In the Troubled Middle East, Obama Will Confront Multiple Crises

The list of challenges is long: Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Syria, and a damaged U.S. brand.

By + More

With the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Iranian nuclear challenge, and efforts to fight terrorism and promote democracy, the Middle East became the cockpit of George Bush's foreign policy. Like it or not, Barack Obama will inherit that legacy even as he tries to bring fresh initiatives to a region that has excelled at frustrating American presidents of both parties.

Despite a torrent of criticisms at home and in the region, President Bush recently sought to summarize his eight years of involvement with the region by asserting that "the Middle East in 2008 is a freer, more hopeful, and more promising place than it was in 2001." That is not a widely shared view in the region—far from it.

"Their claim of leaving the Middle East in better shape than they found it is their ultimate insult and lie," wrote a leading commentator in the region, Rami Khouri, in the Beirut Daily Star. He starkly calls the legacy "pathetic."

Says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former head of policy planning at the State Department during the first Bush term, "The transformation in the region so far has been largely negative." He considers the volatility of the greater Middle East to be "the principal inheritance of the Obama administration."

Obama and his future secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, are likely to unveil an initiative on Middle East peacemaking, and perhaps on other issues, in 2009. They will do so knowing that Bush's actions have done much more to shake up the region—at least to this point—than to resettle it in a way more reliably conducive to U.S. interests.

Bush's "Freedom Agenda" has injected some energy into efforts at political reform in parts of the region. But it has also put some governments in a more precarious position—even as many budding democrats were sidelined.

U.S. policy—and President Bush—became so unpopular among Arabs that democracy initiatives suffered by association. Anger over the Iraq invasion proved to be a key part of the problem. "The Bush administration has given democracy a bad name," argues Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state and chairman of the National Democratic Institute, which runs programs aimed at advancing democracy overseas. She says the Obama administration will need to focus on restoring credibility to the democracy effort.

The Bush White House supported Palestinian Authority elections, only to see the radical, anti-Israeli movement Hamas take over in Gaza. That result—still certain to plague Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts in the Obama years—intensified questions about whether democratic practices, in effect, were being pushed onto disputed political situations not yet ready for them.

Meanwhile, other developments have also complicated the region's outlook. Iran and another radical movement, Hezbollah in Lebanon, have gained influence in recent years. Syria turned back from a brief, if promising, political opening, and U.S.-Syrian tensions for the time being have hurt prospects for peace talks with Israel and for bringing stability to Lebanon and Iraq.

Anti-Americanism runs strongly through the region. However, Obama's rise to the presidency could do much to dent that surly mood, simply through the force of his personal story. Though a Christian, Obama is the son of a Kenyan man who was raised as a Muslim. He also spent a portion of his childhood living in mostly Muslim Indonesia. Those attributes have captivated many Arabs, who may be expecting a U.S. presidency that they consider more open-minded to their faith and experiences. Obama is reportedly considering making a major address to a global Muslim audience in his early months in office.

A key element to Obama's outreach to the region may well be re-energizing stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. For all its difficulties and dead-ends in the past, making that effort is still seen as key to U.S. aims in the Middle East: reducing terrorism and anti-Americanism, blunting the influence of Iran and radical groups, bringing security to Israelis and Palestinians, and attracting Arab support on stabilizing Iraq and other issues.