On his second trip to the Middle East as U.S. commander in chief, President Barack Obama this week will confront a political and strategic landscape nearly unrecognizable from the one he encountered on his first trip to the region shortly after assuming office in 2009.
Gone are the authoritarian regimes and leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and the once seemingly indestructible Assad regime in Syria is tottering on the brink of collapse. Uncertainty abounds in the wake of the revolutions that have convulsed the Arab world for the past two years and shaken many of the strong but imperfect pillars of stability on the planet’s most politically volatile patch of land.
And the few constants are hardly cause for cheer: a moribund Israeli- Palestinian peace process that remains mired in mutual distrust and recrimination, an Iran that seemingly inches closer to nuclear weapons capability despite intensified international sanctions, and the ever-growing threat from extremists.
At the same time, Obama’s 2012 re-election has changed his political calculus. Having run his last race as a political candidate, he no longer is beholden to the whims of voters. His sights appear set on building a legacy that, at least in the short term, is focused not on foreign policy but on the domestic issues that now drive the agenda in Washington.
Thus, U.S. officials have set expectations low for the trip. No new plan to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. No big boost in assistance to the struggling Palestinian Authority. No new strategy for dealing with the chaos in Syria. No new outreach to Muslims like the one that was the centerpiece of his June 2009 visit to Cairo.
Instead, they have presented Obama’s visit to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan as a symbolic, hand-holding trip. Obama’s goals are to reassure nervous Israelis that the U.S. has their back in the face of any threats, tell the Palestinians that their aspirations for statehood are in America’s national security interests and show support for a Jordanian monarchy that is struggling to satisfy its subjects’ demands for reform while dealing with the spillover from the civil war in Syria.