Old Borders, New Realities

The next President will confront a Middle East that looks nothing like the past

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Illustration by Oliver Munday and John Custer for TIME

This is going to be a rocky path," Barack Obama told 60 Minutes, referring to the turmoil in the Middle East. "There are going to be bumps in the road." The President was talking about the long-term struggle to move a region of historically repressed and undereducated people toward freedom, but long-term thinking is impermissible in presidential campaigns, and Mitt Romney called him on his bumps: "We had an ambassador assassinated. We had a Muslim Brotherhood member elected to the presidency of Egypt. Iran is that much closer to having the capacity to build a nuclear weapon." For good measure, the Romney campaign chided the President for appearing on The View but not meeting with foreign leaders during U.N. General Assembly week. These pokes, along with a smooth appearance on 60 Minutes, were part of a micro-renaissance Romney was experiencing as a candidate--several days without a goof--that perhaps only the press noticed as the Republican's poll numbers plummeted in crucial states.

Obama's response to the Romney jabs came in an address to the General Assembly, one of the better speeches of his presidency. He celebrated the life of Ambassador Chris Stevens, by all accounts an exemplary man whose relentless humanity, as the President said, represented the exact opposite of the values embraced by his murderers. This was a "teachable moment," and Obama used it to explain what free speech--an absolute necessity for democracy--is all about. "As President of our country and Commander in Chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day," he said, to laughter, "and I will always defend their right to do so." He also condemned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's annual Holocaust-denying clown show and warned the Iranians about their nuclear program in a way that even neoconservatives might consider acceptable.

Obama's path through the Arab Spring has indeed been bumpy; any President's would have been. The days when the U.S. could manage events in the region through a network of local autocrats are over. But I found myself thinking that while Romney's nostalgia for a hegemonic past was clearly implausible, the President's patient hope for democracy might be overly optimistic as well. There is another possibility: regional chaos and, ultimately, a redrawing of the national borders that were imagined by Europeans at the end of World War I.

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