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April 3, 2013 10:36 am

Middle East Expert: Obama “Risks Being the President on Whose Watch it All Became So Much Worse”

avatar by Zach Pontz

President Barack Obama (far right) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—both checking their watches—in September 2010 at the White House. Photo: White House.

An acclaimed Middle East analyst and former presidential adviser on the Middle East is unimpressed with U.S. President Barack Obama’s accomplishments in the region, and he’s voicing his dissatisfaction.

In an article in Foreign Policy titled “Why Obama Has Failed in the Middle East,” Aaaron David Miller writes that “saving Syria, resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, and achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace seem well beyond the president’s capacity — even if he boasted the support of willing and trusting partners. And it’s ironic because Obama set out not to preside over catastrophes in the Middle East but to transform the region for the better. He now risks being the president on whose watch it all became so much worse.”

Miller refers to Obama as a “risk-averse president” who, unlike Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush after the fall of the Soviet Union, may be seen as more the bystander during a time of great change in the Middle East.

Far from being aggressive, Miller writes, “the strange marriage of neocons and liberal interventionists has hammered home the theme that the president has lacked vision, leadership, and strength in responding to these historic transformations.”

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Of course Obama hasn’t been helped by the fact that the “Arab Spring” has unfolded into something much chillier. Had it directed itself on the course initially hoped for  “Obama would have been hailed as a strategic genius for his smart, low-cost management from the sidelines. Sadly, it has moved the other way — toward instability, violence, and dashed hopes.”

Miller highlights three main issues in the region whose outcomes will eventually shape Obama’s legacy. The first is Syria. “Syria isn’t Obama’s Rwanda,” Miller writes. “But the killing — and the passive reaction of the entire international community — will raise inevitable questions about what more could have been done.”

Iran is no easier, but the odds of reaching some sort of acceptable outcome are a little less remote. Miller writes that Obama  “stands to be the U.S. president who either allows Iran to get a nuclear weapon, is the first to bomb the country, or becomes the guy who cuts an interim deal that keeps the mullahs a few years away from nuclear nirvana,” but still, “There are no happy endings or comprehensive solutions,” to be reached on Iran.

Can Obama change course? “It’s hard to see how,” Miller writes. “The issues in this region are so complex, the mistrust between the parties so deep, the number of moving pieces so many, that it’s tough to imagine grand bargains and transformative change brokered by” Obama.

The only hope for Obama to salvage his legacy, as Miller sees it, is ” to think transactions, not transformations: Try a serious effort to broker a deal with the mullahs before going to war, and do the same with Israelis and Palestinians to preserve the possibility of peace. Such interim accords aren’t sexy or the stuff of which legacies are made. They won’t get Obama into the presidential hall of fame. But they are both desirable and possible.”

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