So far, the Obama administration’s short-term record on the Middle East is relatively positive. That doesn’t mean the longer-term one won’t be very problematic. But let’s review briefly.
Overall, appointments are more pragmatists than ideologues. Senator Mitchell, not highly activist, will ensure that the Arab-Israeli issues won’t be pushed heavily (though the administration will try to give the opposite impression). The pushy Richard Holbrooke has been bestowed on Pakistan and Afghanistan. The most negative appointment has been of Powers but it is not clear how much actual authority she will have. Hillary Clinton puts a realist at State, Dennis Ross will be an advisor. Jones at NSC might not love Israel but will be busy with Iraq. The Freeman appointment to head the National Intelligence Council is bad but has not yet been confirmed and does not come from the White House. To be understated, it could have been a lot worse.
Regarding Iraq, the proposal seems realistic. As for Durban-2, the withdrawal, if that’s what has happened, is a positive step.
What are the negatives? Perhaps the biggest actual decision in that direction is to give $900 million for rebuiding Gaza (so that Hamas can wreck it again). This was, however, inevitable, given the United States was unlikely to support an energetic strategy to bring down Hamas. We will wait to see what Hillary says about settlements and reopening crossing points to Gaza (with or without conditions? what will be on the forbidden list).
One curious point is that the administration seems to want to preserve its image as making Muslims and Arabs happy without necessarily doing what they want. For example, the administration raised no fuss at Durban-2 but then withdrew. Is that going to be the pattern? Refusing to argue or criticize and then acting in a reasonable way any way? Of course this won’t work with the enemy–who denounces even conciliatory gestures–but might be most effective with the public and the Europeans.
And of course no really difficult points have been tackled yet. The administraiton seems unaware of Turkey’s remarkable move toward Islamism at home and radicalism abroad; nor the imminent threat (June) of a pro-Syrian and Iranian election takeover in Lebanon. And there is the danger of wasting time while Iran gets nuclear weapons. (There are some hints that the UK, France, and Germany are trying to push the US more on this. I predicted to a couple of European diplomats that things would be reversed and instead of trying to hold back the US–the Bush Administration–they would be trying to push it forward. The point was acknowledged.)
The biggest negative still lies in the future–how hard will the US try to make nice with Iran and Syria; what will it give them; how long will it persist in the face of having its face slapped?