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'Convulsions' in Mideast Weigh on US Ahead of State of the Union


When President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly last September, he spoke about "convulsions" upending the old order in the Middle East.

Now the president's supporters and critics will be listening closely when he delivers his State of the Union address to learn if, and how, the U.S. may put those convulsions to rest.

The Obama Administration is lashing out over accusations that Washington is pulling back from world involvement as questions mount over its role in Middle East affairs

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described what he called a “myth” about White House foreign policies during an appearance Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“This misperception appears to be based on the simplistic assumption that our only tool of influence is our military, and that if we don't have a huge troop presence or aren't brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

"The most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed U.S. retreat from the Middle East," said Kerry. "You can't find another country - not one country - as proactively engaged, or that is partnering with so many Middle Eastern countries as constructively as we are, on so many high-stake fronts."

Abundant criticism

Kerry’s comments come amid mounting criticism at home and abroad over Washington’s Middle East policies.

The Obama administration has been slammed for not having a coherent strategy to deal with developments in the Middle East - including the conflict in Syria, upheaval in Egypt, a growing presence of al-Qaida in Iran and efforts at détente with Iran over its controversial nuclear program. The critics include officials in Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as opposition members in U.S. Congress.

The view in many quarters of the Middle East is growing increasingly negative, according to analysts.

With continuing images of bloodshed in Syria and of increasingly violent clashes in Egypt, questions about U.S. policy persist, putting a spotlight on what President Barack Obama will - or will not - say Tuesday at his upcoming State of the Union address.

Just last year, in his last State of the Union speech, Obama promised his administration would, “stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights and support stable transitions to democracy. We know the process will be messy, and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt, but we can - and will - insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We’ll keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people, and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian."

Critics say the president’s actions over the past year have failed to match the lofty rhetoric.

“I think, overall, the administration has wanted to get out of the Middle East,” said the Washington Institute’s David Schenker. “The Obama administration is looking at the Arab uprisings, the so-called Arab Spring, and saying we want no part of this. We want to cauterize Syria. We don’t want any spillover. We don’t want to be involved on a day-to-day basis in Egypt.”

Some defenders

But Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. State Department advisor now with the Woodrow Wilson Center, said criticism of the U.S. and the Obama administration may be overstated.

“I don’t think we’ve taken our eye off any ball,” said Miller. “I think the balls are in such bad shape and our influence is so limited with respect to the so-called Arab Spring that it’s hard to imagine what it is we would do.”

Miller said, given the circumstances, Washington’s main concerns have been to avoid the need to take military action in Syria and Iran, while trying to confront Tehran’s controversial nuclear program with diplomacy.

“Look, you got a chemical framework agreement [with Syria],” he said. “No one ever thought that was possible. You have an interim [nuclear] agreement with Iran, the P5+1. No one ever thought that was possible.”

One area at which the Obama administration has looked to take a more active role is in the stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Kerry has been to the region 11 time for talks with the two sides in recent months.

Marc Ginsberg, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco who now is chief executive of the OneVoice Movement, which seeks an end to the conflict, sees U.S. efforts as a low-risk opportunity that could have a big pay-off.

“I can’t think of anything that would do more to enhance American credibility at a time when American foreign policy is under challenge in the region than to help forge an agreement between Israel and Palestine,“ he said.

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