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Against a sea of troubles, a faltering America
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Against a sea of troubles, a faltering America

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

It is beginning to look like the United States keeps arriving in the Middle East too late to the party, and then it walks on to the dance floor all out of sorts. The U.S. then behaves like someone who lost the invitation, apologizes to his hosts, and fumbles over excuses. This suggests that maybe it is time for Israel to start worrying about its friend’s ability to make tactical decisions.

Fortunately for the Obama administration, the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was over almost before it began. As a result of some good luck, it appears that despite much piddling about in its timing, the American response to the three-week peoples’ revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square was not “too costly to the U.S.” — at least not yet. Of late, however, things in the region elsewhere have gotten rather messy.

Ousting Libya’s President Muammar Kaddafi is becoming a no-win nightmare. The Kaddafi loyalists are as vicious and aggressive as ever and collateral damage to civilians as a consequence of the coalition bombing will ultimately infuriate the rebels and the people on the streets. None of the U.S.-manufactured weapons in the Arab countries’ arsenals was being used to aid the air attack on Libya, except for four planes from the Qatari air force (although some of the U.S.-produced weapons appear to be finding their way into Bahrain, thanks to the Saudis).

The implementation of the belated UN decision to move on Libya again has shown the U.S. national security apparatus at its confused worst. First, the U.S. assumed only the command and control function, and then our forces actually became engaged. All the time, the U.S. and its allies’ strategy and goals remain confused and ill-defined. Not that the U.S. — as opposed to NATO or the UN — must lead the coalition, but the absence of genuine public U.S. leadership in the campaign is baffling.

In Yemen, one of the most dangerous Al Qaida strongholds in the region, there is a dramatic rise in anti-government demonstrations. There is military dissension, violent government responses, and growing religious tensions. With Yemen bordering Saudi Arabia’s southern flank, instability and rising radicalization there does not breed good health for the Saudi regime. As the movement for change moves into one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, there is genuine reason to fear that here might be the place where the radical Islamists stage their next takeover. For the U.S., support for the pro-reform movement could lead to angry repercussions from its other regional friends in the Gulf.

Finally, in Bahrain, the Obama administration is juggling economic interests (including petroleum needs vital to an economic recovery), security concerns (our Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain), and Saudi interests, especially its long-standing struggle with Shia Iran for regional hegemony. The Shi’ite majority in Bahrain seems to have been at least temporarily repressed; the U.S.-equipped and -trained Saudi military has moved in to ensure the rule of Bahrain’s Sunni leader and his family, regardless of the casualties and political fallout.

Once again the Obama administration wants to be on the side of the angels (pro-democracy/reform forces) while needing to balance its strategic and economic considerations at the same time, so Washington sends a confused and unclear message.

As a result, Israel’s security establishment ought to be having sleepless nights. While maintaining the aura of business as usual with the U.S., Israel needs to consider what is apparent to many observers about a growing tentative and confused national security operation in Washington. Not that the U.S.-Israel relationship is in any way at risk, but there are enough signs of a lack of firm foreign policy leadership to make any U.S. ally take notice. In the case of Israel, its margin for risk and mistakes is very low.

Israel knows as well that looming behind all of the Obama administration’s latest concerns is the fact that American troops still are engaged — to differing degrees — in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; plus, Obama faces major, ongoing congressional budget battles. At the same time he needs to get a message and a record together to build his re-election campaign for 2012.

The Netanyahu government ought to consider whether Israel, despite the recent horror in Itamar, might take some constructive actions to ensure that its logjam on negotiations with the Palestinians can move ahead and avoid becoming the latest story in the erupting Middle East.

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