Obama's Neglect of the Arab Spring Promises a Fallow Summer

06/10/2013 07:59 am ET | Updated Aug 10, 2013

This is the first of three excerpts for Huffington Post from Vali Nasr's new book, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat (In the UK, you can buy the book here).

THE GENERAL VERDICT on the Obama administration's Middle East policy is that "it has not done too badly." The president's hands-off policy, the argument goes, has been good in that it has made the Arab Spring about Arabs -- at the height of the protests there were no American flags burning in Cairo or Tunis, and plenty being waved in Tripoli.

This may be "good enough" -- for today -- but it provides precious little assurance about tomorrow. America's aim remains to shrink its footprint in the Middle East, and so its approach to unfolding events there has been wholly reactive. It may get a passing grade in managing changes of regime as old dictators fall, but it has largely failed at the real challenge, which is to help new governments in the region move toward democracy and reform their parlous, sclerotic economies.

Removing a dictator is only the first step on the road to democracy; beyond that, America has been nowhere to be seen. The Obama administration has neither come up with a strategy for capitalizing on the opportunity that the Arab Spring presented nor adequately prepared for potential fallout in the form of regional rivalry, the explosion of sectarian tensions and deep-rooted economic crises.

What are America's interests in the Middle East? How will we protect them as old regimes fall and new ones try to take shape? Can we influence outcomes? How should we prepare for the rise of Islamism, civil wars, state failures, reversals, and recrudescence of dictatorship? We need answers to these questions and a strategy for realizing the best, avoiding the worst, and protecting our interests in the process.

America cannot and should not decide the fate of the Middle East, but it should be clear about its stakes in the region, and not shy away from efforts to at least nudge events in more favorable directions as a critical world region faces momentous choices. A "lean back and wait" posture toward unfolding events will not be enough -- a series of reactions and tactical maneuvers do not amount to a strategy. A strategy requires having a clear view of our interests and of how to realize them by influencing as best we can the dynamics that are shaping the region.

President Obama's approach to the Middle East has been distant from the outset. He has wanted to improve America's image in the Muslim world and feels that the best way to do this is to end America's unpopular wars there. His modus operandi has been disengagement: end existing commitments, foremost among them Iraq and Afghanistan, and avoid new entanglements.

His approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process typifies this. Obama's June 2009 Cairo speech impressed Muslims with its call on Israel to halt the building of settlements in the West Bank. In 2011, he made a similarly provocative call on Israel to agree to return to its 1967 borders (with mutually agreed swaps of territory with Palestinians). But the Muslim world was wrong to assume that these exhortations signaled a readiness on Obama's part to roll up his sleeves and help fix problems. In fact, "nowhere in Obama's foreign policy has the gap been wider between promise and delivery," writes former American diplomat and observer of the Arab-Israeli scene Martin Indyk, "than in the [peace process]."

Obama started with a new approach to the issue. He was fervent in his commitment to Israel. Yet he also recognized the corrosive effects that the simmering conflict was having on America's image and the region's stability, and was not shy about speaking out against the everyday indignities that Israeli occupation meant for Palestinians. Many Arabs and Muslims were elated and many Israelis incensed, but no one on either side of the divide should have become so excited. All were wildly overestimating Obama's willingness to get involved in moving the peace process along.

What Obama had in mind was to placate Arab opinion while laying down markers for Israel to abide by. This, he hoped, would by itself spur diplomatic engagement and ultimately a solution. What he did not have in mind was to pick a fight with Israel or commit to a greater U.S. role in facilitating a diplomatic breakthrough. He definitely did not think about a comprehensive diplomatic strategy that would have created the proper context and framework for compromises by both sides (halting new settlement construction could have been a part of that).

Instead, he proceeded in an uncoordinated and unproductive fashion by laying undue stress on a single unrealistic demand in a way that stopped the entire process in its tracks. He was determined to extricate America from the Middle East and thought he could do so by talking tough but from the sidelines.

Dealing with Arab and Israeli leaders on the Palestinian issue must have been eye-opening for the president. Publicly Arab rulers pressed him on Palestine, but privately all they wanted to talk about was defanging Iran (the same is true of the Israelis). Obama may have thought that fear of Iran would create common ground between Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies, enough for them to join hands to resolve the Palestinian issue. The Saudi ambassador to Washington may have fueled such expectations by telling Obama early on that King Abdullah was eager for him to visit Riyadh and would not let him leave empty-handed.

But the Saudi King was definitely not prepared to lend a hand to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When Obama met Abdullah in Riyadh in June 2009, most of the hour-long meeting was taken up with a royal lecture on the Iranian threat. The Saudi king wanted America to fix the Iranian problem, not the Palestinian one, and he did not want any linkages between the two issues. In that, the king and Netanyahu were on the same page.

Whatever his personal views, the president quickly handed off the management of the Israel-Palestinian problem to his special envoy, former senator George Mitchell. But in effect, it was Obama's senior White House adviser, Dennis Ross, who decided the matter.

Ross had a long history with the issue, going back to managing the 1991 Madrid Conference that convened shortly after the first Gulf War. He differed with Obama over how best to influence events. He warned against publicly parting ways with Israel, such as by taking a stand on settlements -- "showing daylight between the United States and Israel would only encourage Arabs to sit back and wait . . . rather than step forward and engage with Israel."

Ross argued that Netanyahu had to work with a difficult domestic coalition, and that the more Obama built trust with the Israeli public -- by backing away from publicly pressuring Israel -- the more likely the Israeli government would be to cooperate.

Whether or not this was an accurate reading of the situation, it meant that what Obama said turned out to be different from what his administration did. No deeds matched Obama's bold words. Israelis found little reason to budge, and the Palestinians found themselves worse off. It was hard enough getting Israel to move, and nearly impossible when the president's lack of follow-through allowed Israel to stand its ground. The Palestinian Authority's president, Mahmoud Abbas, told the Daily Beast's Dan Ephron:

It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.

But Abbas could not jump, and remained stuck in the tree. "How can I be less Palestinian than the president of the United States? " was how he put it to anyone ready to hear his complaint. In other words, how could Abbas ask for less from Israel than Obama had?

Abbas had to start from the marker that Obama laid down and face the Israeli intransigence that Obama prompted and was unwilling to deal with. His plaint captured the souring mood across the Arab world. Obama reacted to Israeli intransigence and Arab disappointment in much the same way he dealt with the thorny problems posed by Pakistan: he walked away.

The White House periodically repeated its desire for a breakthrough in peace talks, especially when crisis loomed, such as the Palestinians' threat to ask for UN recognition of their statehood in September 2011. But for all intents and purposes, the president put the issue on the back burner. Obama did not want to get involved, and by the end of his second year in office, relations with Israel had come to focus solely on managing Iran's nuclear program.

The White House attitude toward the Arab-Israeli issue reflected the administration's broader desire to dial back U.S. involvement in the Middle East. But that goal was frustrated by the onset of the Arab Spring.

From the book: THE DISPENSABLE NATION by Vali Nasr. Copyright © 2013 by Vali Nasr. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. and also by arrangement with Scribe.