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Broken 'engagement' in the Middle East

A year of intense outreach to the Muslim world has revealed a disconnect between the priorities of the Obama administration and those of its potential Mideast allies.

February 21, 2010|Doyle McManus

What core value is shared by many American voters and much of the Muslim world? Disappointment in Barack Obama.

Obama and his foreign policy team have engaged in an energetic outreach over the last year to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

Unfortunately, it has backfired -- at least in one important way. A year of intense "engagement" between the United States and the Muslim world has had the paradoxical effect of revealing a disconnect between the priorities of the Obama administration and those of its potential Mideast allies.

For Arabs and many other Muslims, the one thing they want from the United States (beyond economic and other help for their own countries) is intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But that's not what the Obama administration wants to talk about right now. For the United States, the nuclear confrontation with Iran comes first, followed by the war in Afghanistan and -- only then, it seems -- the never-ending problem of Palestinian statehood.

When Obama tried to jump-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last year, Arab hopes soared. But his attempt at a quick fix failed when Israel ignored his plea to stop settlement expansion and Arab countries rebuffed his request for normalization of relations.

The president made an attempt, Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, told me last week in Qatar. "But nothing tangible came of it. Now he's seen by Arabs as a nice guy who can't deliver."

That's not a good image for a superpower -- especially one trying to win friends through the "soft power" of engagement instead of the "hard power" of military action.

I talked with Fahmy and dozens of other leaders from the Muslim world last week at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, an annual effort to help head off a global clash of civilizations. (Think Davos, with sand instead of snow.)

Fahmy's view was echoed by Muslim politicians, scholars and community leaders of every stripe.

"We want to engage with the United States," said Abdelaziz Omari, an opposition member of Morocco's parliament. "But we see a credibility gap. Most Arabs are angry with U.S. policy [toward Israel], and we don't see the United States giving real support to democracy in the region. For us, other issues are of marginal importance."

The administration sent a big delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the conference. But the Americans found themselves on the defensive.

"I know people are disappointed. . . . I fully understand the importance that this issue holds for people not only in this region but around the world," Clinton told the meeting.

Her promise that "we are determined to settle this conflict once and for all" was followed by a warning that the U.S. role was limited, since it would be up to Israelis and Palestinians to make the decisions.

And she mostly wanted to talk about other issues: on the hard-power side, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, only 160 miles across the Persian Gulf from Doha; on the soft-power side, new U.S. programs to help Muslim countries develop in education, health and science.

The administration's reluctance to promise much from its continuing attempts to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is understandable. Obama got badly burned by his bungled first attempt to engage in the process.

He asked both sides, Israelis and Arabs, to make preemptive concessions -- essentially as a favor to him. Neither side responded the way he had hoped. When Obama asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze all Jewish settlement growth on occupied land, Netanyahu calculated (correctly) that his political standing in Israel would benefit from a show of stubborn independence. Netanyahu said no -- by which time the Arabs had said they couldn't talk without a freeze. The result was an embarrassing standstill.

Now the administration is operating on a much slower track, sending Mideast envoy George Mitchell to seek step-by-step talks that won't even have the Israelis and Palestinians in the same room. Netanyahu has belatedly helped with a partial, temporary settlement freeze. But with the Palestinians fractured, Israel reluctant to go much further and Obama himself looking weaker by the month, it's no wonder the administration has chosen to focus on other issues.

Still, as Obama and his aides concluded even before last week's conference, they can't simply disengage. Walking away would only convince more people around the world that the United States was never serious to begin with.

One concrete step Obama could take is to push Israel harder to ease its blockade on materials to build housing for the homeless in Gaza. Israel is allowing food and medicine in, but not building supplies, arguing that Hamas could use them to build fortifications.

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