Why the Middle East Won't Feature in Obama's Speech

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Astrid Riecken / Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama walks in before making a statement on Middle East peace at the White House on Sept. 1, 2010

It's a safe bet that the Middle East will get short shrift in President Obama's State of the Union address on Tuesday. That's because the speech typically focuses on an Administration's achievements and on its plans to meet challenges going forward, and the reality is that there's little in the way of achievements or plans to speak of in relation to the troubled region. In fact, Washington's position is steadily declining in a number of Middle East flash points, and there's little the Administration appears able to do about it.

Obama speaks at a moment when things on the ground are changing fast in the Middle East — generally in ways unfavorable to U.S. strategic interests — while new points of crisis are emerging that will expose the limits of long-standing U.S. policies.

The Arab Democracy Challenge
On the day Obama delivers his address, thousands of Egyptians, inspired by the democratic uprising in Tunisia that forced the dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to flee, marched on the streets of Cairo to protest three decades of authoritarian rule by the U.S. client regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Riot police eventually cracked down, leading to a night of violence and the promise of further demonstrations to come as younger activists in Egypt, emboldened by the Tunisian example, look to shake up their country's sclerotic political system.

All over the region, in fact, Arab populations are beginning, however cautiously, to assert their democratic rights and express their economic and social grievances — and that puts many of the regimes on which the U.S. has been most reliant for its regional security strategy, such as Egypt, Jordan, Algeria and Yemen, in the firing line. It also focuses an uncomfortable spotlight on the gap between Washington's professed desire for Arab democracy and its alliance with a number of the autocrats that democracy would consign to political oblivion. (Indeed, many in the region have long noted that the U.S. commitment to Palestinian democracy was immediately abandoned and reversed when Hamas won the past Palestinian elections.)

That leaves Obama speaking at a moment of rising democratic optimism among the long-suppressed Arab citizenry that finds the U.S. more often than not on the wrong side of the street. Iraq, the consummate exercise in the U.S. military export of democracy, was a sharp illustration of its consequences: U.S. troops will leave Iraq at the end of this year under President George W. Bush's 2008 agreement with the Iraqi government. And despite the American (not to mention Iraqi) blood and treasure invested over the past eight years, they'll leave behind a government closer to Iran than it is to Washington — as every post-Saddam elected government has been.

Iran Unbowed
In last year's State of the Union, Obama warned that "as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations [on the nuclear issue], there should be no doubt: they, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise." But last weekend's negotiations in Istanbul between Iran and Western powers, together with Russia and China, failed to produce any progress, signaling that the impressive array of sanctions the Obama Administration has managed to put in place has not changed the calculations of Iran's leadership.

Of course, there's no immediate danger, since the intelligence consensus is that Iran is unlikely to be in a position to build nuclear weapons for a few more years. But neither is there any sign that the strategy being pursued by the Obama Administration is going to change Iran's mind.

Lebanon on the Brink?
One regional symptom of Iran's continued confidence is the political crisis in Lebanon, where Tehran's Hizballah ally has brought down the U.S.-backed government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and won a parliamentary majority for a government of its own choosing. Hizballah is hoping to avoid the embarrassment of the U.N. tribunal — which is expected to indict some Hizballah members in the killing of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri — by ending Lebanese cooperation with the body. The fact that Hizballah was able to bring down the government in order to impose its will speaks to the balance of power on the ground in Lebanon. The country is currently in the grip of a game of brinkmanship that threatens to plunge it back into the sectarian civil warfare. All sides have good reason to avoid that outcome, but the balance of power on the street, and in parliament, is currently tilted more in Tehran's favor than in Washington's.

Peace Process — What Peace Process?
This week's release of a slew of Palestinian internal documents detailing negotiations with Israel in recent years simply highlights what many have long suspected: the peace process, under which Israelis and Palestinians were expected to agree on terms for a two-state solution to their conflict, is effectively dead. After years of frustration, Palestinians have concluded there's no agreement to be had with the current Israeli government, and that the Obama Administration has no intention of pressing Israel to comply with the international consensus on the terms of Palestinian statehood.

Instead, the Palestinians are beginning to take matters into their own hands. Most immediately, they've ignored U.S. objections and taken the issue of Israeli settlements to the U.N. Security Council, potentially forcing Washington into the tight spot of having to isolate itself by vetoing a resolution that reiterates its own long-standing position. But in the wake of the revelations of its conduct in the negotiation process, the U.S.-backed authoritarian West Bank administration of President Mahmoud Abbas is also in trouble. While Washington has been building up the Palestinian Authority's administrative and security capacity, Abbas' government has failed to deliver on the central tenet of his claim to legitimacy: the promise that his negotiation strategy will deliver an end to the Israeli occupation. Abbas' Authority was so spooked by the events in Tunisia that it banned demonstrations celebrating them and even prohibited the flying of the Tunisian flag in the West Bank. The only path for the Authority to restore its political standing now will be to move the Israeli-Palestinian file out of U.S. hands, further pursuing international pressure on Israel and supporting nonviolent protest action on the ground.

Throughout the Middle East, and beyond in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a new and potentially dangerous era is dawning, one in which the U.S. no longer has the sole-superpower prerogatives that it first exercised in the Gulf War of 1991. Indeed, Washington has less control than ever over events across what was once known in the U.S. strategic establishment as the arc of instability. Better, then, for the President to focus on more manageable subjects at the podium — like the economy.