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International Relations

Don’t pivot too quickly, Middle East tells US

If any proof was necessary that the US despite its much talked about Asia pivot can’t afford to take its eyes off the Middle East just yet, a look at the news headlines will do the trick, writes Olaf Böhnke.

Since the Arab Spring began two years ago, the EU has had to come to terms with the increasing importance of its Southern neighborhood as a geopolitical factor. It is struggling to accommodate the changes and develop a policy framework that corresponds to the Eastern Neighborhood Policy in scope and ambition.

But, even as Europe's own response is forthcoming, the fact remains that many of the problems in the wider Middle East cannot be solved without the involvement and support of the United States.

Barack Obama's 'pivot to Asia' has been the cause of much comment and concerns in Foreign Affairs Ministries this side of the Atlantic. But how serious is the re-elected US administration really in setting up a new strategic framework for its foreign policy, moving from the Atlantic to the Pacific?

Increasing instability

Despite all European concerns regarding the US pivot, let's face the facts: in the third presidential debate Obama and Romney spent much more time covering 'old ground' such as Libya, Iran, Afghanistan and Syria than China and Asia.

Olaf Böhnke ist der Leiter des Berliner Büros des European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), des ersten pan-europäischen Think Tanks, der Analysen zu Themen europäischer Außenpolitik bereitstellt und es sich zum Ziel gesetzt hat, als Fürsprecher einer kohärenteren und stärkeren europäische Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik aufzutreten.
Quelle: European Council on Foreign Relations

Olaf Böhnke

Obviously the Obama administration is therefore fully aware that, however strategically necessary a shift in focus to the Asian Pacific may be at this point, the Middle East is becoming less, not more, stable - and Europe is (still) unable to deal with the increasing urgency of major conflicts in the Middle Eastern region without the US.

So, for the time being, three main focal points seem likely to survive on the American agenda: Syria, Iran and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Both Europe and America's most fundamental interest in the Middle East is still regional stability - but - after the Iraq invasion - not at any price. The key to success (and success, in this case, is de-escalation and gaining time) is choosing the right allies.

Syrian conundrum

For example, the sanctions against Syria are starting to have counterproductive effects and support for the dysfunctional Syrian National Council is dwindling. The newly formed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces seems, by virtue of its relatively representative nature, far better-suited to gain Western support.

Of course, Obama will be extremely cautious as monetary or material support for the National Coalition at this stage could easily result in ‘mission creep' and force the US to ultimately provide military assistance to the insurgency. This makes outright assistance from Washington to the Syrian rebels most unlikely for the moment.

Israeli-Palestinian stalemate

The upcoming elections in Israel in January 2013 further diminish the room for maneuver Obama has in influencing the frozen Middle East peace process, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to make any concessions. Obama's refusal to meet Netanyahu during his visit to Washington in September - a clear signal how he feels about Netanyahu's policies - seems to have fallen on deaf ears in Tel Aviv.

All efforts to encourage political re-engagement between Israel and Palestine seem to be frozen - at least until the January elections. But as pressure toward the policy of the Israeli government also builds from European countries, despite their recent patchy vote at the UN general assembly, Obama could build an informal alliance with his European partners in trying to push Israel toward a more constructive agenda.

Iranian intransigence

Finally, Iran's nuclear program remains the thorniest issue for both Obama and his European partners. Here, more than anywhere, the aim is to buy time and slow the process as much as possible.

The presidential elections in Iran, scheduled for June 2013, may have a similar hardening effect on relations with Tehran. However, nuclear weapons are not an exclusively presidential matter in Iran, as much of the decision-making in this field lies with the country's 'Supreme Leader.'

How to deal with Iran is also an increasingly hot topic in the region, which may provide an opening for the US and Europe to involve other players in the region in their diplomatic strategy and thereby set a precedent for a new kind of Middle East policy. The Gulf countries, Turkey and Egypt are particularly relevant. Turkey, for instance, recently admitted to facilitating the circumvention of  Western sanctions on Tehran by channelling its gold exports in exchange for Iranian gas.

Essential Egypt

Egypt, too, must remain a focal point for the US and Europe. Since January 2011 the transformation the country has undergone is significant but by no means complete as has become painfully evident over the past few days. It is extremely important for the US and EU not to lose sight of supporting the ongoing democratic and peaceful transformation in North Africa.

For all those reasons, the Greater Middle East is clearly still a highly relevant topic for both the EU and the US. Obama leads a country that is still very much needed to help reach positive outcomes in many of the crisis countries, but in future much more of the foreign policy legwork will have to be taken on by the Europeans.

Olaf Böhnke heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

DW.DE

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