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Foreign Policy: The Dispensable Nation

May 20, 2011

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In this piece for Foreign Policy, Flynt Leverett, Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and Hillary Mann Leverett, a professor at American University, write that American policy in the Middle East is no better under the Obama administration than it was under the Bush administration.

President Barack Obama's State Department address on the Middle East was a desperate attempt to define a new narrative about the Arab awakening and America's role in this critical region. But the speech only confirmed that Obama has no alternative strategic vision to replace the neoconservative fantasies of his predecessor. In the process, the president demonstrated that the United States has little to offer the region and its people.

Obama spoke at what is, in fact, a moment of crisis for America's position in the Middle East. In her introductory remarks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that "America's leadership is more essential than ever" in the Middle East. The president himself claimed that America's pursuit of its interests was not at odds with the aspirations of the region's people, but rather essential to the fulfillment of those aspirations.

Sorry, but the people of the region disagree. Earlier this week, Pew Research released a poll of key Middle Eastern populations conducted in late March and early April -- a period that includes many of the major elements of the Arab Awakening to date (the changes of regime in Tunisia and Egypt, the U.S./NATO military intervention in Libya, Saudi intervention in Bahrain, and the outbreak of unrest in Syria). The poll shows continued anger and resentment over U.S. policy and toward Obama, himself. The results are in keeping with the most recent running of the annual Arab Public Opinion Survey, which showed that Obama is now even less popular than President George W. Bush at the end of his tenure. Today, it is not even clear that Obama would be able to give a speech about America's approach to the Middle East in a major regional capital, as he did with his 2009 speeches in Istanbul and Cairo.

Beyond public opinion, the region's major strategic actors -- the Islamic Republic of Iran, of course, but also post-Saddam Iraq, Turkey, post-Mubarak Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel -- are increasingly charting their own strategic courses. More and more, they see the United States as poorly intentioned, incompetent, and less relevant to their interests; as a result, they are ever more prepared to take major decisions and initiatives without deference to American preferences.

This was manifested recently in Saudi Arabia's invasion of Bahrain -- Manama's "invitation" notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia's military intervention was clearly against the preferences of a majority of Bahrainis -- and Egypt's decisions to upgrade relations with Iran and cease its cooperation with Israel in keeping Gaza under siege. Immediately after Obama spoke, the trend was extended when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejected as "indefensible" the president's proposal that Israeli-Palestinian borders be negotiated on the basis of the 1967 map.

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