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Will the Middle East derail Obama’s agenda?

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File: March 5, 2012: President Barack Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House.AP

President Obama was reelected with a clear priority to improve the economy, but it is likely that his agenda may be derailed by events in the Middle East. Many of the decisions he put off regarding threats from that region will now have to be addressed and the president gave little indication during the campaign about what he intends to do. The decisions he makes on these Middle East issues could ultimately determine his legacy.

Foreign policy priority one is Iran. Neither sanctions nor negotiations have stopped Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons. Some covert operations and calculated Iranian decisions slowed the program sufficiently to allow the president to put off deciding on more drastic measures. The expectation is that time will run out by the spring for military action and Obama is expected to make one last gasp effort to negotiate an end to the Iranian program. Few people expect this to succeed and the logic is that Obama will then be able to use military force and say he exhausted all other options. If he tries to buy more time, or adopts a policy he has heretofore eschewed, such as containment or deterrence, it is likely Israel will be forced to launch an attack.

Obama does not want another war with a Muslim country, even if he is cheered on by Arab leaders in the region who want Iran’s program destroyed. He fears a backlash by Muslims in the street, the prospect of increased terror against the United States, the possibility of delaying rather than destroying Iran’s program and the chance of being forced to use ground troops that could get mired in another long war. He also fears that war will cause a spike in oil prices that will doom his program for economic recovery.

If Obama does not attack Iran and Israel feels forced to defend itself from what it sees as an existential threat, the United States may face many of the same consequences. Much, of course, depends on the success of any operation, but Obama officials have been warning for months of the potential negative repercussions for US interests of a unilateral Israeli attack.

On a broader scale, Obama has to develop a vision for future relations with the Arab world. His first term policy was neither idealist nor realist; he had no ideology or world view shaping his policies and made ad hoc decisions to address each crisis.

In his second term, he will need to decide if he supports democracy for the region. If so, he will have to distinguish between democratic processes, such as elections, and democratic outcomes that lead to freedom for Arab citizens and the protection of their human rights. 

Obama will have a difficult time opposing elections, but it is increasingly clear that these are likely to result in radical Islamists taking power who are fundamentally anti-American and want to impose strict Islamic laws and authoritarian policies that will deny citizens freedom of speech, religion, and the press as well as women’s rights and gay rights.

The first test is Egypt, one of the most important countries in the Arab world. Will Obama support a fundamentalist government regardless of its policies? Will he try to use aid and arms to pressure the new Egyptian government to adhere to certain standards and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel? Though Egypt desperately needs assistance, will its leaders compromise on their principles? The United States cannot afford to allow Egypt to become a radical Islamic state that destabilizes the region.

The president will also have to decide whether to continue the hypocrisy of promoting democracy and human rights in every part of the Arab world except the Persian Gulf. 

The upheavals in Bahrain could lead to change there and spillover to Saudi Arabia and other countries. The position of the Arabists at the State Department has always been to accept the authoritarians in the Gulf for fear of the alternative, but change may not be worse, especially in Saudi Arabia, where radical Islamists already control the government. Failure to make the right decisions in the Gulf could have profound implications for our defense bases there as well as oil supplies.

Syria is another challenge that Obama has punted on for more than a year. The United States looks disinterested in the slaughter of innocents while trying to figure the best alternative to Bashir Assad, with the possibility that he too will be replaced by Islamists. Failure to act in Syria may yet lead to a spillover that could provoke Israel (Syrian tanks recently ventured dangerously close to Israel) or Turkey to intervene.

A spillover into Lebanon is already creating internecine battles that could escalate into a new civil war. The Bush and Obama administration’s fiddling while Hezbollah took over Lebanon has made that country an Iranian outpost and major source of international terror. US policy should refocus on implementing UN resolutions calling for the disarming of Hezbollah.

One of America’s most reliable allies, Jordan, is also in danger of becoming the next domino to fall to the Islamists. The king is increasingly unpopular and the Obama administration has been trying to shore up his support but the tide is not favorable and the president may soon face another choice of throwing a friend under the bus or supporting public calls for democracy.

Terrorism remains a major threat to the United States. The killing of bin Laden did not eliminate this danger. If anything, it appears to be growing worse as new cells emerge in Africa and the Middle East. Hezbollah, which has killed more Americans than any group beside the 9/11 terrorists, has established a global network that Obama largely ignored in his first term.

Finally, every president hopes to cement his legacy by bringing about peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Obama spent much of his first two years on the peace process and, by most accounts, made such catastrophic errors that he actually made it more difficult to reach an agreement. In fact, the Palestinian president now openly defies the president and refused to negotiate with Israel during Obama’s first term. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, faces his own reelection battle in January 2013, and is in no mood to make further compromises to the recalcitrant Palestinians, especially with the world around Israel becoming more radical and with the Iranian nuclear issue looming over all other policy concerns. 

If Obama again wades into the peace process, he will be pushed by the Arabists to pressure Israel again, a mistake that will fail to bring about peace and enrage Israel’s supporters in Congress, thereby forcing him to expend political capital he needs to win fights over the economy.

Mitchell Bard is the author of "The Arab Lobby: The Invisible Alliance That Undermines America's Interests in the Middle East" (HarperCollins 2010) and "Israel Matters" (Behrman House 2012).