of the Middle East.

Egypt is the most pressing problem. Two years ago Obama gave a very impressive speech in Cairo. Three months go he encouraged the revolution there. But now the U.S. president has disappeared. Where is the American plan to rebuild the Egyptian nation? Where is the international initiative to save the Egyptian economy? Where is the effort to do on the banks of the Nile what is being done in Ramallah?

The summer of 2011 is the summer of Barack Hussein Obama. If he does not stabilize the Middle East this summer, a regional avalanche will take place by summer’s end. Obama will bear personal responsibility if the Arab spring turns into a cold and bleak winter.

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