Upon entering the Oval Office for the first time, the past 10 American presidents have found a towering inbox of priorities, near the top of which laid a thick, tattered file marked "Middle East." President Barack Obama will be no exception. On Jan. 20, he will inherit the immediate consequences of the past eight years of a failed policy toward the region. A failed policy marked by rhetoric, hubris and neglect, as well as decades of mishandled diplomacy that has challenged the resourcefulness of many previous leaders.
Expectations for a new approach to the Middle East are exceedingly high. A reorientation of the U.S. strategy that places high priority on active and sustained diplomatic peacemaking with the president's personal involvement would be a significant step forward. But change will not come easily. Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton acknowledged the challenges during her Senate confirmation hearing, yet clearly articulated a different path with an emphasis on diplomacy as the way forward.
The challenges are many. Iraq remains fragile, despite improvements in the political and security situations. A judicious drawdown of American troops should proceed in line with the recently negotiated Status of Forces Agreement. Iran's position in the region has only strengthened in recent years, as a result of the war in Iraq and revenues from surging oil prices. And there is growing concern over Iran's capacity to produce significant amounts of nuclear weapon-grade fuel and support to Hamas and Hezbollah. Arab-Israeli peace initiatives with Syria, over the Golan Heights issue, and the Palestinian Authority, have been left to falter.