Barack Obama is clearly engaged in the Middle East. Unlike other U.S. presidents, he has not waited until the tail end of his presidency to hazard the tar pit of the Arab-Israeli peace process, and has made breaching the rift between the United States and the Muslim world a cornerstone of his foreign-policy agenda. Only six months into his term, Obama's outreach efforts are being credited for the success of the March 14 coalition's victory in Lebanon and the softening of anti-American attitudes throughout the region.
But is all this really the result of an "Obama effect"? Not yet. Domestic political dynamics are the likely explanation for March 14's triumph over Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies. And though Middle Easterners are intrigued by the new American president and appreciate his approach, they are also jaded by decades of U.S. policy and are not yet ready to "unclench their fists" to grasp his "open hand."
It is too soon to tell what the ultimate Obama effect will be. On thing is clear, however: Obama cannot truly influence politics in the region if most Middle Eastern citizens have no meaningful way to participate in their governments.
Steering clear of the Bush administration's earnest, but misguided, democratization policies, the Obama administration has opted to speak directly to the peoples of the Middle East instead of pressuring the regimes to be more democratic.