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America’s Influence Declining in Middle East

As expected by his critics, Obama's overtures to the Muslim world have former allies changing sides, expecting Iran to be the winner.

by
Joseph Puder

Bio

August 28, 2009 - 12:07 am

The new administration in Washington has projected weakness, resulting in many pro-Western Arab leaders moving away from the U.S. and towards the perceived “strongman” Iran and its satellites.

American influence in the Middle East is in decline, and it threatens the global order.

President Obama’s Cairo speech to the Arab and Muslim world and his previous speech in Ankara to the Turkish parliament did little to bolster Arab confidence in him or his government. As strange as it may sound, his appeasement of the Arabs — and of Iran in particular — has made many otherwise pro-Western voices switch sides. They are betting on Iran.

Walid Jumblatt is the current leader of the Progressive Socialist Party of Lebanon and one of the most prominent leaders of the Druze community. Jumblatt has been the fiercest opponent of Syria and its Shiite-Lebanese allies, especially Hezbollah. He was also allied with the March 14 coalition. Yet in spite of the seemingly victorious March 14 block of pro-Western forces led by Saad Hariri in the recent Lebanese elections, Hezbollah remains the major force in Lebanon.

Jumblatt, who bravely denounced the long arm of Iran around Lebanon’s neck and mocked the Syrian regime — especially Bashir Assad, whose father Hafez Assad ordered the murder of Jumblatt’s father Kamal in 1977 — has undergone a drastic change recently. Not an ideological reorientation, but rather the recognition that Lebanon’s future will be determined by Hezbollah and its Iranian paymasters. Jumblatt realizes that the Shia demographic growth, at the expense of the other confessional communities in Lebanon, has created a new military, political, and social climate.

While the Sunni-Muslim and Christian militias have disarmed as part of returning Lebanon to normalcy, Hezbollah remains the most formidable force in Lebanon. And while Iran and Syria never ceased meddling in Lebanese affairs, the Obama administration has chosen to appease these two allied countries, sending a clear signal to the likes of Jumblatt that America cannot be trusted. In contrast to the Bush administration, which passed the Syrian Accountability Act and ultimately drove the Syrian occupation forces out of Lebanon, Obama’s diplomacy and actions have encouraged the return of Syrian and Iranian influence — sending a strong message that has secured Hezbollah’s dominance.

The departure of Jumblatt from the March 14 block makes it difficult for Prime Minister Hariri to form a stable government without having to include Hezbollah. In essence, bringing Hezbollah into the government is akin to letting the Iranian “Trojan horse” in. For Jumblatt, however, it was acting in accordance to the dictum “if you cannot beat them, join them.” Jumblatt has joined another defector from the pro-Western camp, General Michel Aoun, a Christian and former prime minister and an adversary of Syria. Aoun was discouraged by the U.S. abandonment under George H. W. Bush during his 1989 clash with the Syrian army, and Jumblatt by Obama in 2009. Both Aoun and Jumblatt have concluded that the U.S. is an unreliable ally.

On the western shores of the Persian Gulf, the hitherto pro-Western sheikdoms are beginning to flinch. Sensing weakness on the American side, Sultan Qaboos ibn Said Al Said, the leader of the Emirate of Oman, recently visited Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution. And he brought along a delegation of security and economic advisors, despite pressure from the U.S. and its Western allies not to go to Iran. Oman has had strong security and economic ties with the U.S. and the West. The talk held with Iran’s President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei on regional issues and on the best way to strengthen political and economic bonds between Oman and Iran should therefore be cause for concern.

Qaboos, like his fellow Arabs in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, is sensing that Iran’s power is ascending and that their traditional alliances with Britain and the U.S. will amount to nothing when Iran becomes a nuclear power with hegemony in the Persian Gulf and beyond. Qaboos and the other sheikdom rulers fear that Iran may destabilize their states. Moreover, they do not see a counter power to Iran that would stop the race by the Shiite mullahs to control the Gulf. Qaboos and the Qataris, like Jumblatt and others in the region, view Obama as weak and irresolute.

The largest of the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, is angry with Obama over his softness towards Iran and his impotence with stopping the Iranian nuclear project. Saudi Arabia fears the growing power of Iran and its influence over the Shiite masses in its oil-rich eastern provinces. Saudi Foreign Minister Feisal expressed his contempt for the Obama administration in front of the international media, when he rejected Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s request for Saudi goodwill gestures towards Israel.

President Obama’s friendliness towards the Arab and Muslim world and popularity as a different American president have done little to soften the positions of America’s enemies in the region. Rather, it has raised the confidence of America’s enemies — Iran and Syria — and increased fear in the hearts of American allies in Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Riyadh, not to mention the Gulf sheikdoms.

Obama’s claim that he understands Islamic culture is failing him. In the harsh and arid region that is the Middle East (Indonesia, where he grew up, is not the Middle East) you have to inspire fear in your enemies and confidence in your friends.

Joseph Puder, a freelance journalist, is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Taskforce for America and Israel (ITAI).
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