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Obama Cold-Shoulders the Mideast in SOTU

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I attended a book event for Ron Reagan Jr. in Washington, DC, where he thanked his brother Michael for bashing his new memoir about their father. "Michael really helped increase the sales of my book," Ron quipped. Indeed, there is no such thing as bad publicity, or as Oscar Wilde put it, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

So if I was responsible for making policy in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Beirut, Cairo or Riyadh, I would be somewhat concerned after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address last night, in which Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt or Saudi Arabia were not mentioned at all. The omission was intriguing since on the same day Obama was addressing Congress, the front pages of the New York Times and other "elite" newspapers carried reports about the election of a pro-Hezbollah Prime Minister in Lebanon, of political unrest and anti-government violence in Egypt, and of new revelations about the failed efforts to reach Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

If you skim through presidential SOTUs since World War II -- and especially since the 1967 and 1973 Middle East wars -- the issue of U.S. policy in the region and its support for Israel and other American allies, including the efforts to achieve Arab-Israeli peace, have featured prominently in most of these addresses. And that was not surprising. Through the many presidential Cold War "doctrines" (Truman, Eisenhower, Carter), terrorist attacks, oil embargoes, military interventions, and "peace processes," the Middle East and its major players were perceived to be central to U.S. strategic and economic interests. In fact, under President George W. Bush, the U.S.'s Mideast policy seemed to dominate his SOTUs. And let us not forget the almost obligatory reiteration of American support for Israel by most U.S. presidents through the years.

Obama briefly mentioned Iraq in his address -- to mark the withdrawal of U.S. troops from there with no expression of support for the Iraqi government. And he did praise the pro-democracy protestors in Tunisia -- but without integrating these comments into a grand American narrative of a democratic agenda in the Middle East.

So what are we to make of the short shrifting of the Mideast by Obama? Some would argue that the focus of the address was on economic policies and not only foreign policy. After all, not even America's allies in Europe were mentioned. But in fact, the main theme of the SOTU ("The Sputnik Moment") was global -- not domestic: The U.S. needs to restructure its economy, reform education, become more innovative, etc. in order to enhance its competitive edge vis-à-vis China, India, Korea and the other Asian emerging markets. In a way, Obama seems to be responding to the new geostrategic and geo-economic realities, in which the U.S. has no choice but to start reducing its costly commitments in the Middle East, including the support for Arab dictators and autocrats and the futile peace processing -- and start investing its time and effort in strengthening its ties with the nations and economies of the Pacific Rim, with the winners of the 21st century.

As I pointed out in an earlier post "Obama's Choice: Military Quagmires or Economic Opportunities": "only a major effort to reduce American commitment in the Middle East would ensure that the U.S. will succeed in exerting its influence in Asia and take advantage of the huge economic opportunities there. A choice needs to be made on whether to continue wasting American treasure (and lives) on a policy that doesn't advance U.S. interests (the American economy is not dependent on Mideast oil; and in fact, we end-up paying more for our energy supplies through the costs of U.S. intervention in the Middle East) but ends up harming U.S. security (in the form of anti-American terrorism). Or whether to stop providing free security to corrupt and backward regimes and to mischievous client states and start cutting our deficits and prepare the American economy for the competition for trade and investment in Asia and for a partnership with the rising global powers." And as I proposed in another post, "Israel Needs to Adjust to a Post-American Age," it's time for Israel to adjust itself to this new reality. Better sooner than later.