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HindustanTimes Sun,20 Apr 2014

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Obama needs to show leadership in Middle East: experts
AFP
Washington, September 15, 2012
First Published: 09:32 IST(15/9/2012)
Last Updated: 09:34 IST(15/9/2012)
Protesters carry posters and a flag with Arabic that reads "No God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet," and chant anti US slogans during a peaceful demonstration in front of the US embassy in Doha, Qatar, as part of widespread anger across the Muslim world about a film ridiculing Islam's Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)

The Obama administration is reaping the results of failing to show strong leadership in the Middle East as decades-old anger at "the American bogeyman" boils over into new violence, analysts say.

The hard-won freedoms of the Arab Spring have given people space to vent their feelings, and as young democracies struggle to build their nations, it's easy for militants to move in and whip up a fury over any pretext.

At least 15 people have died, including four American diplomatic staff, in four days of protests against an amateur anti-Islam film made in the United States which have ripped across Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia and Yemen.

And analysts fear that without a more robust stand by US President Barack Obama -- who is deeply focused on his campaign for re-election in the November 6 elections -- the situation will just worsen.

"There is a deep-seated mistrust I'm afraid which has developed and an anti-Americanism, egged on by the way by friends and foes in the region for a number of decades," Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, told AFP.

Lingering anger over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, ordered by Obama's predecessor president George W. Bush, and a failure to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process are among the issues which rankle most.

"It was a pretty flawed attempt at peace-making, I would say one of the more amateurish I've seen," Shaikh said of American efforts to rekindle the peace talks with the Palestinians now moribund for two years. "And now they've backed off completely."

If the US wants "quick changes in perception in the Arab world -- it may not of course help them vis-a-vis Israel -- I still maintain a game-changer for them would be a more consistent line on the Arab-Israeli issue," he said.

A greater, more coordinated effort also needed to be made to help those fledgling democracies emerging out of the Arab Spring, in much the same way that the United States rallied around Europe after World War II.

"People are lamenting that there just hasn't been strong enough US leadership, and a clear path. It's more reactive and sometimes confused," Shaikh said, adding the US needed also to play a greater role in Syria.

"There's a sense that... what is being called the pivot from the Middle East to Asia has actually just been a question of turning our back on these countries and running on auto-pilot," agreed Danielle Pletka from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) during a seminar on Friday.

The emerging new order meant the United States now had to reevaluate and rethink how best to use all its tools to engage in the region.

"The biggest challenge I think... is a different way of doing business in the Middle East that doesn't say that 'This is our guy, and these guys are going to implement our vision," added Brian Katulis, expert with the Center for American Progress. "We need a systemic approach to help these societies develop democracies and economies that function because the system's broken quite clearly."

A firmer US response is all the more urgent as the chaotic birth pangs of new nations wrestling with high unemployment, economic hardship and decades of mismanagement create a perfect breeding ground for extremism.

"The overthrow of authoritarian regimes... unleashed violent anti-American forces that the previous governments had largely kept in check," said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Egyptian mobs are even being encouraged "to vent their ire and wrath against the American bogeyman so they are not focused on the injustices that are taking place, on the incredible graft and corruption, on unemployment," Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for Al-Arabiya News Channel, told the AEI seminar.

It was also incumbent on the new governments to play their part in restoring order and protecting diplomatic missions.

"In the wake of political upheaval, governments are less capable and willing to rein in militant forces that pose a threat to US interests and to their own societies," Malka said in a statement.

"We also have to remember that the region still finds America's 'unconditional' support for Israel difficult to accept and cannot forget that the recently deposed autocrats were supported by the United States and Europe for the past 30 years," added Azzedine Layachi, a Middle East expert at St John's University, New York.


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