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February 16, 2011

White House Misses Mideast Mark

By

It would be easier to forgive the Obama administration’s lackluster handling of the political crisis in Egypt over the last couple weeks if things were going our way elsewhere in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, that’s not even close to happening.

Start with Iran. Despite two years of engagement, Tehran is still developing nuclear weapons and significantly shaking Middle East stability in the process.

And, sorry: Neither cyber ops like the “Stuxnet” computer virus (which we may have been behind) nor United Nations-prescribed economic sanctions seem to have put much of a hitch in the giddyap of Iran’s runaway nuclear horses.

Despite the president saying that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable,” Iran may become a card-carrying member of the Mushroom Cloud Club this year; some experts believe it already has gathered enough uranium for at least a couple of A-bombs.

Not to mention that its ever-expanding space-launch and satellite programs have put Tehran closer to developing an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. homeland — all while our missile-defense programs lag behind the threat.

Then there’s Syria, where the Bush administration recalled the U.S. ambassador in 2005 over probable Syrian involvement in the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister. Barack Obama ended Damascus’s “timeout” this year by sending a new ambassador — signaling that it’s OK that President Bashar Assad continues his anti-U.S. stance, steps up his crackdown on political opposition and delays any progress on finding peace with his neighbor Israel.

Washington also appears to be looking the other way on Damascus’s lack of cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency on Syria’s (covert) nuclear program, its growing alliance with Iran and its continuing financial, moral and military support of Hamas and Hez- bollah.

And don’t forget about Lebanon right next door, where, on the administration’s watch, both Iran and Syria have dug their claws in again, after the Cedar Revolution loosed their near-death grip on the country in 2005. Tehran’s and Damascus’s proxy Hezbollah was recently able to bully its candidate into the prime minister’s job, setting back U.S. (and Israeli) interests.

In Iraq, where the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops will be leaving this year, there’s concern about growing Iranian influence due to American inattention, which threatens to create an arc of Persian power across the Middle East’s midsection.

Meanwhile, the Middle East peace process — where success, the Obama administration insisted, would set everything right with the region — has gone nowhere in the last two years.

Instead, America’s relations with Israel hit new lows on a regular basis; we’re no closer to a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians, and Hamas still has an iron grip on Gaza.

It doesn’t end there.

Key Arab partners in places like Jordan and Saudi Arabia must be unnerved by how the Obama administration got caught flatfooted by Egypt’s turmoil, had trouble finding its “voice” and seemingly had no plan for influencing the outcome.

There’s still hope for a positive ending in Egypt, but that’s far from guaranteed. Lots of nightmarish scenarios could come to pass instead, including an Islamist takeover of the Cairo government.

Unless the Obama administration gets its Middle East act together soon and starts to get some traction on these pressing problems, our influence will continue to wane, undermining vital U.S. interests.

If things don’t change, we’re not going to like what — or who — steps in to fill the void the Obama administration’s policies are creating in the Middle East.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

First appeared in The Boston Herald

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