Obama’s Middle East

JERUSALEM – President-elect Barack Obama’s plans for the Middle East, the region where his predecessor’s policies shattered America’s standing around the world as a benign superpower, represent a welcome departure from President Bush’s grand design to redress the region’s ills through “constructive chaos.” Unfortunately, Obama’s all-encompassing promises might prove to be just as unrealistic.

Obama’s agenda is breathtaking. It includes extrication from the Iraqi morass and lifting its burden from America’s foreign policy, resolving the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict while confronting the “hawkish” Israel lobby, using dialogue to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and wean Syria from its radical agenda – thereby dissolving the region’s “axis of evil” (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas) – freeing Lebanon from Syria’s grip, and pushing for an Israel-Syria peace. And you can add to this a reorientation of America’s military effort to the war in Afghanistan.

The magnitude of this agenda must be seen against the region’s depressing legacy. The entire region is going through a dangerous process of “Somaliazation,” with an expanding chain of non-state agents, mostly radical Islamist groups, challenging the idea of the state almost everywhere.

This is the case in Lebanon with Hezbollah, in Palestine with Hamas, in Iraq with Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and scores of other groups, with the Taliban and tribal warlords in Afghanistan, and with breakaway movements in Pakistan that have been emboldened by Pervez Musharaf’s resignation. The looming end of President Hosni Mubarak’s long rule in Egypt might lead to the emergence of a formidable bid by the Muslim Brotherhood for power in Cairo, possibly forcing Mubarak’s successor either to reach a modus vivendi or to wage a fight to the death.